NOTES ON SILENCE
Lababidi, Egyptian-Lebanese poet and thinker, is the author
to Elsewhere, elected for Year in Books (Sun
Sentinel, USA, 2007) as well as Books of the Year (The
Independent, UK, 2008). Lababidi's aphorisms are included in
an encyclopedia of The World's Great Aphorists, while
his poetry and essays have appeared throughout the US, Europe
and the Middle East.
It may seem like
a betrayal to speak of silence, to break an unspoken pact. Yet,
whether we are conscious of it or not, it is there, inextricably
woven into the fabric of our lives. As Sufi poet Rumi writes,
“a person does not speak with words. Truth and affinity
draws people. Words are only a pretext.” It exists in
the gaps between our words and encounters with the natural world.
In fact, silence is a platform from which we observe and interrogate
ourselves and our world.
more, silence is a prerequisite for certain vital solitary activities,
such as contemplation, meditation, prayer, healing, as well
as overhearing the dictates of our conscience.
ubiquity does not ensure intimacy. Thus, silence, this quiet
capital of riches, is both under-considered and undervalued.
Perhaps by learning to recognize our silences in their many
guises, we may begin to demystify them and make them more intimate.
longed for or reviled, summoned or thrust upon us, silence is
an inescapable force in our lives. Yet curiously, as a discipline,
Western Philosophy seems not to have deeply investigated this
constant presence -- leaving it up to spirituality, poetry and
psychology to explore this elusive territory. Perhaps for philosophers,
maddened by their own music -- as they tend to be -- this slippery
subject is perceived as a kind of rebuke to philosophy’s
lust for logic and systems. In the words of that rare Western
philosopher, Wittgenstein, who acknowledges the limits of reason
and the sayable: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one
must be silent.”
poets and thinkers alike, have long hinted at a wisdom beyond
words, straining the limits of language and sense, to describe
the ineffable. And, even if this love of silence (and attendant
solitude) is not explicitly expressed in works of philosophy,
it is behind the scenes in the lives of philosophers, often
informing their utterances and positions. This is the case of
that great solitary thinker Friedrich Nietzsche, for example,
who wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: "It is the
stillest words which bring the storm. Thoughts that come on
doves’ feet guide the world." Likewise for Samuel
Beckett who, in his plays, seemed to be heading towards silence
-- such that, in works like Breath or Act Without
Words, it almost comes to overtake speech.
rather than being defined negatively -- as the absence or perhaps
failure of words -- silence may instead be viewed positively
as somehow existing before and beyond representation, a primordial
essence that lurks beneath our constructed world. In the immortal
formulation of Tao Te Ching: “Returning to the root is
silence/Silence is returning to being.” Just a pause in
speech can offer us an unexpected glimpse of this -- sending
us spiraling down the black hole of silence, where matters are
more dense, and consciousness itself seems more intense. As
the silence-revering writer Emile Cioran observes, “A
sudden silence in the middle of a conversation suddenly brings
us back to essentials: it reveals how dearly we must pay for
the invention of speech.”
is, in silence, that things patiently unfurl, open up and trust
us with their secrets, or reveal their hidden natures -- be
they shy ideas or creatures, daybreak or a work of art. In this
fundamental and seemingly privileged state, what seems to elude
the world of words and sound may otherwise appear to dawn on
us; perhaps since we are now in the position to overhear ourselves
and tell ourselves that which we already know. Unsurprisingly,
realizations and revelations are forged in this realm. Silence
is, after all, the best response and conduit for our most profound
experiences: Awe, Love, Death.
silence can also mean cultivating attention, so that we are
present to ourselves and the deeper life that is continually
unfolding within and around us. We may begin to do so by investigating
the silences available to all of us, knowing them better as
well as their judicious uses. Three categories we can explore
in some depth are: silence as language (wordless communication),
as entity (physical presence in nature) and as a kind of metaphysical
portal (for contemplation, meditation, transcendence).
a language, silence can be the thing and its opposite: eloquent
or clumsy, despairing or serene. It can be polite, communicating
respect, empathy, or even a form of restraint - - i.e. abstaining
from unkindness, or being drawn into argument or pernicious
gossip. Or it can be impolite, transmitting anger or hostility
-- such as a sullen, resentful silence.
it can mean varying things within different cultural contexts.
For example, a silence that is considered socially embarrassing
or awkward in a Western setting is not at all in parts of the
Far East (such as China or Indonesia). In fact, the contrary
can be true. Most notably in Japan, where silence is deeply
valued; it is eloquence that is regarded with suspicion, since
verbosity is often associated with a certain superficiality.
In Japanese, there is even a word for wordless communication
-- haragei -- used to refer to the preferred modes
of expressing emotional matters.
