BLOG: SILENCE – IN THE MIDST
‘Here’s an award for silence’
So Robert Fisher announces on his posthumous album, Untethered (Willard Grant Conspiracy).
And this is such an arresting phrase – presumably because we know there has never been and never will be an award for silence. Which is the point, I suppose – as with other ‘awards’ referred to in the same song, for ‘chasing rabbits’, for ‘running blind’, for ‘kindness’ and for ‘the moment the breath leaves your lungs’. ‘Chasing rabbits’ is a beautiful song written in the shadow of Fisher’s own dying and celebrating some of the undervalued but quietly beautiful things in life. And echoing Lou Reed, Fisher suggests these are the things which will lead to ‘a perfect day’.
So, yes, silence is undervalued in our contemporary culture, certainly, but what is its value – what good will it do – and how can we practice silence in the midst of ordinary life?
In my recent sabbatical period, I set myself three key intentions, neatly all beginning with ‘S’: Silence, Solitude, Simplicity. So I thought I might offer some reflections on each over the next three months. And although these three ‘S’s are all usually associated with ascetic or spiritual traditions, I want to explore what value they might have in the midst of an ordinary life. So, starting with silence.
Words totally dominate our world today. And it is possible that we are not even fully aware of this, so accustomed are we to every single life experience being accompanied by words – mine or someone else’s. And we know this because even if we do manage to turn off all our devices and sit in the quiet it is not long before we find all the words, and more, resonating around our minds. They’ve got inside us and we find we can’t turn them off even when we want to.
Authentic experience. But words are only one way of engaging with the world and possibly not the richest, the deepest or even the truest. Before any words, there was silence. In fact, all words emerge out of a sort of primordial soup of silence which we might call our authentic experience. Yes, we need words to communicate something of our experience to others but, as the poets, musicians and artists know, words not only change but very often lessen experience. I may have had the most profound, life changing experiential moment. But the moment I try to explain it to you I feel deflated – that’s not it, I feel. And yet how much I want to share it.
And so I return to silence, partly in my despair at ever being able to give words to what is most profound in me but partly because silence is where I engage with my experience most fully, most completely, so that possibly at some point I may find words to express at least some of it.
Silence as subversion. Words are not only inadequate and often reduce experience but also, so often, and especially in these days of so called ‘post truth’, they deceive, they manipulate and they distort – for somebody’s gain and often not yours. Silence can, of course, be collusion (for instance with an unjust status quo) but it can also be a sort of subversive activism: a refusal to accept as normal an oppressive system, agenda or paradigm; a refusal to use the dualistic language of those who hold power; or at very least, a refusal to add fuel to the fire. Instead silence can be a first stage in shifting the paradigm – witnessing to the fact that we need to see differently – from a different perspective. If words are all too often just adding to the confusion, then first stop is silence. And then it might be possible that the kind of words which actually do shift things, communicate authentic experience, contribute to new understandings may emerge in time. This was Jesus’ silence at the height of his trial for sedition. In response to the pernicious questions put to him, his silence ‘spoke’ about something which simply couldn’t be reduced to the language and mindset of his accusers.
An antidote to reactivity. Words are also designed to get us to react. Every item on the news page is designed to trigger us in some way or another. Sometimes for good, very often for bad and always seeking an automatic reaction from us. Mindfulness practice at its heart is teaching us a way of non-reactivity – and instead training us in wise response. And this needs the practice of silence – a deliberate choice not to use words – just for the moment, until my reactivity has calmed and the elusive quality of wisdom has once again emerged.
Listening. Finally, silence teaches us to listen. Not to more words but to that which comes before words and out of which words emerge – to start with, simply the sensations in my own body, the pressure on the soles of my feet, the tingling in my hands. Then to the sound of the birds and the wind in the air. But also to the stirrings in my own heart, to the wounds, joys and longings in yours and, through all this, to the silent yearnings of a universe aching to come into its own.
But all this takes practice. And this is why I want to explore the idea of silence as a practice in the midst of life – just as meditation, music and sport all need practice.
Silence is not the absence of noise – but the space in which noise is transformed into sound.
Silence is not just about stopping talking and turning the radio off (although it may start with that) because it is equally possible to be fully immersed in silence while speaking, listening and fully engaged in life. But rather it is the cultivating of a spaciousness around the words whilst recognizing that words, though of value, are in the end provisional, incomplete and often deceptive. Whereas the authentic experience we may come close to in silence is of eternal and infinite value.
Outer silence. But, yes, as we begin the practice of silence, it will help to stop talking, to turn the off radio and to leave my phone out of hearing in another room. This naturally happens every time we sit in formal meditation but it can also happen at other times as we intentionally take shorter or longer periods to engage with silence. It could be sitting quietly in the kitchen. It could be choosing to have a meal in silence – or even the first 5 minutes of a meal. It could be a silent evening or a silent walk. And the difference between this and the unwanted silence that many who live alone often feel they have far too much of is that this is a chosen silence – an intentional silence. This is a silence that we have decided for and which may, counterintuitively, help us to feel more connected with ourselves and with others, not less.
Inner silence. And whether we are formally meditating or simply sitting quietly, this is our chance to take note of all the reactivity which is going on in our minds. For it will immediately be there. And as we notice the incessant ‘noise’ in our heads, the aim is not to get caught up with it but just to notice it and recognize it for what it is – our automated reactions to everything that is going on; our minds’ ‘running commentary’, if you like, on everything from the most serious news item to the seemingly trivial (though actually not so trivial) matter of my next meal. Focus on breath or body as we do in meditation will be the core for most of us but the point is to begin to connect with the spaciousness of the silence which surrounds and holds the noise. And this is how noise is transformed into sound; reactivity into wise response.
Silence in the midst. And so, as I make my commitment to silence and to making it part of my practice, ever so gradually I begin to notice that the quality of my conversation changes. This is gradual and I have regular setbacks where I realise the conversation I just had was full (on my part) of reactivity, half-truths, mini-deceptions, micro aggressions and blandness. But sometimes, (and even if only sometimes then all this is worth it), I sense a depth, a quietness, an authenticity of shared experience and an integrity to my words and my listening. Yes, this is it, I think. I want more of this!