SILENCE: WHAT IT ONCE MEANT TO ME, AND WHAT IT HAS COME TO MEAN

By Paul

It would seem that few people require, or can even tolerate, absolute silence.  Such a state at any rate, at least in the physical sense, is extremely rare, and may even be something of a physical impossibility in the world.  Usually, there is something that interferes with or interrupts the soundlessness, even if that something is only the wind in the trees, or falling water, or the tiny clatter made by an animal or an insect, let alone the endlessly deafening array of noises made by humans and our machines.

As a child, I remember I would sometimes try to escape, hide out might be a better word now that I look back, from my friends and even from family.  My refuge was St. Patrick’s, the big, red brick church across the street from where we lived. Those were the days, in the mid1950’s, when churches were still open to the public at anytime, all day long in fact, as they no longer seem to be today.   Going in, I would do my utmost to close the doors as quietly as possible, so as to avoid any sound.  As it turned out, though, this was something of an impossibility.  The big wooden portals would creak and bang with a deafening echo no matter how hard I tried to ease them shut.  Once inside, I could usually hear nothing of the outside world.  The church building itself was huge, and cool even on the hottest of summer days, and I would sit there trying to hear what could not be heard.  Because it was unusual for anyone else to be there during the times when I was able to go, the only sound I could hear was that of my own breathing, or the beating of my own heart.  I remember wondering how many breaths, how many beats a person had in his heart before the end, before beating and breathing stopped.  How many did I have, and how many did my mother have?  I calculated that there had to be some specific number, although at the time my own numeral seemed as if it must have been so huge as to be almost immeasurable.  I also hoped the same would be true for my mother, and I now understand what a mercy it was that I did not know how few, in fact, she had remaining.

Later on in life, I learned how to “watch the breath,” as Indian yogis might say, and that this is one way to begin to enter into the quietude needed for deep meditation.  It goes without saying, I guess, that as a young boy I didn’t know I was practicing a kind of yogic technique, and surely would have been horrified if I’d had any inkling, because at the time I considered all religions except the Roman Catholic Church to be false and even dangerous.  Little did I know then, either, that the Catholic faith could be every bit as dangerous as any other organized religion.

Sitting there in the empty church, the very first thing I noticed about silence was that it felt soothing, almost as if it were a kind of balm that calmed me, and this calmness was a state that my heart and my spirit needed and craved.  In those years, in fact, as strange as it may seem, I had formed a kind of habit of retreating into the church whenever I heard the sound of a siren.  I don’t know why, but for some reason I always made the assumption that the sirens came from fire trucks, not police cars, and I can still recall now, sixty years later, saying to myself:  “Everybody else is running to see the fire, but I’m going to church to pray for those whose house is burning down.”

All right, I’ll agree with you that maybe I was something of a strange child!  And why I always automatically assumed that it was a house burning I can’t really say.  A psychologist might possibly read much into this and interpret it like a dream, that is, as a symbol of the house-afire relationship I had with my father, or more widely still as a kind of generalized fear of living in the world.  Both of which might have been true.  At any rate, for whatever reason I would rush off to the church and pray earnestly for those who, I thought, no longer had a home, that they might soon find one, and that no one would suffer for long.  Such prayers, such musings, if you will, offered me the greatest solace.  Afterwards, I would leave feeling energized and uplifted, and frankly sometimes with a holier-than-thou sense in comparison with all those who, in my mind’s eye, had rushed to watch the fire instead of sitting tranquilly in the church praying for its victims.

Much of this, I now realize, masked for me the other side of silence, its opposite, if you will, that I also experienced as a child, a side that could make me feel sad and depressed.  I could not, and did not admit it then, but I sometimes felt oppressed by my own internalized fears and inhibitions.  I would have had trouble admitting that I also craved a very different thing, not silence, but the messiness, the unfettered and tangled clutter and chaotic disarray of living in a rebellious and bothersome body (or so I thought), in the midst of an exciting, confusing, frustrating, and terrifying world which existed out there, beyond the protective, silent, enclave of the church.

To an extent, I suppose, that dichotomy still exists for me.  Although over the years I have done much to embrace that chthonic chaos, and rightly so (it is the stuff of life, after all), still the older I get the more I seem to opt again for silence.  But is there a difference, it could be asked, between silence and quiet?  As a young boy, sitting in the cool darkness of St. Patrick’s church, I probably would have said no, but I have now come to think there is, and I that I like both of them.  Quiet, as I define it, has more to do with the absence of something, namely, all that is usually lumped under the catchall term of “noise:” cars, trucks, motorcycles (especially), airplanes, machines of all kinds, including radios and televisions and music making devices of every stripe (unless they happen to be playing Mozart), even the dull hum of appliances like that of the refrigerator in the quiet stillness of the morning before the world wakes up.

Even these words I’m writing, if read aloud, could well fit under the category of noise, depending on where and when or how they were uttered, or on the manner in which they were received by anyone listening.  If you were, for example, sitting by a quiet lake, and the most you could hear was the sound of water lapping gently against the shoreline, or the merest stirring of the breeze amid the pine needles above you, then everything else, these words included, might well be thought of as noise.  Indeed, if in such a place you had to speak, you’d better whisper in as quiet a voice as you could contrive.  But even in such circumstances, as hushed as it might be, it is still possible that you, yourself, might not be silent.  Not if silence is a quality of the mind, and if that mind or yours, or mine, were chattering with its long list of worries and obsessions.

