This article appeared in the August 2011 edition of Living magazine.
There has been a lot of noise about silence, a lot of words expended.
For example, Sara Maitland wrote a lot of words about silence. Before writing A Book of Silence, published in 2008, she spent silent time in silent places – on Skye in the Hebrides; in the Sinai Desert; in forests and mountains; in a flotation tank; in monasteries and libraries. Then she did a lot of talking to promote the book.
I used to live in Lewisham and even without rioters it was noisy. As well as the usual car and burglar alarms, there were police helicopters flying low in the small hours of most mornings. Skulks (that is the collective noun apparently) of foxes used to sun themselves on the surrounding lawns and at night forage in dustbins and set about reproduction. The nocturnal screaming of ravished vixens was indescribable.
Later we lived in sparsely populated rural Ireland and became used to a certain level of quietness. Meditation was relatively easy in our little cottage surrounded by fields. I first visited Sri Lanka in 2001 and spent twelve days in a meditation centre, practising the art of “noble silence”. Sri Lanka was a bit of a shock to the senses, especially hearing.
I wrote a poem about it at the time.
The Silence Within
A bhikkhu sneezes. Anicca. Bless you.
Inside the meditation hall, buttocks squirm,
Noses sniffle, throats tickle and phlegm.
Geckos squeak. Outside, temples and mosques
Decibel their faithful to prayer. Sirens police the roads.
Helicopters take the air highway to the war.
Semtex gouges rock from the earth. Rifles shoot wild boar.
A demon hectors on my left shoulder, mocking
My ambition of equanimity.
One can hope for quietness but it’s all relative. In 1952 at the Maverick Hall in Woodstock, New York State, the penultimate piece of a piano recital by the young piano virtuoso David Tudor was John Cage’s latest “composition”, 4’33”. Tudor shut the piano and sat still. The wind rustled in the maples and rain could be heard falling on the roof.
The American Catholic monk, Thomas Merton wrote: “I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators” . The more accepted theory behind the practice of monastic silence is that it is a means to access the deity, to develop self-knowledge and to live more harmoniously.
Jenny Diski found it difficult to live harmoniously with her neighbours because of their Led Zeppelin albums. She also discovered that she suffered from tinnitus and found that there is a medical condition known as hyperacusis – an inability to tolerate everyday sounds. Many sounds that were previously perceived as normal can be painful, annoying, seem amplified, or irritating.
It seems to me that what Sara Maitland is writing about is not silence, which is unattainable, but solitude. One reviewer of A Book of Silence commented, “One unmentioned side effect of silence, on Maitland at least, seems to be solipsism.” Maitland’s craving for partial isolation raises significant questions as to the nature of silence and relationships. Monastic silence and monastic solitude might be liberating but could also cause derangement and hallucinations. Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote in A Time to Keep Silence: “I had asked for quiet and solitude and peace, and here it was; all I had to do now was to write. But an hour passed, and nothing happened. …So much silence and sobriety! The place assumed the character of an enormous tomb, a necropolis of which I was the only living inhabitant.”
Visitors from Colombo to our mountain retreat remark on the meditative calm. However, it is certainly not as silent as the tomb. Sometimes I find Colombo quieter. Mother Nature is a noisy old whore. As I write this, hornbills are cackling derisively, squirrels are noisily complaining about the attentions of the dogs, monkeys are fighting over guavas, parrots are just scolding for the fun of it.
There is no such thing as silence.