There is a moment in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ when the narrator takes his bike to a mechanic (grudgingly) but quickly leaves after hearing the radio on in the shop. He posits that when a person is working with his hands he ought never be listening to anything – even music – because it will divide his attention and his work will suffer. I read this book (which along with Thoreau, Kerouac, Emerson, Whitman, etc. is required reading for twentysomethinghippiewannabees) right around the time I quit my stable career in favor of my wobbly hobby. And I ate it up, because I loved how Pirsig ascribed such soaring nobility to the mind and soul (and not just the hands) of the manual laborer. It helped me find the words to defend my new ‘blue collar’ life as a high intellectual and spiritual calling.
But I really didn’t like the bit about the radio.
I do almost nothing during the day that doesn’t have a soundtrack. Music is always on. It helps me focus, somehow. I can’t really explain why, but it feels like there’s a rambunctious little kid inside me that needs to be distracted so that my inner adult can get some work done. I know this because when it’s absolutely quiet in the shop I get jumpy. The noise in my head takes over, and I lose my focus. So this is why you will always hear music in my shop.
Well…almost always. Once in a long while my ears get tired, and I turn everything off and just listen to the sounds of the work. The airy swoosh of a well-honed hand plane along a smooth piece of hardwood, the firm rap of a wood mallet on the butt of a chisel, even the grating scratch of sandpaper along a table top. These sounds round out the experience of working with wood, they make the feeling more complete. And I never get tired of them.
Even so, without the music the noise in my head becomes much louder, as I’ve already said. Worry, stress, fear of failing, regret, sadness, longing, all the demons that we adults have learned to drown out with entertainment or wine or workoholism. Without a tune in my ears, working at something that requires very little conscious thought (like sanding), these things suddenly get an audience within me. And they can be uncomfortable. They can make me feel bad about myself. They can distract me from my best work, and maybe it’s just my imagination but I think my quality suffers in these times.
Somehow I have to believe that this is when I grow as a person. Working in silence keeps the adult distracted while the child runs reckless through your soul. I am physically bound to my work yet mentally free to wander wherever I will. Like a man sitting in the quiet office of his therapist watching the ticking clock and wishing it would move faster, I am now forced to look at my problems.
I don’t love this but I know it’s good. Because some of my problems actually find solutions in these quiet moments. Others at least find some perspective. And those that remain simply get tired and give up after a while. I offer my scary thoughts the space to play, and eventually they play themselves out.
Of prayer and meditation, Henri Nouwen once said that when you sit quietly all your fears will start knocking loudly at the door of your soul. And it’s all you can do to make yourself not get up and answer it. But if you stay still and quiet for long enough these visitors will eventually decide that nobody is home. And they will go away.
When I make myself work in lonely, uncomfortable silence, I do find a calm peace on the other side. And then later when I turn the music back on, I actually enjoy it a whole lot more.