Which is to say, as a means of wordless communication, silence
is as fluid and protean as the emotions and situations it is
born of, often conveying what words cannot. As poet Rainer Maria
Rilke confesses: “Things aren't so tangible and sayable
as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are
unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered.”
their arsenal of ravishing phrases, poets are perhaps most acutely
aware of how words fail us; are not there when we reach for
them. Here is T.S. Eliot elegantly bemoaning the shortcomings
of his bread and butter:
more, not all of us have the right words, or find them at all
times. Such as when silence lodges itself in our mouth or throat,
when we are handed an unexpected piece of bad news, leaving
us stunned and speechless. Confronted with the enormity of a
situation, we are simply left with a silence that is as authentic,
integral and universal as body language; shrugging off the need
for words, altogether.
an entity too, Silence can be difficult to define. For it is
not merely the absence of sound, but may be perceived as an
actual physical presence, as well. The elemental silence found
in the natural world is a case in point: whether it is relative
(in the forest, or underwater) or absolute (as within the desert,
before a storm or, ultimately, in outer space). There may be
grades to silence in the natural world, but such encounters
with it as an entity may be said to represent a kind of auditory
equivalent to stillness.
who has crept upon a morning, for a stroll at dawn knows this
holy hush. Just as someone who has experienced sound swallowed
whole in the mysterious silent underworld of the sea, or drunk
deeply of the quietude of desert air will also be familiar with
this sense of the numinous -- where Time appears to collapse
and one is afforded glimpses into Eternity. Great beauty silences.
Even if accompanied by the rich tapestry of the sound of creatures
quietly going about their daily affairs, silence is the solemn
companion of nature enthusiasts and can presence like the very
pulse of Being.
is how spiritual teacher, Krishnamurti, describes this mystical
state: "And it is only where there is space and silence
that something new can be that is untouched by time/thought.
That may be the most holy, the most sacred -- may be. You cannot
give it a name. It is perhaps the unnamable.” Grappling
with such mysticism and the unnamable is harder for philosophy,
but the younger Kant makes an attempt at it: “In the universal
silence of nature and in the calm of the senses the immortal
spirit’s hidden faculty of knowledge speaks an ineffable
language and gives [us] undeveloped concepts, which are indeed
felt, but do not let themselves be described.”
another category of silence is that of portal. One is said to
‘enter’ and ‘emerge’ from this state,
as though it were an actual physical territory. We cannot forcibly
break-in and enter, or rush through this portal to arrive at
a meditative-reflective state; but instead must patiently wait
to be granted access. Sculptor Rodin’s Thinker
is a monument to this invisible art of turning inward. He is
not seen surrounded by others, in the midst of conversation,
but rather depicted quite alone -- lost in thought and found
are also temples of silence -- secular spaces of worship, study
and healing where silence is cultivated, such as: libraries,
museums, hospitals, cemeteries and prisons. On account of the
intellectual, moral, or spiritual seriousness of such spaces,
they foster a certain respectful reflection, thereby permitting
us to pass through this silent portal.
can act as a springboard to access this region of the soul,
where one is transported, and our external surroundings seem
to fall away like so much dead skin (to the extent we may even
become oblivious of our own bodies). Extolling the pleasure
and spiritual edification of the written word, bibliophile Susan
Sontag describes reading as “that disembodied rapture
. . . trance-like enough to make us feel egoless.”
reverie, or the art of (apparently) doing nothing might be another
route to ‘disembodied rapture,’ and can also serve
as an escape from the tyranny of Self, Space, and Time. Within
this realm, we are free to travel backwards and forwards, conjuring
up both memories and fantasies. Not as frivolous as this may
seem, such flights of imagination are necessary for our sanity,
affording us a creative space for playful inner work and a restorative
psychic flushing out (of daily toxins such as pressure or worry).
prayer is a central portal to access this condition of blissful
silence. We see it prescribed in Sufi wisdom writings stressing
the significance of seeking inner silence, or Buddhist injunctions
to let the mind become silent to attain enlightenment, or in
Quakerism, as a feature of worship, where silence is an occasion
for the divine to enter the heart. More extremely, in the case
of Trappist monks, a life-time commitment to silence aims to
foster solitude in community as well as a mindfulness of God.
All of these varying notes reverberate in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s
inclusive definition of prayer as “the soliloquy
of a beholding and jubilant soul.”
without silence, is inconceivable. Here, stillness and self-emptying
are requisite in order to attain any kind of calm or peace.
