Updated: Dec 10, 2022
Gordon Hampton wrote that we have reached a time in human history when our global environmental crisis requires that we make permanent life style changes. More than ever before, we need to fall back in love with the land.
Silence is our meeting place. It is our birthright to listen, quietly and undisturbed, to the natural environment and take whatever meanings we may.
Long before the noises of mankind, there were only the sounds of the natural world. Our ears evolved perfectly hunted to hear these sounds - sounds that far exceed the range of human speech. The passing breeze, the first birdsongs of spring, the shifting of the tide, all these experiences connect us back to the land to our past. Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything. It is the presence of time, undisturbed. It can be felt within the chest.
Silence nurtures our nature, our human nature and lets us know who we are. We become better listeners not only to nature but to each other. Silence can be carried like embers from the fire. Silence can be found and silence can find you. Silence can also be lost and also recovered. But silence cannot be imagined. To experience the soul swelling wonder of silence, first you must hear it.
In 2010, Eric Schmidt, then CEO of google, made an estimate that every two days we create and therefore absorb more information than we did from the dawn of civilisation up to 2003. There is increasingly more “mental stuff “ competing for our attention ~ from a multitude of emails, texts, social media & news. This auditory and informational stimulus is consuming our attention making it harder to find silence inside our consciousness.
All outside noise amplifies the intensity of what’s going on inside us, giving our body a sense of always being ‘on’ making it difficult and harder to focus on what’s in front of us, to manage our minds impulses, to notice, to appreciate and to preserve open space - the space of silence.
Noise, often described as unwanted distraction, can determine how we think and feel. All these distractions and noise interfere with how we choose to spend our time on this planet. Quite literally it is disturbing the peace. Understanding and realising how we consciously choose to live our life requires a “turning down of the dial” of managing the noise, of interior and exterior sounds and stimulus in our lives so we can tread more softly on the planet. It is interesting to note that noise can be auditory, informational & internal. Collect them all together and we have a big load of noise.
Historically, solitude or the seeking of silence has always had a place in our culture. All religious traditions, sages, saints and prophets from Christian preachers to Buddhist teachers have been in pursuit of silence and promoted the benefits of solitude through meditation. If speech is of silver, then silence is of gold comes from Solomon, the great king of wisdom.
There is a deep yearning for silence in a world of more and more noise. Whether we consciously realise it or not, we sense that pristine attention is increasingly scarce and we need ways to cope. Retreating from the cacophony of the world, is stepping towards everything that is essential. The deepest silence isn’t just an absence of noise, it is also a presence. It’s a presence that can centre us, teach, heal and guide us.
In the 1960s, Modernist composer John Cage famously wrote a piece of music consisting of nothing more than four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, he sat resting his hands above the piano, no notable "music", he didn’t 'play' a note. Met with much controversy, this now infamous piece was written for an open air concert hall in Woodstock with the objective of bringing the audiences attention to the sounds of the environment. Birds, cicadas and the breezes in the branches. Later when performed indoors the audience would take in other environmental sounds such as scuffling of feet, cleaning of throats and the rustling of lollie wrappers. The idea was to use this “piece of music’ this art form, as a vehicle to expand peoples attention to what was happening around them.
Cage was inspired to write this music when he visited an anechoic chamber, a room built with materials that reflect all vibration and designed to be soundless. When Cage stepped inside the chamber he expected to hear complete silence, instead he heard 2 sounds, one high and one low. Curious he went to find the engineer in charge and asked why the room wasn’t totally soundless as advertised, describing the 2 sounds. The engineer explained that the high sound he heard was his nervous system in operation and the low sound was the sound of his blood in circulation. Amazed at this discovery he wanted use his talent as a vehicle to expand peoples attention to what’s happening around them, to get people to consciously tune in to their surroundings and therefore themselves.
Albert Einstein wrote “Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.” A 2018 article in Scientific American summarised academic studies in physics, astronomy and biology to present the conclusion that “even objects that appear to be stationary are in fact vibrating, oscillating, resonating at various frequencies. Ultimately all matter is just vibrations of various underlying fields. Matter in the universe is in constant motion, vibrating, this is the nature of reality. When objects vibrate they create sound. In this pulsating, oscillating, buzzing reality we live in, where even the tiniest cilia hairs inside our own ears generate sound, there is no escaping these vibrations. Therefore we cannot avoid sound. Silence therefore is a concept.
Our conception of silence isn’t the total absence of sound or the absence of thought. It is the space between and behind the auditory information, the internal stimuli that interfere with our clear perception and intention.
So then we can say that silence is a sound, it is a sound of many qualities, if we appreciate silence as the precious thing that it is for a few minutes a day, it allows us to be much more balanced, more conscious. This balance of sound and quietness maximises our perceptual awareness of where we are. It is up to each one of us to go inside and explore what silence really is because silence nurtures our nature, our human soul and lets us know who are are.
Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote that silence, rather than being a void or an absence, is a substance, an entity and place of meaning in and of itself. For comfort, we can rest there rather than chasing decisive answers to un-answerable questions.
Silence is where we learn to listen, where we learn to see. Silence is where we hear something deeper than our chatter and feel something deeper than our words. The most essential things in life are things we cannot express, our relation to love, death our divinity. The unspoken. Silence is the resting place of everything essential. It is our natural state and the further we move away from silence the more we loose our humanity.
Silence allows everybody to have equal platform and equal voice, because if nobody is talking, nobody is dominating. Silence is humility. It is a stance of not knowing, a place of letting go. Silence is accepting that it is okay not to fill the space. That is is good to just be. It is a chance to step back from the pressure of having to try to shape or direct reality. We don’t have to control everything by keeping up the discourse or the argument or the entertainment. There is inherent goodness in letting go of the pressure to compete and perform.
Mother Teresa wrote, we need to find God and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers and the grass grow in silence. See how the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch souls.
In simple meditation practice there is no need to control the sounds. They are just out there and you are allowing them to be. It is not perfect, it is silence oscillating moving back and forth in regular rhythms. Every sound you hear is silence taking on a different form. Stillness is not separate from motion or movement. Everything is in motion. The whole of the universe is vibrating. Just listen and keep listening. Let your awareness rest in the darkness. Settle into listening to those sounds around you. Your breath, the sound of nature, the sound of the road, people talking, kids laughing. Deep listening is all that is needed. Listen to the narrative going on inside. I invite you to rest in silence.