Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Silence and Slowness: a movie worth chaining yourself to a couch for

When I was in college my dear friend Annie suggested that I take a class with her. I was majoring in Art History while she wasn't an Art History major there was one class she was interested in, a study of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. I read the class description, but had no true sense of what I was getting myself into.

We spent a few days in the classroom looking at slides in a darkened room, I did in fact succumb to the nod of sleep on more than one occasion. I saw this as one more class in a series of Art History classes that I had experienced over the last few years, someone talking at us about art, how we were supposed to view it and what the artist was thinking when they created the art. As if any of those people really know what artists are thinking about when they create, laundry and lovers is my opinion.

I learned a few interesting facts about tea and the culture that surrounded the genesis of the Buddhist tea ceremony. Tea changed the world. Not the leaves alone, but the water. For the first time in human history people were boiling their water before they drank it, of course they felt better! They were sterilizing their water, tea saved and enhanced life by making it safer.

We spent a few classes in the classroom and then after a while we started visiting the tea house on Wednesday afternoons. The tea rooms were in a residential house that had been converted to house three separate tea rooms. Every part of your interaction with these rooms is proscribed, you walk across tatami mats in a certain way and you sit, eat and drink in carefully choreographed sequences.

Before we began our ceremonial practice each day we spent time kneeling and meditating to quiet our minds. Remember, we were college students, white ones, sitting in a tea room learning how to quiet our minds while incense curled around us. I was out of my element, but I loved it. I had been raised on cacophonous mind, silence in Church was to be filled with the pleadings, and confessions of the prayerful mind. This was the first time I had ever been challenged with the concept of clearing thought, releasing time. I wasn't so good at it at first as I struggled against coughing, and my ankles yelled their discomfort.

But at some point the silence began to grow, I learned to stop chasing it and simply wait for the slow silence to catch up with me. I began to feel the refreshed freedom of the quiet mind. I carry my silence with me, in my backpack of useful things. I break it out in airports, the studio, Friday nights at home and then also, I found myself rocking in it while watching 'Into Great Silence' last Wednesday.

Dan and I had eaten Indian food right before we walked into the movie, and again I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. He had suggested it, and I went along knowing little about the film but that it was a documentary about monks in France. I like monks, I like documentaries, France? well, I like France. Sure.

'Into Great Silence' is two hours and forty-five minutes that perfectly conveys the cadence of a life lived in silent contemplation. We see men working: washing their dishes, cutting cloth, gardening. We see the cove of mountain that they live in, the way the clouds twist in an updraft, and the cats that hide in the barn. The only time there is dialog is when the men gather for prayers, or walk on Sunday afternoons.

I spent the first ten minutes watching, the next ten nodding off in a post dinner coma, and then after the adrenaline burst of recovery after a full-on head nod, fussed for a good hour. I crossed my legs and un-crossed my legs, shifted hips, crossed arms and watched the silhouetted head of the audience. Is this really going to last almost three hours? Then an hour in, I found my silence, I sat straighter, relaxed into it and traveled with the film as it lightly brushed the face of their lives. There was chopping of wood and shoveling of snow. I was hooked. By the end, I could feel the grandeur of the men's small lives, silence and slowness, the spirituality that cradles them.

I recommend this film but only if you promise to see it in a theater, if you attempt to watch it at home you will inevitably detach, distracted and restless before the silence can really seep in. Well, if you must see it at home, be sure that you first chain yourself to the couch and give the key to someone, (someone you trust) with the instructions to only release you when the movie is finished. Sounds like a barrel of fun huh? Really, I promise, it will be worth it. Really.

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