Silence is an absence of vibration, detected by an ear. If there is no ear, there is no silence. Just an absence of vibration.
But to human beings it is far more complex than that. Silence is fascinating. It is not simply an absence of sound but a rich stew of psychological and social meaning that effects us in many ways. It can just as easily trigger experiences of peace as it can experiences of deep awkwardness and fear. Yet it is the foundational backdrop to our existence. If we were to strip away the multiple layers of noise and distraction in our everyday lives, all we would be left with is the apparent nothingness that we call silence. But even that isn’t truly silent. If we sit in a sound-proofed room for long enough we become able to hear the subtle whispers our own internal processes. Heartbeat. Respiration. Even circulation. Ironically, the only time we can likely experience the wholeness of silence is at the inevitable point when we are no longer able to experience anything any more!
The philosopher Alan Watts describes “real” silence as a state in which both sound and thought are absent and we are able to experience reality as reality is. This kind of silence invites us to become more intimate with the mysteries of our own existence and bear witness to some potentially disconcerting existential truths. And that’s probably why we’ve become very adept as a society in developing tactics to avoid it. Or at least find ways in which we can momentarily turn down its volume.
Last summer I began recording the experimental Sound of Silence podcast as a way of inquiring more deeply into the human experience of silence. Each episode involves me sitting with a guest and recording 2 minutes of silence which I then broadcast for others to listen to. Each and every silence I have recorded has felt uniquely different. Some have felt awkward. Some peaceful. Some anxious. Some sad. Some funny. Some have passed almost in the blink of an eye, so much so that I doubted the accuracy of my timer. Others have seemed to stretch out for much longer, as if time itself were slowing down. Yet the structure has been the same for each. Sitting with a guest, in a physical space, without talking to each other for 120 seconds.
I’ve since become fascinated as to what makes every experience of silence unique. For example, if I sit silently in the woods by myself or with my dog it feels different to sitting silently in the woods with another human being. Or two other human beings. And, as our experience of silence is relational, it feels different depending on how well I know the other. The physical space between us. In what context are we together in this moment? Is the silence welcome or unwelcome? Does the ambient background noise dampen or amplify our experience? Has the silence been endorsed or legitimised so that we feel that it is OK? (e.g. meditation or as a mark of remembrance) Or has the silence sneaked up unexpectedly so that we desperately feel the need to avoid it? (e.g. in a job interview or on a first date!)
And what effect does the number of human beings present have? Am I on a stage in front of a 1,000? In a meeting room of 12? Or sitting face to face with 1? Is my central nervous system at rest or is it activated, anxious and ready to fight or flee?
And what of the external environment and my instinctive sense of space and freedom? What if I’m on a cliff overlooking the sea? What if I’m in a huge cathedral? What if I’m in a tiny isolation cell? If we assume the level of “noise” in all of these hypothetical scenarios is the same, then we can begin to appreciate how complex and multi-layered the human experience of silence is.
It is said that Inuit populations have a plethora of words for snow* in order to help them differentiate the many types they experience. Maybe if we took a similar philosophical approach to silence we would better understand its amorphous nature. But rather than inventing more words for it, which feels a bit incongruent and somewhat pointless, what if we were to simply become curious as to the unique shade of the silence we are experiencing? What are the multiple hues and pigments present in our here and now awareness that cause us to experience this unique shade in this particular moment? What shades of silence do we welcome? And what shades do we fear?
Noise is a part of everday life and I for one wouldn’t particularly enjoy a world without music, conversation or the comforting sounds of nature. But at the same time noise distances us from the profound perspective that silence offers. It is far from empty. Far from nothing. It is a constant reminder of the nature of all things. An ever present teacher, waiting patiently behind the layers of everyday distractions ready to help us explore the most profound of questions. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh “All the wonders of life are already here. They’re calling you. If you can listen to them, you will be able to stop running. What you need, what we all need, is silence. Stop the noise in your mind in order for the wondrous sounds of life to be heard. Then you can begin to live your life authentically and deeply.”
*I’ve no idea how true this is. Some accounts suggest over 100 words for snow, others much less and others suggest that there are no more words than in the English language and that we simply have misunderstood how Inuit langauge works.