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(Photo by Andrew Draper)

Silence please: on a quest for quietness

Essay | 20 minute read
Silence & Sound series: mystics have always looked to silence for spiritual enlightenment, but what do we seek from it today? A reflection on what lies beneath sound and how the modern-day epiphany might be achieved

I am standing in a room that is sealed up to sound. It is girded with foam and fortified with steel and iron springs to resist the vibrations of the outside world: the rumbling of the underground network, the whirring of central heating systems, all of London’s unceasing thrum.

The room, an ‘anechoic’ chamber, is a stone’s throw from the thunder of Elephant and Castle roundabout, and its silence is measured in decibels. It comes in at minus two decibels, which sounds like a freezing over of sound. This is where Royal Opera House singers have come to hear their notes with crystal clarity. Where art students have lain in darkness to study the sound of a mushroom being peeled. Where sound cannot be smothered, only unspooled, so that if a group of people spoke all at once, every overlapping sentence would be unravelled and heard as a separate thread.

If I stand still enough, maybe I’ll hear the molecules in the air stirring. Or more likely, I’ll bang on the sealed door and demand to be let out after fifteen minutes, which is the time it takes for a human body to start reacting – and I’m told, panicking – to pure silence. I might hallucinate or feel the walls closing in as others have done. Or worse, hear the pulsations and blood flow of my body that are said to make themselves heard in this unnatural quiet. I might begin to tune in to more unnerving inner machinery; the sound of bones and brain. I have read the risk assessment forms and steeled myself to the prospect of all these outcomes.

This is not the silence we refer to when we talk about being either bored in it or finding headspace through it. This is fearsome and fraught and it swarms the room. It seems opposite to the beatific spiritual silence written about by mystics, and beneficial silence described in well-being books that connects us to ourselves, the kind we find on retreats and meditation courses that bears the promise of serenity and self-knowledge.

It also proves that there is no uniformity in silence. The longer it is considered, the more multiple it seems. When we begin to theorise, we can quickly fall into the quicksand of its paradoxes. ‘We romanticise silence on the one hand and on the other feel that it is terrifying, dangerous to our mental health, a threat to our liberties and something to be avoided at all costs,’ says Sarah Maitland, in A Book of Silence. So which is it to be? Is silence where we find spiritual enlightenment or is it an encounter with the void, and loneliness, and intimations of death? It is apparently both the making of us and the unravelling – the nothingness that King Lear raves about on the desolate heath, and also the repository for a universal wisdom.

Originally, silence was where mystics went to commune with God. That was the reason that the monastic order of the Desert Fathers pitched homes in the sand dunes of the Scetes desert in the third century; why Buddha walked for forty years in the mountains and Christ for forty days in the wilderness. Seven centuries after him, Muhammad’s revelation came in the cave of Hira, where the archangel Jibreel commanded him – a shepherd and an illiterate – to ‘read’ and he could, the silence of his cave furnishing him with instant literacy.

Today, the secular ambition is to find peace in silence without the interventions of God. But the more sound we make in the West, the more we speak of silence as elsewhere, apart from modernity, as free as it is sacred in the middle of the Nevada desert or the Buddhist monasteries of Nepal and Dharamsala. And just as a quest to these places has traditionally held the promise of spiritual enlightenment, so the well-being industry’s silence suggests that we will find – stripped back and cleansed – our hitherto hidden and truer selves beneath the everyday noise.

The appetite for mindfulness and meditation keeps growing, the busier and noisier we get. For the more committed there is Vipassana, a silent practice with its roots in Buddhism, often referred to as ‘emotional cleansing’ in secular circles. It is a ten-day retreat which is monastic in spirit: men and women tend to be segregated, they rise at dawn, meditate for most of the day and there is strictly no speaking, books, music or eye contact allowed. Many who have done it speak of being broken down emotionally and then transformed.

Rachel O’Neill, 34, who works in finance, went on a Vipassana retreat six years ago. ‘I live in London, which feels really hectic. I had been in a very tumultuous relationship with my boyfriend at the time so I was looking to find some “me” time. I thought about how I had got my entire life ahead of me and that I’d never sit quietly for ten days in it.’ She was visiting a friend in Kathmandu and found the nearest course in Calcutta. ‘We meditated for ten hours a day. For the rest of the time we ate and slept and washed our clothes. There were signs everywhere which said, “Please respect the noble silence.”’

