The Sovereignty of Silence
Anthony Seldon discovers a quest for the meaning of silence. The Power of Silence: The Riches That Lie Within by Graham Turner. Bloomsbury, 2012. ISBN: 9781441182234
A book about silence? You must be joking. Why a book? Surely it would have been better to have had a tome of 254 pages, all entirely empty, the literary equivalent of composer John Cage’s silent composition 4'33'' or dramatist Samuel Beckett’s play Breath, consisting entirely of silence. Because words can drown out silence.
I love the old Jewish joke about a group of rabbis who heard that other religious groups were going away on ‘retreats’, which were all the rage. The rabbis met together one Sunday morning and decided they too had to have a retreat. “But what should our focus be?” asked one rabbi. “Silence,” said another. “Great,” said the first rabbi. “Let’s spend the time talking about silence.” For those like me who have spent eight and more hours on Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) drowning in a barrage of words, silence is indeed a welcome idea. As the outgoing Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, acknowledges in these pages, “We’re not very much into silence in Judaism.”
The words in this book, nevertheless, are put to very good use. They soothe and persuade us into taking silence more seriously. The power comes from the book being written by a coolly detached intellectual rather than a fully paid-up member of one or another sect. In a territory that is full of dodgy characters and cults, Turner provides a piercing and no-nonsense intellect. His book is a quest for the inner meaning of silence, prompted initially by an experience he had when on national service in Singapore.
Turner wanted to find whether others too had experiences of “interior locutions”, or direct instructions from God. He sets out on a journey that takes him across the world, encountering some of the wisest and most thoughtful people alive today. He travels to India, where he meets the story-telling holy man Morari Bapu, and an 80-year-old nun called Usha who tells him: “Not speaking conquers the senses, but not thinking conquers the mind.” When the mind is empty and we have no desires, something fresh arises in the air and we merge with God.
Turner explores the world of music, where Stephen Varcoe of the Royal College of Music tells him that silence “is extremely important to music. It is not only a lack of sound. It is the canvas on which the whole thing is painted.” He learns how Mozart used silence to heighten drama and create expectations, and Beethoven used it to hold tension, whilst Chinese and Japanese music has even longer and more meaningful silences.
In his chapter on drama, Turner notes how modern British playwrights, including Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and David Storey (most noticeably in his play Home), use silence to great effect. Shakespeare too was a master of silence, as in the pauses in Hamlet’s soliloquy “To be or not to be”, or the ominous silence that follows Lear’s retort to Cordelia: “Nothing can come of nothing.” Turner probes the utilisation of silence by analysts and therapists to heal troubled minds, the unity with Nature that can be found in silence in the mountains, and the use made of ‘collective silence’ by Quakers.
The author is gently teasing of those he considers lacking in gravitas, but is laudably free of malice. He is unstinting, however, in his praise for those he considers his heroes, none more so than Father Damien, who until recently was abbot of Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery in Kentucky, USA, where the mystic Thomas Merton spent so much of his time. Father Damien told Turner about his own spiritual evolution: “It was as if God had been waiting for all the busyness to be over, so that he could really talk to me.”
In the same chapter on Gethsemani, the author quotes psychiatrist Carl Jung arguing that humans need noise because it stops the inner voice of the conscience from being heard. People, Jung wrote, become habituated to noise as they do to excessive alcohol: “Just as you pay for this with cirrhosis of the liver, so in the end you pay for nervous stress with a premature depletion of your vital substance.” The most moving chapter in the book describes the impact of silence in war-torn Lebanon, where it has encouraged Islamic and Christian fighters to want to build bridges and peace together.
Silence, a Zen master explains, exists on five levels. The first is the absence of words and talk. Then comes inner silence and the stilling of the endless internal monologue inside our heads, then a total absence of self, then a discovery of the “state of pure energy”, and finally the realisation of oneness with the entire universe. This book is light on such analysis, and it might have been helpful to have broken up the essentially descriptive text with more such analytical passages.
It is easy and perhaps trite to pick out omissions in the text. But, that said, I would have liked more on mindfulness and the work of medical advocates of meditation such as Jon Kabat-Zinn in the USA. Nothing, however, can detract from the fundamental value of this book. Nowhere in it is the case for silence made more clearly than by another of the author’s heroes, Trappist monk Thomas Keating, who is mystified by the widespread hankering after noise across modern society. “Our nature is absolute silence,” he says. “Everything comes from silence, including God. Silence was not something you had to go and get. It was something you were.”