Monday, February 21, 2011

The Conundrum of Silence

Music and silence – how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since Our Father entered Hell. . . no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied with Noise. . .the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile. . .We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. (C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters, 1942).

So ‘senior demon’ Screwtape enthuses to his trainee, Wormwood as he counsels the latter in the finer points of corrupting humanity.

And Paul Simon, a little more recently from the Sounds of Silence, as he once again acquaints himself with ‘darkness, his old friend’: "Fools", said I, "You do not know, Silence like a cancer grows. . .”

Silence, it would seem then has accumulated something of a bad rep – that state, the very presence of which we seemingly struggle to displace; that which we instinctively associate with emptiness, isolation, being ‘out of touch’. To fend it off, we whistle in the dark – any sound, even of our own contrivance, is better than the alternative (no sound) – lest we fall victim to the ‘demons in the dark’, apparently, hopefully kept temporarily at bay by our hollow, atonal efforts; the unwatched TV, elevator music, white noise generators all providing (reassuring?) background sound. Even our own brain is programmed to generate some sound, any sound, to fill the void, if one accepts current explanations of the psychological bases of tinnitus (that irritating, sometimes crazy-making whine we ‘hear’ inside our heads, when our surround quiets down).

Perhaps in keeping with the envelope-pushing of the 1970’s, ‘altered states’ were of sufficient ‘scientific’ interest to prompt researchers to experiment with any number of means of inducing same. Timothy Leary and his ‘acid trips’ aside, immersion tanks, essentially ‘sensory deprivation pods’ (not all that different from claustrophobic, sound-proof tanning beds), surfaced as vehicles to explore our response to the absence of . . .everything. Suspended in body-temperature saline solution, in the dark and silence, no surprise that, left very alone with one’s thoughts, the therapeutic intent would sometimes slip off the rails and skate pretty darn close to hallucination, psychosis.

Be we graduate psychology students, struggling to ‘sit in silence and listen’ (vs. filling the quiet times in sessions with compulsive chatter) or bored adolescents tweeting and instant-messaging (r u thr? – and what do I do if you’re not!), the apparent aversion to silence is near universal.

And so summoning the courage to actually invite silence into our space, to embrace it – if only for the 30 minutes we carve out to sit mindfully each day – must seem like a nearly counter-intuitive act, working against what the culture and the individual would advocate and encourage as acceptable behaviour. But the potency of quiet – particularly quiet in the presence of others – is undeniable. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in a BBC interview recently referenced an anecdote following the 9-11 tragedies. He recounts the meeting of a priest, a rabbi, and an imam, sharing neither a common language nor essentially a common belief, as the three contemplate the enormity of what’s just happened and struggle to define what their respective roles might be – as they minister to their damaged and damaging flocks. Acutely aware that words cannot begin to capture the task before them, they sit in silence – and, in that wordless space, the healing began.

Consider the paradox that the very capacity to speak, not merely ‘communicate’ (as, obviously some ‘sub-human’ species are able), at once contains perhaps the single most defining aspect of our ‘humanness’ and the particular seeds of our undoing. Although the point of Babel was to highlight the folly of human achievement for its own sake, an interesting sidebar is the mechanism by which the endeavor was ultimately quashed – failed communication. How many times have we heard variations on the theme of being ‘misunderstood’, when our meaning fails to match the intention of our spoken word; heard email pilloried because it lacks the nuance, the face-to-face quality and cues, the inflection in the voice – and is ‘mis-read’. How, when we sense we are being misinterpreted, our compulsion is to throw more words at the issue – and succeed in only making things worse.

If words sometimes unnecessarily complicate our lives, silence might just enhance its quality. Sara Maitland, a British author, in her memoir A Book of Silence, charts her extended personal experiment as she flees the ‘noisy world’ in which she spent her childhood and adolescence and moves increasingly to ‘silent places’. She chronicles the good and the bad – but generally concludes that, it is only in silence and solitude that she began to hear and see what is around her. How close is that to a working definition of mindfulness?

And so to coattail on last week’s focus on ‘right speech’ – and its implication for less talk – I might encourage a little personal experiment. Finding opportunities to cultivate formal quiet times in one’s day when the household agrees to be in each other’s presence – but not speak. Or, at a slightly more ambitious level, consider a ‘silent retreat’ for a day or two, either structured or self-directed – and see what ‘floats up’. Just as a regular mindfulness practice affords you the (quiet) opportunity to ‘see what’s of interest’ to you, carrying this directive out into your day can be surprising instructive.

1 comment:

IceRev4 said...

A song from St. John's this morning seemed relevant to this posting:

Come and find the quiet centre
in the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter,
find the frame where we are freed:
clear the chaos and the clutter,
clear our eyes, that we can see
all the things that really matter,
be at peace, and simply be.

Silence is a friend who claims us,
cools the heat and slows the pace,
God it is who speaks and names us,
knows our being, touches base,
making space within our thinking,
lifting shades to show the sun,
raising courage when we're shrinking,
finding scope for faith begun.

In the Spirit let us travel,
open to each other's pain,
let our lives and fears unravel,
celebrate the space we gain:
there's a place for deepest dreaming,
there's a time for heart to care,
in the Spirit's lively scheming
there is always room to spare!

By Shirley Erena Murray, 1989
#374 in Voices United