And Rachel tried to until a wall of boredom descended. On the second night, she had a tentative exchange with her roommate which opened the floodgates. ‘For every single night after that, we had a great chat about our respective lives. She was an English teacher from Calcutta. The talking was lovely. I needed to talk about things like my boyfriend. She told me about her husband and past relationships. I processed so much from chatting to her, and it helped me to the point of realising that this boyfriend wasn’t good for me.’

The talking clarified her view on ‘finding oneself in silence’ too. ‘I thought that I would discover something extraordinary about myself or wipe out the noise and find the hidden me. But what I found was that I was just fine with the noise and that I was happier with my life than I had given it credit for.’

In Silence in the Age of Noise, Erling Kagge writes of silence as a means to ‘uncovering answers to the intriguing puzzle that is yourself, and for helping to gain new perspectives on whatever is hiding beyond the horizon’. But what if we look and listen and find nothing hidden at all? Does it mean we have failed at self-discovery or that, in fact, the hidden self is a fallacy? Even if it is not, is silence necessarily the prerequisite condition that takes us closer towards it? Psychoanalysis also speaks of the hidden self as the ‘unconscious mind’ and suggests that we live our conscious lives on a sliding scale of awareness, denial and delusion. The endeavour is the same, to access the hidden/unconscious self. Could it be the case that silence or talking are two possible routes to the same destination?

Vipassana has shown many how powerful silence can be, although the desire to be quiet together is another paradox with its own internal tension. I bump into a novelist, who talks about how she finds silence in the city in Quaker gatherings at a Meeting House in north London. ‘You should try it out if you are thinking about silence,’ she says.

There are around fifty people sitting in a circular formation when I get there, mostly middle-aged, one woman reading a book, another man smiling and smacking his lips as if he is tasting a pleasant thought. There is a heightened state of listening in the room, it seems, and I become alert to my own rustlings as well as that of others. A woman bursts out of the silence to stand up and speak. Her voice is like a sermon and she tells us of the 65 million displaced people in the world, the sorrow of homelessness and of finding strength in stillness.

It is a relief when she sits back down again, for all the well-meaning in her message. The silence returns to feeling charged even if it, ironically, affirms the sense that we are all engaging in something counter-intuitive. There is a happiness at the end of the hour, a kind of relief. Some have taken sneaky looks at their watches in the silence. The room exhales, strangers make eye contact. There is a desire to talk, recharged.

The tension between talking and remaining quiet together is not unique to Quaker meetings. O’Neill noticed, in Vipassana, that even as her group remained outwardly silent, other non-verbal communication began to happen: ‘There was growing contact in other ways in our group.’

Yet silence is not always a psychic balm. And it is not intrinsically ‘good’ either. It can be a powerful weapon in a marriage. There is both protest in it and moral badness, like the silence over child abuse within some parts of the church. There is the possibility of discovering abominable self-knowledge too. What if we find not God but the devil in silence, or our lowest, most fractured selves? Where do we go from there? For every Jonathan Franzen whose imagination is liberated by silence, there might be a Jack Torrance (from Stephen King’s The Shining) who experiences writer’s block, mental breakdown and murderous boredom. There is an equal possibility for a negative epiphany, alongside the flip conversation with God. After all, it carries in its stillness a morbid resemblance to death, the ultimate unwelcome silence for us all.

I used to live on a street in London that was full of noise. The pair in the first-floor flat of the house were party animals, but when a young man moved in above them, he persisted in asking the couple to turn the music down, and they eventually did as he asked. He also convinced the house next door not to talk in the garden after dark. He was a force for good until he began to hear more noise in the quiet he’d created. I lived above him and he told me, politely, that he could hear me brushing my teeth when I came home at night. He was an artist and he invited me into his flat. It had a wide ocean vastness to it, like a Rothko painting. His pursuit for a corner of serenity in the middle of a city held a perfectionism that was doomed to fail. Every quietening revealed more layers of sound, more noise, more mental torment.

