Tell me about silence.
Silence is what happens when you express your love for yourself. I am happiest when it is silent. That’s when I can breathe, when I can think, when I can be happy alone.
I live in an apartment. While that’s a fairly common thing to do, it’s not by choice — it’s not that I don’t want to live in an apartment but that I don’t want to live in this apartment. It’s incredibly badly built with thin walls, drafty windows and no noise isolation. So I’m always cold and it’s never quiet. It’s a painful way to live. As some of you may be aware, I spent a relatively long time without a home, living in my car — for many reasons, most of which were because I had become too ill to work but couldn’t get government assistance to have a place to live that I wouldn’t have to share with others, which is an impossibility for someone like me, who truly cannot spend large amounts of time with anyone else due to my mental state. It was in many ways a far better situation than what I am currently experience and in other ways, it was a complete disaster.
Firstly, it’s not really feasible to cook and eat when living in a car. Beyond that, not being able to stretch out to sleep often results in long-term pain. But this is where it was a huge improvement — silence. A car isn’t a perfectly sound-isolated box, as you have certainly experienced with the road noise when driving on the highway. But it’s intended to be one, within the limits of material and weight constraints. While you’ll certainly have a lot of humming and the like when you’re doing a hundred kilometers per hour with gas burning constantly in front of you, that same noise isolation works far better when you’re not moving. It might feel like you can hear far too much outside when you’re in your car but you quickly realize just how much was being blocked out the moment you open your door and step into the world.
It’s certainly not a perfect solution and you have to actually go and park in a place that’s relatively quiet to start with but the peace that comes from sitting in the car, half an hour outside the city where the noises are few and far between already. It’s a perfect place to meditate — also a great place to work.
I have tried to solve the silence problem in various ways but none of them have been effective in the least. White noise blocks out the outside noise but I have to make it so loud that after a few hours my ears are ringing from the volume. Noise-cancelling headphones block out most of it but they’re either so painful to wear, if they’re in-ear headphones, because of the pressure they create by sealing to the sides of your ear canals, or they are heavy enough to give me a headache and sore neck, if they are the over-ear variety. The obvious solution, of course, would be to get my neighbors to shut up and stop playing loud video games and movies but if you know anything about western society, you’ll be well aware that people will very quickly become angry if you try to get them to be quiet at any point, even at nine at night when I’m lying in bed wondering why I can’t sleep as sounds of gunshots and explosives echo through the wall from the latest FPS on the other side.
They say silence is golden but it’s not that simple. Silence gives us something that we need that’s beyond relaxation. I can write in silence or think in silence. So can we all, unless we can’t do those things at all, which I am rather afraid in the age of Trump, we’re giving up on — not that we don’t have the ability but that the desire is seen as so shameful that we decide to forget how. Silence gives us the opportunity to speak and that, while not strictly silence at all, is absolutely necessary to learn. If I didn’t have the absence of noise into which to ask a question, how could I ever expect to receive an answer? If the person I ask doesn’t have the silence into which to speak in return, what use was my question?
There is an ancient Buddhist tale that is quite likely artificial but beautiful nonetheless about the Buddha standing in front of his followers and they ask him a series of questions, one at a time. His response to each of them is, loosely translated, “that’s an excellent question — what are your thoughts?”. What the story is getting at is that, given the silence, the opening to think for ourselves, we already know what’s right.
There’s a similar story in the Tanakh where Elijah has two identical conversations with God. In the first conversation, God asks Elijah something that loosely becomes “what do you want me to do about it?” and gets a reply like “just fix it, you’re all-powerful”. So God sends fire and earthquakes, wind and rain and stones crack and the world shakes and then it’s over and life hasn’t changed in the slightest. So the conversation is repeated verbatim. There are many lessons that can be taken from this but I think the most important is the same as what we’ve already discovered. The answers to our questions come out of the silence of thinking — the opportunity to think gives us two things, the first being that we can find the question, the second that we can hear the answer, whether that answer comes from within ourselves or from the friend we’ve asked to teach us.
Silence is the foundation for learning. If the thoughts running through our minds are full of expectation and certainty, there is no space, no silence into which a new thought can be brought to life. If we’re not prepared to listen to another point of view, there is no possibility for learning, for change. Things can’t get better.
Life is pretty bad. It’s mostly about pain and misery. That’s not to say that there’s no happiness, no enjoyment. But all things end, whether they’re good or bad. Most of the time, when a bad thing ends, we just ignore it and find something new to complain about. When a good thing ends, we blame everything from ourselves to others to supernatural forces — how could my child die? It must have been the devil. It wasn’t the devil. It was disease or a drunk driver. It’s no less painful, no less sad, but we as humans are focused on the negative impacts of things in our lives. That doesn’t mean we should ignore them or that we should only focus on the positive. That’s also no way to live. If we don’t focus on the negative, we can never fix it. But we have to be aware that we are biased in that direction and understand that it’s not unfair that bad things happen, not some punishment for our thoughts or desires. It’s what happens, good and bad.
What’s the point? Things can always get worse and they can always get better. They will do both. If you want to make positive change, you have to be open to listen to the silence into which new ideas and new thoughts can flow. You have to have silence within yourself to think, to understand, to change your beliefs and learn new things. You have to have silence in the world to get to the point where there are new ideas and concepts and cultures and histories and futures that you haven’t already thought of. That’s not to say that you should invite criticism or that all ideas are created equal. Most aren’t. I don’t have any desire to listen to the great masses tell me things. But I am also not stupid enough to think that I already have the answers to all my questions. I ask many questions and get many answers.
Whether the answer is right or not, that’s beside the point. You have to have the silence within yourself to figure out what it is that needs to change and what you need to learn, to know, to understand to get there. Without help, we will just enter downward spirals and eventually die without ever getting better. With help, especially help that we are prepared to ask for from those we care about and who care about us, we can change our lives — and some of that change will indeed be positive.
I try to do myself the favor, give myself the gift of spending at least an hour or two a day in complete silence. I would, given the opportunity, spend far more time that way but I try to go and sit in a place where there will be no real noise, no unexpected sounds, and let myself drink in the silence that renews my thoughts and shows me the places where the silence should be filled with questions, answers, doubts and change. You may not need as much silence in your life as I do. But we all need some and most of us go from sound to sound, fearing silence as we fear the Spanish Flu and whichever new virus is floating around because of generic human stupidity.
Do yourself a favor and shut up from time to time — turn off the music and the television, go somewhere free from noise and interruption and learn to live with yourself, seeing inside your mind and exploring your own thoughts. You don’t have to spend all day doing it but it will give you a perspective on the world that you never had before. Every day, my viewpoint changes. Every moment of silence is a beautiful gift that can’t be taken away once it’s over. Out of that silence, happiness can flow. Perhaps it’s time to give it a chance?