Silence. So many kinds of silence. Deep, still pools of tranquility. Whispering voices of tentative zephyrs stroking millions of paper mâché leaves in autumn forests. Gentle hums of indistinct human voices murmuring prayers in a stretching cathedral. The never-ending roar of the city, ceaseless as the mountain waterfall. Silence is everywhere, if you can find it, because it’s not an imposed axiom of environment, but a transcendent construction—or rather emergence—of the mind.
Food, shelter: the basic needs of human life, the can’t-do-withouts of physical existence. Love: the sine qua non of spiritual existence. Silence: in which everything finds its value, its authenticity, its reliability.
You say, How can silence be as important as food and shelter? Well how then is rain more important than sunshine to a growing flower? It is all needed, all important; but the Scriptural wisdom of the ancient maintains that “better is a little on the rooftop than plenty in a house of strife”.
Or how can silence outweigh the importance of love? It doesn’t, any more than the sense of taste outweighs the importance of eating. The latter can be had without the former. But who truly experiences the joy of a wonderful food without tasting it? And who really knows love if he has never rested, silently, secure in the knowledge that he loves and is loved unconditionally, apart from all words and demonstrations?
Silence is not well-regarded in the social and technological milieu pulsing on our every side. In the office, emails and phone calls and stop-ins and meetings and reports shout into our every moment, demanding our attention and response; productivity, the aim of every manager, comes to be defined not by the quality of thought and product you create, but rather by how much you add to the noise. Stay quiet, and risk being ignored in the daily fracas. It’s nearly impossible to drown out, anyway. In the wild, sounds that are quiet and distant indicate something not important; the loud and immediate requires our attention. But there is no dissipation in the electronic, no attenuation of things unimportant; everything shouts equally loud in an email box. Other people’s problems in a meeting take as much of your attention as your own. Put up filters to allow yourself to think, and be rebuked because you are unresponsive.
Not that too many have that problem: the banishing of silence from our lives outside of work is big business. Apple made sure we could distract ourselves with infinite variety when it introduced the iPod; the iPhone ensured that we could distract ourselves with the infinity of the Internet when no one was available to talk. The business of distraction is not just recently lucrative either: I suspect the Greek playwrights, Shakespeare, and the great novelists all filled and monetized a social yearning for distraction; Hollywood and the rest of the modern entertainment industry has been minting money from it for years. And if that’s a bad thing—nuance is not dead here—it’s not the fault of companies, technologies, or franchises. It’s our fault, for so willingly and easily distracting ourselves. All the time.
Taking in a little news helps keep us informed about our world. Obsessively watching cable news networks creates an echo chamber of too-strident opinions that leaves out ears ringing and our minds thinking of nothing else. Who doesn’t know folks who will divert any conversation into politics within five minutes of saying hello? The same is true of celebrity gossip. The financial press. Food!—the quasi-religious obsession of millions of paleos, primals, vegans, locavores, Monsanto-haters, fair-traders…There can be too much of a good thing, and we all go there. Sometimes our obsessions qualify us as quirky, sometimes as self-righteous pricks. Either way, obsessions need fuel like fire, and we choose what we feed ourselves. And not only do we choose what to feed on—we choose to feed in the first place. Nobody ever said that was required.
Constantly eating more food than we need leads to adverse systemic consequences for our bodies. Why should it not also be true of our minds? What would we be like if we gave ourselves time—quiet time—to digest what we put in our minds? Would we be a community of people who actually think for ourselves about important issues, instead of mouthpieces for our favorite media outlets? Would we shine with a light of true individuality, rather than with the dull reflection of groupthink emanating from our Facebook feeds? Would we be comfortable voicing the produce of our minds in deep conversation, instead of referencing someone else, experts who, in all reality, have no more innate intelligence or ability than we do? Are we consuming the mental equivalent of huge amounts of empty calories, and suffering mental obesity as a result? Could we not rather consume small quantities of nutritious material and allow ourselves to truly absorb its goodness?
Silence is where we digest. Where we allow our mental filters to clear the detritus of our chaotic lives from the flow of our consciousness. It’s a detox, a cleansing, a freeing. It’s where the rust falls off our souls and the scales fall from our eyes, and where we are finally able to see the world for ourselves and, more importantly, where we can see ourselves for ourselves. In the midst of a silent moment, when no one else has our ear or attention, we can finally listen to our own voice and find out what we actually think and who we actually are. We find answers to questions about ourselves and discover which questions about the world are truly important to us. What is golden stays with us after the silence has polished away all the dross.
But this is all obvious. Monks of every religion have for millennia taken vows of silence to connect to themselves and something higher. Artists, authors and poets retreat to the mountains or the beaches or Venice—anywhere but their normal here—to free their hands from the quotidian grasping so that they can instead reach inside themselves and unearth that which is truly extraordinary. Maybe the best of them produce something of great worth to others. But all of them produce that which is of great worth to themselves. And what gives value to any of it? What gives value to anything? Scarcity—that great economic force that makes air free and diamond dear. So few people find their own voice, the true expression of who they are. But only we can find ourselves, and there is only one of us. No one else can sell us ourselves or mass produce our souls. To ourselves, we are the scarcest of resources the universe has ever known.
Yesterday I walked, aimlessly, through the river parklands in Perth, Australia; today, I set out to find some peace near LAX while laid over on my way home. I find walking to be my quickest way to silence the mind. It’s meditative: one foot, next foot, straight line, breathe in, breathe out. It takes me far from where I was, surrounds me with novelty. If it doesn’t require much thought—the danger of being hit by a car is low, I’m not late for anything, I’m not likely to be mugged—then my mind is free to wander, shake off its stiffness, stretch out. Silence outside promotes silence inside: the Kookaburra calls of the Perth parklands are better that the searing, stinking fumes of the LAX arrivals level. But it’s the act, the motion, that leads to transcendence. History is full of pilgrimages, Caminos de Santiago, that lose their power if motors are involved. There is no rhythm in the seat of a car: the crankshaft converts the cadence of the combustion to smooth rotary motion. Airplane jets have no rhythm to begin with. Physically nothing is different than sitting at home. But walking, perambulation, keeps the mind alert and clear at the same time. Second best is the rhythmic swaying of horseback: if they were so inclined, the solitary cowboys of the West must have been the most contemplative of men. Is it any wonder that King David, a man after God’s own heart, was found among the lonely shepherds of Israel? The true value in a pilgrimage is, cliché, in the journey rather than the destination. I don’t know much about the Muslim hajj, but I hope it provides their faithful more peaceful contemplation than the pictures suggest.
We take moments of silence to remember those who have given their all in sacrifice to a higher purpose—defending the cause of freedom, spreading hope to a dying world—and in that silence we find remembrance and understanding. But when we can, we should go beyond dipping our toes in those clear, bracing waters; we should wade in, surrounding ourselves in silence, dive deep, hold our breaths, and, gasping, throw ourselves back on the shores of daily life with the peace that we found still dripping from us. We should give big wet hugs to the people we meet there. And when we’re comfortable enough in our own skins, we should invite those we love to join us…because peaceful silence, together, can be the conditioning oil to repair the dry, cracked leather of our relationships. And if all the world joined us, what better people we might be; what a multitude of hurts would be healed; and how much more peace would find its welcome in the world?
So find your silence. You need it. And the world needs you to find it. Whatever your place, whatever you have to give to the world, do this first: let silent contemplation be your offering.