Into Silence…. Or Not….

silence-2It was 1966 and I was 24 years old when the small daily newspaper I was working for sent me to cover the “second coming” of the Beatles to the Seattle Center Coliseum.

I have a vague memory of the press conference that preceded the concert and an even vaguer memory of the concert itself—but I remember very distinctly, with my entire body, the moment after I had walked away from the Coliseum and realized that it was now quiet—and that I was absolutely exhausted.

I have been anti-loud-noise ever since.

I have read that listening to rock music helps teenage boys focus on their homework, but I think most science aligns with my experience: The numbers all show that loud noise of any sort, whether organized as music or not, causes not only hearing loss but also stress and, over time, the physiological damage that other forms of stress produce.

I have been thinking about noise because lately I have found myself increasingly drawn to its opposite, quiet, probably because of my qigong practice.

I know that external absence of noise is not necessary to attain inner absence of noise, or inner stillness. I have heard western Buddhist teachers talk about going off to Asia to train in monasteries there and being dismayed to find that the monasteries were not the serene enclaves they’d envisioned but noisy, bustling, mini-cities, and that they had to learn to shut all that noise out.

Some were probably better at this than others—and if the others couldn’t do it, it probably wasn’t because they didn’t try hard enough.

In an article on about.com, Adrienne Dellwo writes about how she and others with fibromyalgia do not seem to have a normal inhibitory response to repeated sensations, where the brain tunes out such things as the tightness of a waistband or the dinging of the beeper on the fryer in a fast food restaurant. Most people aren’t bothered by fryer beepers; people with fibromyalgia become agitated and may even experience pain.

I don’t have fibromyalgia, but I do think I am more sensitive to sound than most people are: I never turn on the radio or TV when I’m at home, and I’ve stuffed Kleenex into my ears on more than one occasion when other folks seemed to feel the loud music was fine. And I do believe it is easier to experience inner stillness in a quiet space than in a shopping mall.

However, I don’t know if I would like total silence.

Actually, I don’t think it’s possible to attain total silence, at least not if you can hear anything at all, as can most of those who qualify as deaf. I live on a very quiet street, without much traffic, but houses make noises, birds and airplanes make noise—and actually I think my ears and my brain make noise. For a time I was getting up early, while it was still dark out, to practice qigong. It seemed that even when there was no other distinct sound, there was a background noise in my head that sounded like the hum of electricity in wires.

But if I did find a very quiet spot on the earth where the wind didn’t blow and birds didn’t sing and airplanes did not fly over, and if I managed to ignore the electricity in my head and considered myself to be in total silence, it’s quite possible that I would feel just as much stress as I would at a rock concert, albeit stress of a different sort.

Years ago, when my children were young, we rode an elevator down into an old silver mine in the mountains east of San Diego. The leader of our little tour group told us that if we were really quiet, we’d hear the beating of our own hearts.

I really wanted to hear my heart beat, but my daughter started coughing, and soon after the tour guide took us back up to the top.

I was disappointed and annoyed that she’d coughed. But I’ve come to think that perhaps she was just a bit smarter than her parents and found being deep in the earth with a rickety old elevator as her sole lifeline to the surface just a bit unsettling, and coughing was her response to her distress.

Indeed, this morning I found mention on Wikipedia of work by Joseph Jordania, an “Australian-Georgian ethnomusicologist and evolutionary musicologist,” who points out that humans and members of certain other social species communicate danger by freezing and becoming silent. He suggests that this deeply ingrained survival programming may be why people often respond to prolonged silence by humming, whistling, talking to themselves—or turning on the radio, TV or one of the many other devices that can dispense sound these days.

Indeed, I’d probably do it myself. Inner stillness be damned…..

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