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Issue 228
January/February 2005
Gaia and Global Change

Feature Articles

JOY OF SILENCE
by
Tirtha painting by Sohan Qadri, courtesy: www.sundaramtagore.com

Tirtha painting by Sohan Qadri, courtesy: www.sundaramtagore.com

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JOY OF SILENCE

Silence has the ability to centre us and connect us with the essential harmony of the universe.

I WAS ONCE taught to snorkel by a famous television zoologist. He told me I would see little of the ocean's abundant wildlife if all I did was flap about in the water as others do. The trick is to linger long and be still, to hang there motionless for thirty minutes or more. Then an amazing array of creatures will begin to emerge.

It is a theory I have never tested under water, but I did try it out on dry land one night with spectacular results. Not only did I see a surprising amount of wildlife, it reconnected me with an element much maligned by modern life, an element I have come to believe could make a dramatic difference to the way we operate in the world if acquired widely.

I came across it on a lonely country lane close to midnight. I was walking under a starlit sky with moonlight bathing a patchwork of fields in shades of black and white. I watched a warm breeze frisk a vast carpet of ripening wheat. It sent waves rippling across the surface to eddy around a line of ink-black oaks. As they did so, for some reason I recalled that snorkelling lesson from long ago. So I stood there motionless, listening intently and thinking of nothing, just letting the stillness of the night well around me.

After about ten minutes my blunt intrusion began to melt into the surroundings. After another ten minutes, sure enough, things began to move. First, a scampering of tiny feet cut a dash in front of me. Then more came, smaller and faster this time, desperately ducking and diving through the tall green stalks, almost shouting "Wait for me!" A hedgehog snuffled by. I caught the light-footed shadow of a young fox picking its way across a meadow towards a copse where, on the verge of the darkness, the flick of a tail betrayed the long legs of a deer. Before my eyes the quiet night became a teeming world, and I immersed myself in the subtle cacophony it made. It was then that I heard something I was not expecting, something which blew my mind.

It was precipitated by the ghostly white shadow of a barn owl which swept across the field making no sound at all. Immediately it silenced everything. I, too, held my breath as the hairs on the back of my neck bristled. I stood wide-eyed, on total alert, aware of everything. I felt completely plugged into the universe, but it still came as a shock when I suddenly sensed another layer. It was as if this entire orchestra of activity around me, the scrabbling of creatures, the creak and bend of branches and the swish and sway of the corn, had all lifted as one and separated from the sound that lay beneath, what I can only describe as a bedrock of absolute silence. Not a deadness, not an absence of sound, but a solid silence projecting a benign presence that inundated my senses completely. It rang in my ears. It still does now in my memory. But it was gone as quickly as it came, extinguished by the sudden fizz of my thoughts.

IT WAS A rare moment of spiritual connection by meditation under another name, and it took me back to my early primary school days when I would do anything to escape the bedlam of the classroom to find that same depth of silence. My best ruse was to offer to fetch more pens and paper when stocks got low, which meant a visit to the stationery store. This was a large room, high up in the roof and far away from the noisy classrooms. With the door closed it was absolutely silent, and I would sit there for as long as I dared, just letting that same overwhelming sense of peace flood into me. I had yet to learn of the word 'meditation', but I had certainly discovered its benefits. I was calmer when I plunged back into the frazzle of the classroom, much more aware of the interconnectivity of all that happened around me. I could listen more keenly, and amid the grab and thrust I felt more inclined to give than to take. Possessions mattered less, the joy of living more.

In primary schools today there is next to no time even for teaching, let alone for silence. But what difference would it make if there was? What if we taught our children to hear that deep silence once a day, to build it into their approach to daily living, rather than just arming them with the thin skills to chase profits and afford a mortgage? What if they developed a hunger for it, a love?

It was the great Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi who observed, "The greatest love is silent. It cannot be expressed in words." Our world today suffers a dreadful disconnection from what Rumi knew as the keystone of wisdom. What is more, in Britain we are embarking on the next phase of an uncertain scientific voyage. Human cloning has been given the go-ahead. How timely then to be reminded of the warning of another Sufi master, El Tughrai, a contemporary of Omar Khayyám, who wrote nearly 900 years ago, "O Man that art so full of information penetrating into secrets, listen. For in silence is safety from slips." We have not outgrown our need for silence. Indeed, we need it more than ever.

Egomania is fast becoming the norm as Western materialism becomes global. Televisions, the internet, mobile phones, even boxes of breakfast cereal scream their seductive desires at our impressionable minds, messages that fracture and distort our collective perception of life, throwing us dangerously out of balance. They convince us that consumerism is right, that convenience is 'a right', that materialism is all. Yet the argument is flimsy. It is unsustainable and kept alive only by the loud and prolific repetition of its central slogan, "Use it up and wear it all out." So silence is its biggest threat. In silence we pause and reflect or go deeper, to what Tennyson described as "the dissolving of the limits of selfhood until the infinite alone seems real". We see the wider picture and hasten over dangerous ground slowly. But the authorities fear the pace slowing down. The people may notice gaps and flaws, so silence must be suppressed if it gets too close.

