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Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

Speech and Silence in a Stranger’s Land: A Series of Reflections

The Kathmandu valley presents a chasm of a contrast to the world outside of the hills which one can occasionally glimpse from a solitary moment on building rooftops: looming mountains of ragged green and reflective sky-shearing peaks through which human exhalations of awe dissipate and tail behind birds for miles, where one might hear the trickle or gush of snow melting, or the hollow whistle of wind past jagged precipices in a high-up, treeless world. Any time spent in a wild setting – one of the best catalysts of all types of quietude – teaches that silence is at the least therapeutic and beyond that, infinitely mind-opening and transformative.

In the city of Patan into which I have settled, I feel that all forms of silence have left me. Motorcycle horns, the barking of dogs, crying of children, and the presence of people, people wake me up in the morning and follow me through the day and deep into the night. I’ve found that sometimes the best silence and solitude is found in the busiest of places, for anonymity and insignificance of the individual free up a unique space in my mind. Yet in the foreground of my experience since entering this country has been persistent voices of American origin and English form that have created a bubble of humdrum mundane talk – one that inhabits quiet corners of the city and also proclaims itself in dusty back streets of Patan. This bubble is hard to evade and, like an eddy or a hurricane, it whirls faster and impedes more the closer to the center one is. Patan is a city of saturation: of spirituality and history and culture; and like a rock that still retains the aroma of the salty sea from which it was removed years ago, the more saturated an environment we are placed into, the more we should be able to absorb and retain. Yet into this rich city we bring our chatter, a chatter so loud and distracting and relentless that I often feel a hazy film, as that of a bubble, obstructing my ability to fully engage with, experience, and reflect upon my surroundings.

It’s agreed upon that the American people is a talkative one, and the exchange of opinions and experiences is an invaluable way of understanding the world and other people. But I think this oral way of learning easily becomes a series of mindless back-and-forth, self-focused utterances of initial reactions or repetitions of daily events, or even of what we already know. In this unfamiliar country, talking is its own kind of escapism. With the limited amount of mental capacity we have in our heads at one given moment, talking takes up space and effort which could alternatively be used for observation, reflection, or synthesis, all of which yield greater possibilities of understanding and learning more. As the Dalai Lama said himself, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”

Curiously, the West stresses confidence, and the East emphasizes self-consciousness. The attempt to appear “confident” easily manifests in talking more and talking louder. Confidence and self-consciousness are not mutually exclusive, for one can be both, and certainly an excess of either can be blinding and harmful, but I have found that the filter activated on oneself by discriminative speaking slowly ingrains into one the delicate and useful side-product of sense of what information is substantial.

We are all here in this country and participants of this program for experience and growth. I’ve spent time feeling both the irritation at the loudness of our group’s talk as well as feeling the high of being part of spirited conversations about petty but comfortable topics, and I have always found that while refraining from talking, I learn the most, am challenged the most, and my worldview and mind open up a bit more.

Looking forward now to the monastery retreat, I see a void-like white expanse ahead of me: a pulsing silence which will be filled with synthesis of my time so far in Nepal and also reflection of perhaps an entire life, during which past demons may unfurl and claw at my insides. But I have learned that making a way through discomfort always yields growth, and is that not what we are here for. I came on this trip with a keen awareness of my particular cultural and racial background that would shape my experience, and maybe, compared to other students, Nepal for me is not considered “far, foreign, or hard enough”. But after Pico Iyer: we only find at our destinations what we have the potential to find inside of us; I don’t believe that ultimately, I am learning and experiencing any less than others on this trip, and I am grateful for this time and my position for all this observation and reflection.