Yesterday was a rather unpleasant day for me. Whenever I am in a bad mood / I become restless I pick up this book by Anne D LeClaire, titled, “ Listening below the noise”. For some reason this book has been my best companion over the past few years. I reread parts of this book from time to time. This time around, I thought I should blog about this and write a few words about the book.
The author starts off by saying, “Like too many of us, I mistook a busy life to a rich one”, and cites her mid-life emptiness as one of the reasons for exploring “silence”. While strolling on the Cape Cod Beach on a warm afternoon in January 1992, she suddenly realizes that “silence” is the missing element in her life and decides to consciously inculcate it in her daily life. She then begins, as a whim, a unique ritual, i.e, maintaining a day of complete silence every other Monday.
On the first day of silence, she realizes that her energy levels and productivity levels are far better than a normal day. She begins to wonder whether turning away from outside world is the first step to nourishing the inner world that is so very vibrant in every one of us. The first thing she realizes that silence and mindfulness reduces the habit of multi-tasking things in life. When we are doing something, i.e mindfully doing something, we cannot multi-task. Silence makes one realize that single-tasking is the way to do any work and is a far better and a peaceful alternative to multi-tasking. Is silence necessary for creativity? The author’s first brush with silence makes her feel that silence/solitude is probably a necessary condition to do creative work. In Silence, Our minds are more tuned to the creative energy that lies within us.
Staying in complete silence is not an easy practice, as everyone would agree. The author reflects on one such day when she has an immense urge towards breaking her “silence” tradition. She reveals one of her tricks, i.e, strike a bargain with oneself that it would be only a couple of hours of silence instead of maintaining one full day of silence. This little trick sometimes becomes useful in centering her. However these bargains are only helpful for a temporary period of time. The quieter we become, the more we hear. What we hear might be unpleasant at times and hence there is a tendency to fill up the silence with noise, i.e songs/TV/Soap-opera/movies/empty chatter. On some level, we are afraid of what we will hear.
When we are in silence, there is one thing we definitely become aware, at least most of us I guess. There is a muddy messy space our inner garbage heap where we toss scraps too painful to consider or confront, the loss, pain, grief and disappointment that are all too real. When we weed out extraneous stimulation and let go of the reins of control, these things claim our attention. And it is silence that allows us the space and stillness in which to think about our motives, to examine our behavior, to see where we’ve fallen short. It is only when we drag our smallest, shabbiest parts into the light that we can move toward becoming whole. We are massively afraid of dealing with this compost. So, in that sense this is the reason we fill our lives with distractions so that we don’t get to meet this compost. However the wise thing to do is to actually confront this compost, to turn it over. For within the same mounds lies the fertile matter out of which new life arises and is nourished.
It is also sometimes necessary to create boundaries in life for silence to walk in to our lives. May be cutting down on TV/ avoiding the idle chatter with someone, consciously weeding out distractions, etc are bare minimum steps that one must take for the silence to make presence in our lives. There is no guarantee that these restrictions on external stimulation would help one to remain silent as there is sometimes that internal chatter that drives away the silence ruthlessly.
Silence is Janus-faced. Like the Roman god Janus, silence holds two faces. To be silenced is not at all the same as choosing not to speak.A chasm lies between the two, as wide as that between fasting for a purpose and starvation. To be silenced is crippling, belittling, constricting, disempowering. Chosen stillness can be healing, expansive, instructive.
Let’s say you decide to have one day of complete silence. What if others in your family pick up a fight for some trivial reason ? The fact that you have chosen not to respond might fill you up with more resentment as you cannot vent out feelings. So , is the silence painful in such situations ? Well, not necessarily says the author narrating one such incident when silence helped in not messing up a situation and thus was invaluable in providing time and space to defuse a situation.
Silence enhances listening ability, i.e, listening to things that are left unsaid. Bird-watchers, Naturalists typically develop a keen sense of listening. One colleague of mine is so excited whenever he sees tigers/butterflies/birds etc. whenever he goes for a Jungle safari. To observe/spot/infer the kind of bird/butterfly, it demands a sense of stillness from a person. Unless you are fully present in the NOW and develop a keen ear, going on a Jungle safari is practically useless. Ability to remain Silent is a great skillset to have in such activities. Similarly even in our daily lives unless we are silent we cannot truly listen to others. We are merely talking and waiting to talk. We engage in chatter, not conversation, and our chatter reveals our egos’ needs: Love me, admire me, envy me, fear me, help me, see me. There is little space for truly hearing others. Silence in that sense enables true conversations to take place.
Silence is the first essential for most of the creative endeavors. Even a creative act like choreography might need the choreographer to visualize the steps in silence and then make his/her troupe follow those steps. Personally I find silence very stimulating , be it for programming something, be it for writing a blog post , be it for practicing music. The attention we can give to work, complete and undistracted concentration does enable us to bring the best with in all of us. Like the solitary spider who busily weaves her web in perfect silence, we need to be alone and quiet for our subconscious to spin its creations. Stillness focuses the brain. And like the tensile strength of the spider’s strands, it buttresses and strengthens creativity. Another beneficial aspect of silence is it produces marked improvement in physical and psychological health. At what age, do we develop a low tolerance for quiet time? When do we begin to call it boredom? When do we begin the excessive yearning for entertainment and diversions? The prospect of loneliness can make us fear solitude and silence. The paradox is that those are the very measures that can heal us. The author concludes this section by pondering over her experiences of remaining silent for an entire week.
After 9 years of practicing this ritual, the author develops sudden resistance to this ritual. She has this intense urge to put an end to this ritual but finally bargains another 2 months with herself. During these two months, she reflects on the benefits of silence through the years . She also remembers her yoga teacher’s words:
Sometimes we go through a time that looks like a setback but in reality that time is a place of preparation. A resting space. A gathering of energy. Like an archer pulling back the bowstring so the arrow can shoot forward.
She also realizes another benefit that silence bestows on people who practice it, i.e, the inner strength that it provides.Trees growing in a forest are fundamentally weaker and less able to weather wind and storms than ones that stand alone, because the solitary trees, without the shelter provided by the others, develop stronger, deeper roots. After two months of the bargain period, the author realizes that silent-day experiences have helped her develop a spiritual way of living and is no longer a mere ritual. So ,she decides to continue the practice(till date).
In the final section of the book, the author provides a few ways to incorporate silence in to our daily lives.
I have read this book at least half a dozen times till now and every time it has made me appreciative of the importance of silence and solitude in one’s life. Sometimes when I am restless, I just pick up this book and read a random paragraph. The writing is so beautiful that it brings my restless mind to calmness and allows me to focus on my work.