THE STATE OF Alabama is a case in point. In the 1980s it passed a law that allowed a 'minute-moment' of silence for meditation in schools. But no sooner had the ink dried on the bill than a parent challenged it. He argued it was unconstitutional and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which eventually quashed the law, concluding "it had no secular purpose". It could not allow a moment of silence in schools because it "risked bringing prayer into public places". So silence was banned in Alabama.

It is surprising that the US federal authorities found silence to have 'no secular purpose'. Countless studies in education have shown that children who practise simple meditative techniques display improvements in their behaviour and performance. It has recently been tested in the treatment of the most common condition diagnosed in children today, that wholly modern phenomenon, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Abnormalities in the way the executive decision-making centre of the brain operates are thought to be caused by chemicals in processed foods. They over-excite the brain's impulse control in the prefrontal cortex, and children become emotionally unstable and obstinate. They exhibit explosive behaviour and are incapable of concentrating.

Organisations like the Brain Research Institute have found that teaching children to sit quietly concentrating simply on their breathing calms their behaviour. After daily doses of silence, disruptive children begin to be less quarrelsome, their memory improves, and they can concentrate for longer on much more complex tasks. Proof indeed of the ancient Buddhist principle that breathing is the bridge between body and mind.

It would be interesting to learn of the experiences of others who have used silence in their work, perhaps in prisons, on outward bound courses, in offices and in hospitals. If it is an element that proves universally beneficial why not campaign to bring it more into mainstream use? The BBC could be encouraged to substitute its 'Pause For Thought' with an occasional 'Pause For No Thought'. Silence costs no Earthly resources and destroys no natural environment.

WE COULD ALL do with a pause. Our world is saturated by unnecessary noise. On a recent trip around Britain I was constantly reminded of lines by Wendell Berry, "Best of any song is bird song in the quiet, but first you must have the quiet." I searched in vain. Everywhere I went, pubs, restaurants, hotel lobbies, even a dentist's waiting room, all were filled with either pounding music or the inane drivel of a TV chat show. And out on the streets the same fashion prevailed nationwide. Every evening in every town I saw the same thing. If you are young and own a baseball cap, clearly the thing to do is to race up and down the High Street in your souped-up coupé, with music hammering from open windows and silencer riddled with holes so the engine makes maximum noise. It is also, I noted, becoming common now for rubbish trucks to empty bins, and for roadworks to be conducted at night 'to avoid disruption' - for whom, I wonder? Glass collections that shatter the silence with a sound like a bomb going off are also much easier to make if they can happen before dawn, when wailing police sirens are still deemed necessary to clear the empty streets. And don't get me started on mobile phones!

I climbed Mount Snowdon on a crisp and uniquely still winter's day. When I reached the summit, alone, the view at 3,000 feet was spectacular. But the silence and a wonderful experience of wilderness were soon shattered by - you've guessed it - a septuagenarian, who didn't even wait to get his breath back before whipping out his little phone to bawl his banal news in an endless stream of calls to friends, never once mentioning where he was or what he could see!

I read recently there are now 1.5 billion mobile phones in use around the world, and that just one leading manufacturer is set to add another 210 million to that total by the end of this year. We are becoming dangerously dependent upon useless information, and feed a growing habit for voyeurism with a mountain of contraptions. Twenty million new TV sets are sold in the US alone every year, and that is small fry compared with the 130 million personal computers that annually roll off the production line.

The wisdom of hastening slowly is an ancient one, but it stands little chance against our hyperactive rush for the razzle-dazzle our technology offers. The secular obsession with spiritual asset-stripping of the last fifty years has dashed away what we most need to keep it all in perspective, rendering what was once a sturdy, ocean-going vessel into a flat-bottomed boat capable only of skimming the surface.

If we are to equip the next generation with the means of steering the disturbed waters of the certain mess we are creating for them we could do no better than fashion them a deep keel and a strong, sturdy rudder. Silence can do this. It has the ability to centre us. It connects us with the essential harmony of the universe in which we live and for which we are born yearning.

Perhaps it seems laughable to suggest that the many ills we visit upon the Earth could find a cure in the simple attendance of silence, but small acorns grow into big oaks, if we bother to plant them and allow them light and nourishment. If we hope to travel carefully we need to stop, just a little every day, to take stock of the map. As my snorkelling teacher taught me, making waves never stills the pool. But only in a still pool do we see a true reflection.

Ian Skelly works for BBC Radio 3.

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