In mysticism -- perched as it is on the precipice of all organized
religions -- Rudyard Kipling is repeatedly refuted, and the
East and West do regularly meet. In the pregnant prescription
of one who devoted an entire book of thoughtful meditations
to this subject, Christian philosopher Max Picard: “Silence
is listening.” And, as attentive practitioners of this
metaphysical art may sense, it can sometimes be unclear who
is doing the actual listening… us, or Silence itself.
dissimilar spiritual traditions -- Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist,
Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Native American -- all agree
on the importance of observing silence as a tool for inner growth/self-
transformation. More recently, based on scans of Buddhist monks’
brains, the young science of Neuroplasticity indicates that
meditation actually alters the structure, and functioning of
the brain. In other words, our thoughts and silences can, in
effect, change our minds, and even our lives: the ultimate goal
of philosophy or religion.
these three categories of silence -- communication, entity and
portal -- need not inhabit separate spheres and exist in the
same medium. For example, while in media technology -- i.e.
television and radio -- silence is perceived as ‘dead
air’, the three silences are successfully employed to
dramatic effect within the Arts. This is evident in theatrical
work, or a piece of music, or even stand-up comedy where silence
may be used to communicate nuance and depth, or else serve as
a pause for reflection on the parts of viewers and listeners.
more than ever before, it has become necessary to speak up in
praise of silence, as an attempt to redress the balance in a
cacophonic contemporary culture that appears alternately suspicious
or outright contemptuous of silence. Living as we do, in the
busyness of this modern world -- hooked up, beeping and under
the false imperative of needing to keep in touch with everything
-- we find ourselves in the unhealthy situation of losing our
silences and the sustenance that comes with them.
we desperately rush, hurling ourselves from one activity to
the next, without ever pausing to process what it is we’ve
learned, or dilute the concentration of experience with reflection.
To combat the distraction of noise, we may turn to the discipline
of silence which, practiced consciously, can be as much of a
renunciation as fasting -- or the ascetic exercise of denying
the physical body in order to nourish our spiritual entity.
it is, the erosion of silence in our lives is unmistakably connected
with our noise-ravaged nerves, or increased stress levels, as
well as increasingly shortened attention spans. This, in turn,
negatively affects our ability to both think and feel deeply
in order to sift through the deluge of stimulus that informs
our hurried and harried days. To the list of offenses resulting
from the loss of our silences we may add the corruption of the
art of conversation; since no matter how effortless or ephemeral
good talk may sound it is invariably rooted in, and the product
of, sustained private reflection.
a portal to silence, the culture of reading is currently imperiled
in favor of ‘information snacking’ to accommodate
our hectic schedules. This, coupled with the media’s shrill
and insistent competition for our attention, makes it necessary
to guard our silences even more vigilantly. In this context,
for example, we can more closely examine how the Internet affects
our concentration and capacity for critical thinking. (Author
Nicholas Carr’s critical and provocative article, "Is
Google Making Us Stupid?: What the Internet is Doing to Our
Brains" -- The Atlantic, July/August 2008 -- might
serve as a thoughtful point of entry regarding this controversial
French philosopher Blaise Pascal is correct, that “all
of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability
to sit quietly in a room alone,” then the proliferation
of talk and reality shows may be seen as symptomatic of our
cultural malaise. Namely, reality shows, which actually serve
to distract us from reality, or being present to ourselves,
are precisely a reflection of our collective “inability
to sit quietly in a room alone.”
like silence, noise, too, can be the absence of sound. Noise
is also the silent invasion of our inner spaces by the clutter
of undigested information and unsorted emotions that pile up
throughout the days and weeks. With our private spaces thus
encroached upon, we risk becoming alienated from ourselves until
our lives are something foreign to us.
than allow ourselves to be shoved into the bathroom -- perhaps
the last sanctuary of personal space and reflection -- we should
instead question the necessity or merit of amusing and multi-tasking
ourselves to death. Against the odds, of what at times appears
to be a conspiracy of noise, we must try to assert our birthright
to retreat, reflect and regenerate.
tends to produce an understanding of our own limitations, and
forces us to seek our own council in dealing with them. And,
in turn, the insights and greater self-awareness attained in
solitude eventually need to be tested in the company of others.
sums this up succinctly: “it is easy in the world to live
after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude after our
own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps
with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
silence, like any controlled substance, must be handled with
care. Initiates, or masters of silence -- such as solitaries,
thinkers, monks, hermits, and ascetics -- have long known how
to mine it for fortitude and insight, or to arrive at ecstasis
(to be or stand outside oneself). But it is up to each individual
to determine how much is desirable or useful; as too much of
this good thing might be counterproductive for some, even dangerous
-- leading to despair, madness or even suicide.
as the monastery and institutionalized silence are not for everyone,
so too extended travels to the foreign land of silence are not
for tourists. Snake-handlers of the spirit -- those versed in
playing with dangerous things -- may engage deeply with the
death-in-living that is desert dwelling, the soul-trials of
solitude, or even their own shifting images in the mirror. Others,
less practiced, might not endure such extreme experiences (of
the Limit), and might emerge damaged. Which is to say, striking
out fearlessly into treacherous, interior territories is not
for dilettantes; and deep and prolonged silence might prove
the undoing of those who flirt with it, ill-equipped.
intercourse seduces one into self-contemplation,” muses
writer Franz Kafka. The aim, then, is to try to find that healthy
balance -- between silent fasts and noise feasts -- on the slippery
road to moderation.
courtesy of © Chris Honeysett =