Wednesday, March 14, 2012


With Luka coming over shortly for his weekly Wednesday at Grandma and Grandpa's, it seems like a good moment to be thinking about silence.

In fact, I was thinking about it already last night. We had a meeting of our artists' group, which we usually start with a few minutes of meditation, just to get people off the freeway and the surface streets and into the space we offer for reflection and discussion. Either Ellie or I will normally lead the meditation with a few words of guidance as we sit, but last night for some reason I started out in silence by myself, while the preliminary chatter was still in progress--just closing my eyes and getting in touch with the inner space. We seemed to be on the same wavelength, because soon afterwards Ellie started the meditation with just a word or two and then tailed off into silence, too. Aside from George deciding, after a few minutes, that he needed some urgent communication with the neighbor dog, we sat without explanation and without the usual words of guidance for perhaps five minutes, and I think that our group enjoyed the opportunity for solo flight.

I have been thinking about silence in the context of the book I have begun to write about "Slow Looking," the "One Hour/One Painting" experience. Silence, it seems to me, is the aural counterpart to visual space: once you find it, it is limitless, it reaches everywhere. It is aural emptiness. The Buddhist concept of emptiness is easily mistaken for the Western idea of nothingness--essentially a negative concept, an absence. But as I understand the Buddhist term, it is far from that: emptiness is the presence of infinite potential. So it is with silence. It is, in my experience, an aural space to which the potential for sound lends energy and power. You can inhabit it as you can any other space, and living there, even for a few precious moments, brings with it a rare sense of serenity.

Pure silence is, of course, nearly impossible to find in our world today. There is always the distant hum of traffic, an aircraft passing overhead, a dog barking in the neighborhood... And while these things can serve to give focus and definition to silence, they can also serve as distractions. When I first started to practice meditation, one of the strategies I used to stay focused was to keep my ears sharp for the least of sounds, tracking its arising, its fullness, and its passing away. It was a helpful way to keep the mind from straying, to keep paying attention. When I do my "One Hour/One Painting" sessions, I forewarn participants of ambient sound, and instruct them not to allow themselves to get involved in conflict with it, or waste precious time and energy in the effort to ignore it; but rather simply to note that it is there and let it recede in due course, as it certainly will.

I did once have the opportunity to experience silence in its purest form, in an anechoic chamber. This one was a tank large enough to accommodate a single person in a semi-prone position, filled halfway with body-temperature liquid--not quite as harsh as water to the body, but of about the same viscosity. I climbed in, naked, and the hinged door was closed behind me, leaving me nearly fully immersed, in total darkness and total silence for an hour. My intention, of course, was to find out what the experience of near-total sense deprivation might feel like; no sound, no sight, no taste, no smell--only touch remained, the feel of the skin where it made contact with the liquid and, around the head, the air.

As I recall, the feeling was, well... artificial. The silence did not feel like silence to me, because silence does need the possibility of sound in order to define it. It was an absence, a kind of nothingness, rather than a presence and, as such, rather frightening. "Inhuman," or perhaps "unhuman"--if there were such a word--might be the term I'd use to describe the sensation. I decided that I like my silence to be less pure, less scientific, more infected by the imperfection of the human experience.

That imperfect silence, though, is one of the joys of meditation. It is not easy to create or to maintain, however, in a public space. Last night, in our group, I noticed how my mind kept wanting to fill the void, to leap in and rescue others from what I feared might be the boredom and discomfort I projected on them, no matter that they may have been perfectly content to enjoy the silence as much as myself. Nature, we hear, abhors a vacuum. So it is with human beings and silence. There is the urge to fill it. Most of us find it difficult, if not impossible to abide even a brief moment of silence in a conversation. It embarrasses us, as though it were some kind of weakness or deficiency to have nothing to say; so we say something, no matter how inane, in order to protect ourselves from the abyss that lies between ourselves and those with whom we speak.

Thus, too, in my "One Hour/One Painting" sessions, I try to be conscious of my own anxieties around silence and allow it to happen. There is risk involved. I know that it is likely to create discomfort, and that discomfort is a distraction. So it's important to prepare participants for the experience from the start. But it is equally important to challenge them in this way, and to remind myself that silence is an essential part the mind-space that I am helping them to create, for it is only here that they will arrive at the clarity of vision I'm trying to promote. I hope to have them embrace it for the blessing that it is.

1 comment:


Sillence can be a very bonding experience among a small or even medium sized group. Have you perhaps ever spent a day or two or more at a monastery where normally breakfast is held in silence, lunch also tho one of the monks will read from a book? I still pray, tho sometimes there have been rather large gaps when I have not. I find the following helpful to shut out the noise of time:
Oh Lord I kneel
And in silence seal
My lips and mind,
Before my heart
I cross my hands
And in yours
Hold my life
Big hug to you and Ellie