So, it would seem that there is a difference between silence and quiet.  Could it even be said, in fact, that it might be possible to be in silence while in the midst of noise?  It is not an easy state to achieve, but I believe it is a possibility, because silence in this sense has more, much more, to do with an inner condition than with any outer circumstances.

But if that is the case, how do we go about finding such silence?  It is not as simple as slipping into a church at the sound of a siren, or even of retreating to the distant mountains with their pristine streams and cooling pine trees, far from the unending din of what passes for the civilized world.  After all, in some ultimate sense, the chatter and clatter of the world emanate from within.  If we did not feel such inner unquiet, would we feel the need to create such outer noise?

In the end, silence is not a place of no noise (although that may help); it is not a place at all, but instead a state of consciousness.   It is that “no place” where all things come together, time and eternity, and where vibration, the very stuff of noise making, loses itself in the endlessness of the conscious moment, where thought both begins and ends.

Whoever speaks of heaven and hell remains still in the thrall of the vibratory world.  Leave sin behind, and goodness, and right and wrong, too, for that matter.  Not that morality is unimportant, but only in the context of the universe of the play of opposites.  Leave heaven and hell, themselves artifacts of the dream of opposing sides.  And leave dreams, as well, as they wander the star paths of the shinning or the fiery.  Step instead where there is no step, and enter what cannot be entered.  Leave language, too, and seek the empty plenitude of silence.  Or, rather, do not seek at all, because there is nothing to be sought after.  This is the nowhere, where there is no longer any need to reach the Unreachable.

SILENCE — WHO CARES?

By Paul

My partner, Andy, tells me I’m hypersensitive to noise.  And he may well be right.  But what does that even mean?  Just the other day, for example, I was home on a lovely Saturday afternoon.  The temperatures were in the mid-sixties and there was a refreshing breeze blowing.  Naturally, who wouldn’t want to have all of the windows open?

Andy was working, and I was going about my routine chores, some writing, some household tasks like laundry, and a little bit of reading (The New York Review of Books, in this case).  Suddenly, I began to hear the percussive thump-thump-bang of two teenage boys in the alley beside our house throwing the basketball at the hoop some brilliant person had attached to the back of a garage.  I have to say that they didn’t even seem to be all that accomplished at it, by the way, because they missed a lot more shots than they made.  At any rate, that then started the dog barking in the yard next door to them.  Not that it ever takes much to get this creature started.  Andy blames the dog; I blame the people who own the dog, who clearly don’t take care of him.  One way or another, his barking sometimes goes on and on, and no amount of neighborly – or not-so-neighborly – complaining on our part has had any long lasting effect.  Next came the guy behind us, who appears to choose Saturdays as his preferred day to operate some kind of giant drilling device (I still can’t figure out what it’s for).  Then there was the small, but irritating, electric saw of the neighbor on our other side, the helicopters that every so often land on the roof of the hospital down the street from us, to say nothing of the sirens from the ambulances, the chorus of lawn mowers and leaf blowers, the jets (as well as the small planes) that appear to prefer the airspace directly over our heads more than any other place one the globe, and you begin to get an audio picture of our neighborhood of a Saturday afternoon.

Andy and I have talked more than once about selling our house and moving – or at least I have – but the problem, as he regularly (and correctly) points out is, wherever you go there are no guarantees.  And ain’t that the truth, as they say?

But am I the only one who finds this sort of thing, I won’t say just annoying, but sometimes almost downright intolerable?  Am I asking, or wishing, for too much to want some actual silence around me?  Maybe so.

We are a society, indeed a world, saturated with noise of every conceivable kind. Virtually every machine humans have made emits a greater or lesser degree of noise pollution, from cars to trucks, to motorcycles, to airplanes, to radios, to televisions, to musical instruments (especially of the amplified variety), to cell phones etc.  The world is chock full of beeps and roars and thuds and shouts and clangs and rumbles and thunks and clunks and crashes.  But am I wrong to say that most people don’t even seem to notice, that they have become inured to it all?  And of course who can blame anyone for that degree of self-defense?  I just wish I were more proficient at it, but the pandemonium of it all just seems to get to me, and a repetitive, percussive sound (like that of an endlessly dribbled basketball, or the interminable barking of a dog, or the constant thump-thump of a drum) can about drive me over the edge.   

You may be thinking that it’s just a factor of age.  And there does seem to be some sort of direct correlation between age and a person’s ability to tolerate the noisy messiness of the world.  But I actually think I’ve pretty much always been like this.  I really wish I were more proficient at blocking it all out, as some people seem to be able to do.  What I long for, I guess, is the day when we can sell our house in the city and move to a more rural place, surrounded by trees and space enough so that we can’t see – or hear – any neighbors.  I’m not anti-social exactly, I don’t think, but I just want people to go quietly about their business! 

But maybe that’s asking for too much on planet Earth.  Even nature, so called, can be grating and discordant .  Take for example the fact that a pair of nesting crows has recently moved into the big tree behind our house.  I’m not sure if you’re familiar with crows, I mean up close and personal, but their raucous call – caw, caw, caw! – can be most annoying.  Still, I’ll take crows any day to the sound of balls bouncing, machines drilling, televisions playing too loudly, phones beeping and chirping, planes roaring overhead, sirens screaming, or music blaring out of somebody’s car or back window. 

It could be that I just spent too much time in a monastery when I was young and still forming my personality.  Maybe, in so doing, I somehow neglected to acquire the skills, and the shields, needed to face the 21st century. Silence?  Who cares?  Well, I do, but sad to say there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot I can do to bring it about.