What constitutes pure silence? If a tree falls in the woods… If we build a sound detector with an auditory acuity far more sensitive than our own, and it tells us there is noise we cannot hear, is our silence broken? How much sound lies beyond the range of our relatively feeble ears?
Once, when camping in the boundary waters I came as close to true silence as I ever have. As I pulled my canoe into a narrow inlet before a portage, I was struck by the quiet. It hit me abruptly and caught me off guard. A moment passed before I could define the experience. There was no movement. I stood still in the void, and it slowly filled. The sounds of my own body grew louder in the contrasting silence: the hollow drone of my own ears, the wispy rasp of my breathing, the wet gurgle of my throat and guts. Nothing had changed, but as my awareness widened I found myself again surrounded by noise. I shouldered my canoe and continued up the hill.
How much of our experience do we filter out and how much is lost to the noise of our lives? The first time I did a body scan meditation was at a weekend long introduction to meditation workshop. I had started meditating some months before that, but had never placed my focus on the minutiae of my physical experience. It quickly became one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’d had. I became aware of more and more sensations, more and more discomforts, until I felt my entire body awash; practically every inch, inside and out, aching, throbbing, or itching in some way. The instructor asked how the scan was for us. I told him it was horrible.
Imagine if we were always aware of those micro-feelings and sounds. We couldn’t function. Perhaps this is why my infant son likes white noise so much. It must be difficult adjusting to the hullabaloo of life.
Does silence exist? Likely only in the vacuum of space as even the colliding of subatomic particles must make some noise. Within our range of hearing is it possible to find silence?
As I reflect on this, I am lying down on the matted floor of the martial arts studio I teach at, my feet propped up on the wall 90 degrees from the rest of me. Aside from the passing whir of the occasional car, (and the disquieting cacophony of my body, of which I am mercifully unaware) it was quiet. I am taking the opportunity, as I stretch out and wait for students, to ponder this topic when YEEAH! I am suddenly torn from my quiet reverie by the arrival of the first two students, a young brother and sister, who proceed to tear about the dojang and emit a high pitched screech combined with the rapid pitter patter of bare feet running on pads.
I chuckle as other students enter and look at me bewildered by the sound these two are managing to produce. It was a study in the sound and the fury. I saw the grimaces on the faces of some of the newly arriving students as the young sister’s yowl pierced the air. It reminded me of that waterfall of discomfort during my first body scan. What is silence then? I wondered.
If we are always surrounded by noise, and we have the capacity to tune it out, perhaps silence is just a frequency of our own awareness. A place we must tune ourselves to. Mindlessness can feel like a kind of silence, but the barrage of the sounds we ignore continues to exert a not so subtle influence on us; like a grating irritation that causes us to snap and lash out without understanding why. True silence requires we come to peace with the fury that engulfs us, that we stand in it embracing and equanimous. After all, even if we were to find shelter in the soundless vacuum of space, the stimuli wouldn’t cease. The sensations of our body and the litany of our thoughts would keep talking to us.
This post is part of my Throwback Thursday series. It originally appeared on 5/7/16 as part of a #MayBookPrompts series of posts inspired by book titles. The prompt was “The Sound and the Fury.”