Bruno Healy is a sixty-five-year-old hermit who spent thirty years as a Catholic priest. He left his diocese in London eleven years ago to lead a hermitic life in the Llyn peninsula, a sparsely populated part of north-west Wales. Paradoxically, he loves the company of people. I meet him on a writing course in Ty Newydd, and both my co-tutor and I notice his loquaciousness. He’s a student on the course. When a writing exercise is set, he often sets down his pen and begins to talk.

I talk to him, some weeks later, about the hermitic life. He reflects on the gulf between the romance of the silent life and its reality. ‘It can be tough. You have to work at it,’ he says. ‘I have a routine. I’m up by 5.45 a.m. and in bed by 9 p.m. The day is punctuated by sessions of prayer, looking after the house, the garden. Basically I’m alone. The silence and solitude are ample in this part of Wales apart from when it’s windy and then I think, “Gosh, how noisy it is.” I can hear when a mouse is in the house. I had been on silent retreats but a retreat is not what this is; it’s a way of life for weeks and months and years. Silence is a very different kettle of fish; it’s a way of life, not a break.’

Healy became a hermit on a second attempt. The first was when he was twenty, ‘but quickly I realised my emotional rucksack was empty and there was no way I could do it. I had learned about myself and that can often be the most terrifying experience. What you often want, you are learning, are things that you can’t change.’

Then, at the age of fifty-four, he tried again. His father had just died and his mother before that. He was, he felt, free to live as he pleased, and the desire to put solitude at the centre of his life rose again, but not without fear. ‘I thought, “This is it.” I sensed the silence visually. I thought, “Let’s just cope with the first twenty-four hours.” Then I completed the week. After that I thought that I still had a lot to learn so I said to myself, “Let’s try another week.” Then there was a month, and another month. In a sense, there was a fear of the unknown about the way of life in silence. You are totally left with your own resources. Occasionally I catch a glimpse [of another life] when I hear of a magnificent production at the National Theatre and I wish I could go. But the sad downside, once you remove yourself from other people, is that human contact becomes difficult. To sit in a theatre full of people would not be comfortable for me because I am just used to there being nobody.’

(Kristina Flour/Unsplash)

In Silence: A User’s Guide, Maggie Ross argues that the wordless wisdom of silence is ‘not a separate compartment of life called “spirituality”: it is living the ordinary through trans-figured perception.’ But just because it is as accessible for an atheist as a Christian hermit does not mean it is easily earned. The habit of silence needs to be worked on but not in the concerted modern-day attempt to find therapeutic ‘me’ time in a class or a workshop, Ross suggests, but in what she calls the ‘paradox of intention’: ‘If we can go beyond our manipulative thinking to focus on non focusing, we open ourselves up to insight and change; we access a vast, spacious, generous, silent, thinking mind that seems to have knowledge we never self-consciously learned; that makes unexpected connections; that has its own ethics; and that not only gives us insights but can tell us when an insight is correct.’

Maitland gives a more scientific explanation, based in neurology, when she says that silence is not without meaning but just without language: ‘Silence apparently happens in a different part of the human brain from speaking or hearing or even thinking in a rational and orderly manner; a part of the brain separate from where language happens.’

This idea can be traced back to Aristotle and Plato – the sense that knowledge of eternity and truth lie beyond words is clear in Plato’s arrheton (the unspeakable) and Aristotle’s aneu logou (without speech). ‘Where vocabulary ends, the two philosophers claimed, is an opening for the possibility of understanding great truths at once,’ Kagge explains. Healy hints at a wordless wonder within it too, whether we choose to call this spiritual or not: ‘It just opens everything up. It’s like going and standing on a plane or a savannah, with sky just everywhere you can imagine it, a hundred miles in this direction, and a hundred miles in that.’

The more Healy talks about silence, the more it seems as if his life as a hermit has emptied out all extraneous sound in order to make non-verbal communication possible. Healy’s silence has sound but at a different pitch to the material world. ‘[In silence] I’m talking to God, talking to God and listening. It’s a fragile kind of listening because it’s not in stereo. It comes and goes and it’s elusive. Human companionship is there in God; or even a greater companionship. I’m searching for God – God’s voice, God’s face that will be fully revealed in heaven. Sometimes the encounter is more intense, sometimes it is not intense at all.’

