Only in Silence

Only in silence the word
Only in dark the light
Bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky
Ursula Le Guin

As a musician, people often ask me what music I like to listen to. I have a huge collection of CD’s, cassette tapes, and LP’s. I never play them in the house, nor do I keep the TV or radio on during the day. I sometimes listen to NPR in the car, but I prefer silence. Only on long trips do I play CD’s or plug in my daughter’s iPod; even then I mandate 10 minutes of silence every hour or so. I think that since I spend a good deal of time listening intimately to the slightest variations in intonation or expression, I need a respite from sound.

I patronize businesses based on their ambient music. A local grocery store plays classical music which doesn’t interfere with my thought processes. Shopping for clothes is always stressful for me; when the music is too loud I can’t concentrate on my needs or stay in stores long enough to try on anything. I am an avid online shopper instead–but I quickly close websites which blast music at me.

At events where conversation is the most important activity, background music can be especially distracting. As more people talk louder to be heard above the background music, the noise escalates, and I find myself wishing for a reset button. A rare brunch with my whole family at a restaurant last weekend was disappointing; I could only hear the people right next to me and spent too much time asking people farther away to clue me in on their conversations. I remember a high school reunion where 80% of the people ended up outside to escape the band; we were there to catch up on friendships.

We can’t retreat completely into a silent world, because pure silence does not exist. Even on the rare occasions when I have descended into caves insulated from the sounds of the outer world, I can hear water dripping or my own breathing. At my mountain cabin, I hear the natural sounds of wind through the trees and the cascade in the creek, the squirrels and chipmunks running across the roof, the pops and crackles of the fire, and the rain on the metal roof. And even there, civilization intrudes in the form of chain saws, traffic on the gravel road, airplanes, and even the occasional jackhammer.

Two mindfulness meditation techniques help me soothe my tired eardrums. One is to notice the sounds and dismiss them, as one brushes away flies. The mind develops the habit of concentration and learns to maintain it even in the face of larger distractions in daily life. The other technique is to notice the sounds and collect them with gratitude. (I was indeed grateful for the jackhammer, since it meant a new floor in the bathhouse.)

For all of the pain in the world, and all of the joy:
A moment of silence.

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