What is silence?
Many of us seek silence, we desire it, we remember it from childhood and it can feel so far away when we live in cities that never sleep. At any moment, we are surrounded by noise from the alarm clock first thing in the morning to the noisy neighbours last thing at night, our days are accompanied by a soundtrack of our environment, a deconstructed masterpiece of irregular tempo which fluctuates randomly in intensity.
Our sensitivity to noise varies from one person to another, it can be slow torture for some and empowering for others, for most it is oscillation between the two extremes. I love the bustle and hustle of the early morning rush of people getting from one place to another, a joint enterprise of people with purpose. The noise has the pleasing appeal of a passing train with its Doppler effect, which is best enjoyed with a cup of coffee and the background hum of steam powered espresso machines.
Silence can be expensive in the big city, and quite elusive, there are not that many private courtyards, some of us protect ourselves with noise cancelling headphones or at least a choice of our own music, our own sounds to block out the unwanted randomness of a walk down the street. However putting aside the dangers of crossing a road without our full awareness, we also deny our senses the depth of experience of being in our environment. It might not be the open plains and dense woodlands of our tribal gatherer relatives, who were so sensitive to sound because there was so little of it, when we were almost alone with nature, what noise there was had information that was vital to us, sensitivity was a worthwhile survival tool to us when avoiding a sleeping lion could save your life, and it was worth being deafened by the overwhelming nature of a roaring lion as it provoked an immediate physical reaction away from such sources.
That is why we treat noise like a physical object, it is the field of effect, the outer limits of other physical objects projected into our environment. When you hear the sound of someone talking, your eardrums have a real physical connection with that person via the air molecules that surround us. We feel that physical connection, that is why we take it so personally, why sound feels like an intrusion, an unwanted guest, a violation of our personal space and we feel under attack, we want to defend ourselves. Like all matters of personal defence, our initial instinctive reaction might not be the best course, we might want to attack it, be angry with it, anything less than total victory feels like a defeat. As well as fighting, there is also the fleeing option, we retreat back to the safety of our home or fantasise of an escape to a remote cottage in Scotland.
However it is perhaps instructive to learn lessons from the softer martial arts, Tai chi teaches us to allow force to pass by us, we shift our weight from one side of our body to another. We allow the point of contact where the force hits us to become soft, so that we offer no resistance and it carries on past us. We can allow noise to do the same, we can take our attention away from the point of contact and hold onto the solid anchor of our own minds. Our awareness is always available to us, and we can shift its focus onto anything we want, especially our breathing and heartbeat, this is the real world use of meditation, we practice it so we can use it.
A demonstration of the reverse effect, is the amazing feat of the human mind to be able to hear it own label, when someone says your name, even in a crowded room of noisy people, you hear it instantly. Take a moment to consider what that means, when you were struggling to even hear the person next to you speak clearly, your mind on a subconscious level was actually listening to every conversation in the room, and when someone said something of immediate personal relevance, you heard it straight away. It shows your ability to consciously not listen to ten other conversations when you are trying to listen to just one person, your awareness was focused on just one set of noise vibrations out of dozens, and you can make that choice any time you want.
As in truth, we are constantly surrounded by silence, it's just that we are so sensitive to noise, deliberately so as a survival mechanism, that our minds do not hear silence, at best we hear the absence of noise or at least its relative absence. We think the countryside and our coastlines are quiet places, wherein they really just have less noise or less variation in their noises, waves lap against the coast, the wind always moves trees.
However if we could truly hear silence, we would be overwhelmed by it. When orchestra plays, it feels like you are facing down a cavalry charge, it maintains its beauty whilst threatening to descend into chaos at any moment, and yet this is a fraction of the sounds it is possible to hear. For every perfect note, there is an infinite number of imperfect notes, badly timed notes and painful notes. For every instrument, there is a million unsuitable objects that could make noise, there are voices that shouldn't be heard even in a primary school choir. Every piece of music is an infinite number of noises not being made, each one silent, each one contributing by their silence to the beauty of a single piece of music.
Whichever soundscape you find yourself in, remind yourself that it only contains a few actual sound, and the rest is just silence, the absence of sound and that the same is true for any other physical reality. Objects by their nature contain an infinite amount of space, both around them and within them, time contains an infinite amount of timelessness and the self contains an infinite amount of non-self. Reality is finite, only unreality is unlimited.