Healy’s relationship to silence, then, is rapt, and a stand-in for All Meaning – the place through which God wanders and might be heard, from a distance. For Muslim pilgrims making the journey to Mecca, this significant absence is made manifest by the Kaaba, an enclosed black cube inside the Grand Mosque that is considered to be the house of God, and yet it contains nothing inside it. Outside the Kaaba, there is movement, fervour, rivers of circumambulating pilgrims. Inside there has been emptiness ever since the seventh century, when the pagan idols that filled it were removed. Ziauddin Sardar reflects on this empty space in his book, Mecca: The Sacred City, describing how he is invited by the Saudi religious authorities to go inside the Kaaba, a rare and special privilege, which he refuses. ‘It is a symbol, a sign of direction for Muslims to turn towards and inculcate a sense of unity amongst themselves… Within the Kaaba, there is no sense of direction, and hence no purpose. That is why it is empty. To be inside the Kaaba is to lose all sense of direction and purpose.’

The paradox of the Kaaba – the locus of all meaning for Muslims containing an absence inside it – could be comparable to the silence that Ross and Healy describe, and maybe it is this duality that gives it its capacity for spiritual epiphany and its opposite sense of nothingness.

The study of silence is simultaneously a study of sound, and the cultural split between the two seems like a false dichotomy. Just as silence is so often deified, sound is demonised. Silence is the endangered species that must be saved from the 24/7 cacophony of our modern age. Sound, when we cannot control it, is called by its more diminishing name: noise. We speak of the latter in relation to the baser aspects of ourselves and our cities, whirring in perpetual motion and distraction. We are living louder than our forefathers so we are becoming ever more base, presumably, like the Morlocks in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

It can even harm us: the 150-decibel sounds emitted from a rocket launch, up close, can rupture blood vessels and cause our eardrum to burst. Sound is often conflated with modernity too – an iCulture of distraction and overwork – while silence seems never to age. The assumption is that if we peel away the grub of modern-day existence, a fortifying silence will be found beneath that will work its timeless healing on us. Yet, isn’t sound just as healing, joyous and spiritual? Through music, chanting, physical vibration. The thumping beat in nightclubs – Western pop music sounds at 120 beats per minute – vibrates into our bodies, which release endorphins as a result. So even pop music brings a euphoria that might be considered transformative.

Silence and sound, in reality, have a symbiotic relationship and each carries elements of the other. In 1947–48, the experimental composer and Zen Buddhist John Cage conceived 4’33’’, comprised of three movements, each filled not with orchestral sounds (the musicians do not play their instruments) but the backdrop ‘quiet’ that usually accompanies live music. What emerges in the four minutes and thirty-three seconds it takes for the whole composition to be played are audience sounds. When it was first performed in 1952, it became the subject of heated debate on the radical direction that Cage was taking in music. We could interpret silence in the same composition to be just as radical in how it exposes it to have an imperfect, in-between and adulterated quality. Silence, in 4’33’’, is another kind of sound.

There are filmed performances of it in which the ping of a string instrument can be heard, and then a cough, a sneeze, a giggle. These are the elements that Cage wanted us to hear as both silence and sound, and the composition has a strangely emotional quality to it: ‘The sound experience that I prefer above all others is the experience of silence and the silence everywhere in the world now is traffic,’ he said in an interview in 1991, a year before his death. The point is that silence is not the opposite of sound or noise.

Could this recalibration help us find an everyday silence, in a city, a noisy home, rather than seeking it in its apparently unadulterated, ‘pure’ state, in faraway places? I went on a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy course at the North London Buddhist Centre some years ago, and the class was led through a guided sound mediation on an exceptionally noisy afternoon. The room backed onto the thunderous traffic of Holloway Road and the large sash windows were open. The tutor, Lokadhi Lloyd, invited us to regard the sounds outside, and in, as if they were disconnected from the things they represented – a car horn, for example, heard not as a car horn with all the associations of bad temper it carries, but simply for the texture and pitch of its sound. Almost instantly, car horns became ambient and interesting. So did the voices of builders putting up a scaffold and the breathing of the man next to me. These sounds had been interruption before. Now, they became not the opposite of silence but accompaniments, somehow. The silence was there, in the in-between. For Lloyd, the way we receive sound is as interesting a study as how we react to silence: ‘I find the way in which the mind relates to sound – and silence – such a powerful template from which to observe the activity of the mind, and how strong is its tendency to create meaning (from which judgements can so automatically arise).’

