What does silence mean to you? Is it soothing or threatening? And what does it mean to the various keepers of religion, monks, musicians, therapists, mountaineers and actors around the world who delve into it and employ its powers on a daily basis? In this part-memoir, Graham Turner looks at the cultural, spiritual and even physical implications of making peace with silence.
“Noise has become our default setting, silence an ever more alien concept,” he points out about modern Western societies obsessed with billboards screaming for attention, earphones that bombard one with music even when on a ‘quiet walk’, social networking sites abuzz with virtual voices. All the ‘regular people’ he speaks to find silence disconcerting and difficult.
Not surprisingly, the first stop on his journey begins in India. Though cities feel like “one continuous beep” and Indians seem exceptionally voluble, he finds a consistent reverence for silence across all groups and religions here. He interviews seers and seekers from Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism and Jainism who actively employ silent meditation or contemplation in their practice, and comes away with the lingering sense that “silence is the door through which God enters.”
And what about those people who make a living out of sound, voice modulations, music, laughter? Turner found that, here too, silence is an escapable part of the act. Giving anecdotes from theatre, comedies and musical history, he shows how silence is “not only a lack of sound. It is the canvas on which the whole thing is painted.” The exact amount of silence before and after a composition; the breaks between the notes… all these are crucial in delineating the beautiful from the disastrous. And yet, a mechanical pause is of no use; the silence itself has to have a qualified depth and feeling to it. Importantly, it’s not just the silence on the stage that affects the performance; the very quality of the silence from the audience also plays its role on the subconscious of the performer, interacting and defining his or her rendition or drama.
The author also looks at the healing power of silence. He speaks to accomplished psychotherapists and finds out how they use silence and humility as a potent remedy for unlocking the hearts of the heartbroken. “The current culture is a flight from silence. People are on the run, they fill every spare moment, they can’t stand being quiet,” says one therapist. “I see that mainly as a flight from our dark side, our secret side, our shame.” But the author also finds that there is the real potential for overuse of silence by an ineffective therapist. It is a weapon that must be carefully wielded.
Various schools of meditation are found across an unlikely country, the US: the Gethsemani Trappist monastery in Kentucky; the Maharishi University of Management at Fairfield; Center for Action and Contemplation at Albuquerque; and St Benedict’s monastery in Snowmass. What runs common is a certain kindness in their silences, an openness of the heart, even if they must make a bit of ‘noise’ to get their message heard in a materialistic nation.
Other countries also have their share of silence lovers; the Quakers in Oxford, England, who use silence for ‘encounters of the inward kind’; Initiatives of Change in Beirut, where silence is used to build heartrending bridges across deep-rooted barriers of religion and historical hatreds; an experience of Zen in England and a report from a zazen in Japan, where silence is the only way to dissolve ego and achieve oneness with the universe; the monastery of St Macarius the Great in Egypt, where Coptic Christian monks find God in the silence and expanse of the desert.
But perhaps the most touching tale is that of a prisoner in a Scottish jail, a convict who had murdered his best friend in a haze of alcohol, who found peace through Buddhist meditation and a reason to live with optimism despite his cheerless circumstances. “Prisons, you know, are not created by bricks and mortar, by locked doors. They are built within people’s hearts and minds. It is only there that all of us will find freedom. My prison ended when I came to prison, because I was in a worse prison outside,” he philosophizes of finding inner silence in clamorous environs.
Though there is a certain amount of repetition and some inconsistencies in the flow of chapters, this book is an invaluable exploration to this one aspect of human life that is both universal and unique. Silence is the very language of the soul, the essence of all self-seeking. When we find it, we find ourselves.
First published on FriendsofBooks.com