Silence can be heard in two ways.
The first way is to hear it as an absence of sound. This seems so obvious to us that it is practically the default position in our complex visual culture.
However, as someone who relies a lot on my perceptions of sound, echo and silence, I find this view a little reductionist, a little too negative. I don’t experience silence as simply an absence of sound or a vacuum to be filled.
I hear silence as a thing which fills other things, like the water fills a glass.
It is the active presence of silence that makes the audible world meaningful. Silence is more eloquent than a clash of cymbals, a pounding bass line, or even the complexity of a forty-part vocal motet.
Somebody said (was it Einstein?) that, if God spoke, she would speak in the language of Mathematics. Not so! God would speak in the language of Silence, just as she has been doing since time began.
To summarize the hymn, God speaks through the earthquake, wind and fire in a still, small voice of calm.
I don’t literally mean “God”, of course, though you can visualize it that way, if you want. I mean the ineffable nugget of reality that manifests itself in everything, what Buddhists call “Such-ness”.
I find this suchness in silence, but, by silence, I don’t mean quiet-ness.
True, it’s easier to find in quietness, but that’s just the wayh our brains are wired, always looking for the distraction, always listening for the noise.
Maybe this goes right back, to when our ancestor listened for the tell-tale sound that would turn him from hunter to hunted. But, in reality, he would have listened to the quality of the silence, for there is a different silence surrounding a hill to that which surrounds a stalking leopard or a hungry sabre-toothed tiger. And if he couldn’t tell the difference, he would soon end up not needing to be able to tell the difference between anything at all!
Silence fills everything. By the river, I listen to the silence that ripples along behind and between the noise of the water, to the silence that encloses the robin’s winter song, which is the silence that stitches the sky together above my head.
I am trying to avoid getting my pretentious head stuck up my mystical fundament here. Put simply, I’m noticing the difference between walking in a silent world, which feels unreal, or threatening, to hearing the slow drone of a light aircraft overhead, which is a sound that implies and defines the background silence. We are much more aware of the summer silence when we hear that long sound, or when we hear the lightweight sound of flies in a shaft of sunlight.
This is how I meditate on my walks. Partly, it provides me with interest. Partly, it helps me to avoid walking slap into trees.
I listen to the silence that lies inside all things. I strain to hear the silence, just as sighted people strain to see a far-off, tiny thing.
N.B. More on silence later, when I’ve thought about it more. To help me, please comment or share, if you can.