Perhaps silence is only ever just quieter noise, and the striving for it a case of unpeeling layers of sound that are like an infinite series of Russian dolls. Zero decibels is officially the sound of silence. It is measured in the movement of an eardrum by the width of a hydrogen atom, but perfect silence only comes to us in death, once our body has switched off. Only in the rarest cases of deafness can total silence be experienced but we would need to have no eardrum, no bones in the middle ear, no receptors in the cochlea and no auditory nerves. Even if we go to the quietest place in nature – say, a wintry forest in North Sweden – add a layer of snow which absorbs sound, take away any hint of wind, there will be decibels carried in our bodies, because breathing sounds twenty decibels and heartbeat sounds ten.

Even in the anechoic chamber, I am spoiling the silence by being alive. Richard White, an engineer at London South Bank University says: ‘The paradox for people who are very good at hearing, such as students from the Royal Academy of Music, is that they can never hear silence.’ But more often than not, and this is another paradox, hearing loss can lead to more sound, not silence: ‘We use silence to diagnose hearing damage: when your ear is damaged, you can perceive sound in the brain. The more sounds that come out of the ear, the greater the hearing damage.’

The anechoic chamber at London South Bank University was built in 1964 and is one of eleven in the UK. Dr Dance, the university’s head of acoustics, says that even within the world’s anechoic chambers, all built to the same specifications, there are degrees of silence. The one at Salford is quieter at minus twelve decibels because it is further away from transport systems than the South Bank’s.

The chamber is studded with foam cones around the walls and has a mesh floor. It has been insulated to such a degree that when Dr Dance bursts a balloon inside it, its sound falls flat. I have taken in my notebook, a banana and house keys. A video recorder is stationed inside, a chair opposite it along with foam blocks if I want to sleep. I lie down. It feels as if I have taken a sedative. I fall asleep and then get up, feeling energised. It takes the brain half an hour to fully adjust to this silence, I’ve been told, but time passes and nothing happens. My hearing is not sharpened, and when I shake my keys, tap my foot, these sounds are still muffled. I wait to hear my blood roar in my ears. I wonder when the room will turn against me. I stare at the walls and I am almost disappointed when I realise they not closing in on me.

But the chamber works on me in other ways. It calms the hyperactivity for which I have sought so many remedies over the years. I feel like the room is meditating for me. I am doing nothing but I feel no restlessness or boredom. My heart rate has slowed down and my head is exceptionally clear of whatever I have to do next. Here I feel like I am encountering my physical, finite self, over anything infinite or godlike.

The room seems to be pinning me to the present moment, though time feels accelerated. Minutes whistle past so that twenty minutes feel like five. I have agreed for the lights to be turned off at the end, but when the door is opened and the noise and light are let back in, I am sad that it is over so soon, although I have been in there for well over an hour. I could easily spend the day there, I think. White says that people either love it or hate it, that the chamber tends to amplify your state of mind. So if fear lurks there, you see monsters. The wisdom of the room’s silence has taught me that I am not the fearful type.

The sedative effect lingers well after I leave the chamber. I begin to wonder what the long-term effects of such silence might be, but it perplexes me that even when the door was closed and all sound had been pushed out, I thought I could hear a faint hiss, like air travelling through the empty radiator pipes on a quiet evening.

Was this sound actual or imagined? Was the noise, in fact, something inside me, rather than without? Kagge defines inner silence ‘not as a permanent state but as an in-between state. Dip in and out. Silence within, noise within, silence without, noise without.’ It is a state of mind ill-suited to those seeking any permanence or certainty. Silence, inner and outer, seems too poetic for that. Perfect silence can contain sound. Sound can contain silence. It is a conflation of many ideas and mythologies that don’t seem, in the end, to be about silence or sound in themselves but about how we listen, and what we choose to hear.