Sounds of Silence
“How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!”
(From the Christmas Carol. “O little town of Bethlehem”)
WHAT IS SILENCE? AND HOW DO WE APPRECIATE IT? Some dictionaries will tell you that silence is the “absence of sound”. I find this a rather shallow definition, which also says a lot about the state of modern man, as we shall see.
Silence is not the absence of sound. When all of man’s machinery is silenced, there is still the sound of nature: wind, crickets, mosquitoes. Even on the stillest of nights, I can still hear the sound of blood rushing around my ears, or a heartbeat, or breathing. When I detach myself from that and listen to my mind- whoa, how noisy can you get! Even with deep meditation, detached from outside sounds, when thoughts are quieted, then there is something approaching silence. Yet still I cannot describe it as an “absence of sound”, for it is a presence to me. This presence, this awareness, is the sound of silence.
Both ancient scripture and the latest modern science say that sound (vibration) predates all matter, that sound was there in the beginning (“In the beginning was the Word.”). Was/is there a time or place where there is an absence of sound? No, I don’t think so. When we attempt to understand silence as an “absence of sound” are we not deluding ourselves?
The sound of a distant train in a foggy landscape
The trickle of a creek in a quiet forest glade
The squeak of a rusty windmill in a vast outback landscape
Silence is present. Even when there is sound.
SOMEONE ONCE POSED THE QUESTION: When a tree falls alone in the forest with no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?
“Of course”, we all say… but let’s look closer at this. The tree falling on the ground makes an air vibration, which will continue on and on, gradually weakening unless someone becomes aware of it. At that point, the hearer can register the vibration as “sound”. Thus, the world is full of air vibrations, shooting off here and there, eventually disappearing into thin air. They remain vibrations only, not sounds, unless an animal or human registers them as such. Without an awareness present, there can be nothing to interpret “vibration” as “sound”. No. The falling tree does not make a sound if there is no one there to hear it.
If sound is registered, there must be awareness. When there is awareness, there is sound.
WE KNOW THAT HUMANS will register air vibration in more or less the same way throughout the world, since our ears are built more or less the same way around the world. We can assume that a bird sounds the same to us as it would to a tribesman in Africa, though the perception and meaning may be entirely different (eg. “cheep, cheep”: “oh, how pretty” or “oh, the spirit of my grandmother is communicating”).
It is rather difficult for us to know how an animal, eg. a dog, would hear the same sound, since their ears are shaped so differently. It appears, however, that in the animal kingdom, sound is produced and registered on a lower level of awareness than humans. Sound at this level may convey food, danger, mating calls or other basic instinctual messages.
With humans, sound reaches the level of idea; conveying not just instinctual messages but thought, emotion, feeling, even soul and spirit. Here, words, poetry and music come into being. Man is the only creature to use and interpret sound at this level.
So how is man going in his quest to find valuable meaning and interpretation in sound and silence? How evolved are we in this respect?
We’ve heard it said that only when we can truly listen to the Earth will we be able to save it.
If this assumption is true, the Earth meanwhile goes down it’s path of decay and destruction, managed by unaware, unquiet people, unable to listen and whose definition of silence, I suspect, would be a noisy one at best. It is interesting to note that modern man now considers 50 decibels of “background” noise to be at a level he can still call “silent”. Our society’s noise level has increased so much it has infiltrated our very understanding of silence itself. For 3 million years we have lived in relative silence. Yet in the last 200 years, noise levels have steadily increased to almost deafening. This has corresponded with a steady destruction of the Earth and the environment. Any correlation here? Evolution? We’ve got a long way to go. It seems we’ve come to the point where we either begin to listen to the planet’s silent needs, or perish.
I ONLY WISH that more musicians, with their enhanced hearing, would listen more to themselves and their hearts, their own inner silence, rather than their intellects and egos (in the case of the classical music scene) or animal instinctual urges (in the case of the heavy metal, rap, hard rock scene). This unfortunate trend has resulted in an extremely unhealthy state of music. Music is not dead. On the contrary: it is very much alive and unwell.
In language too, there is a general negative trend towards abbreviation, base rap language, dry technological terms even in non-work environments, and so on. And then the sounds we are exposed to- machinery, traffic, beeps, jingles, computerized music, are all heading the same unhealthy way.
Music, language, sound continue, as always, to profoundly effect our souls. Our souls, thus affected, seek to express their pain in their accustomed music/language… and the vicious circle goes on.
What can get us out?
A touch of awareness; a smidgeon of Silence and things would already change. Cultivating an awareness of silence and sound could reverse this trend.
Thoughts to myself:
As a Music Teacher, keen on opening others’ awareness through the ears,
My ultimate goal must be to awaken the awareness of silence…
not just in the rests, but in sound as well (…train, creek, rusty windmill…)
Music is Awareness, and Awareness is Silence.
What is my aim in teaching music?
I can think of no higher aim or greater gift than awakening That Silence in others.
SILENCE LEADS TO, and actually is the same as, awareness itself. Awareness leads to silence. Silence leads to more awareness. In the end it all merges.
Awareness: the story of human development. What is awareness? What is the root of awareness?
To be aware of something, you need to quieten the mind somewhat, to let in what’s happening, here and now. The quieter the mind, the more it can register what’s happening around it, the more aware it becomes. Quieting leads to awareness. Total quiet leads to total awareness. Silence is the root of Awareness.
Can one turn it around too, and imply that Awareness is the root of Silence? -that the more aware one is, the more one is able to quieten the mind? -that as we develop into aware individuals, we are actually becoming more and more (inwardly) silent? Won’t this silence make us more aware- and therefore more silent? Are we dealing with some unseen force here? …the Power of Silence?
I think the answer lies in the secret of silence itself. When we make the effort to become more aware, to quieten our mind, silence steps in, like a magical force. Silence does have a power of its own. Silence is an enlightened, self-intelligent force, which bestows more silence and awareness, taking us a step deeper than our own self-effort can. Silence, then, in its wisdom-filled awareness seems to be grace bestowing. Silence is a gift from God.
Silence is a gift.
Paul Lawrence. 2002