The Sound of Silence

Silence, true silence, is not something that we often hear.

On the few occasions in which I have been confronted by it, it felt like exactly that: a confrontation. In my experience, pure silence does not manifest itself in human awareness as the mere absence of something, but as an oppressive presence unto itself, a presence which is almost impossible to ignore.

Those who have never experienced it will probably have no idea what I’m talking about. In fact, what we generally refer to as “silence,” is anything but. As I sit typing now, there is no one talking loudly or blasting music. I would, in fact, refer to the room as silent. But this label does not hold up even under minor scrutiny.

I can hear the quiet hum of my laptop’s fan. I can hear my wife’s breath as she sleeps next to me. Out the window I can hear a faint breeze and the distant background static of city traffic. None of these sounds strike me as noise, in the typical sense of the word, but they are hardly silent.

The last time I found myself in total silence (or at least a close approximation) was during a routine hearing test administered by my former employer. The test, which consisted of identifying beeps of varying volume and frequency, was administered in a soundproof booth. The second I stepped into it and closed the door behind me, I was struck by the ominous weight of the silence, a heavy blanket of nothingness which made what generally passed for silence in my everyday life seem like a cacophony by comparison. It was, in fact, with considerable relief that I welcomed the the muted tones of the actual test.

Aside from the odd and unnatural sensation of having no auditory input — which somehow felt more like deafness than silence — the experience also brought on a vivid memory.

It was in the locker room of the YMCA after some sort of pre-school pool activity. Me and the other children were in the process of drying off or, more accurately, being dried off by whoever was responsible for us. I recall standing under a hand dryer while someone far older and more responsible than me ruffled my hair in the warm air. Suddenly there was a moment where, amidst the din of the room (cackling children, authoritative adults, wet feet on tile, blow dryers, running water, etc.), I became aware of the same strange sensation that I would later feel in the soundproof booth. I could hear a pure and absolute silence that was unmistakably present behind all the noises of the foreground. To describe it now, I would try to be poetic, perhaps calling it the silent canvas on which the sounds of the room were painted, but — at the time — I remember feeling simply as if the strange silence was issuing from somewhere very specific, like any other noise in the room. I pictured some remote corner, perhaps underneath a bench somewhere or inside a locker, where everything was still, so still in fact that it emitted silence as a horn emits music. To put it simply, this auditory void, this complete absence of sound, was in the foreground, somehow capturing my attention more than any of the actual noises.

I remember being extremely confused by this experience. Even at that young age, it seemed paradoxical to me that silence and sound could co-exist. Surely, I thought, in the presence of noise, silence simply ceases to be.

Spurred on by this memory, I began trying to recreate this experience as an adult. I had little success, finding that I could only approximate the experience in moments of near silence, never in the presence of loud distractions. In light of this failure, I quickly gave up.

Recently, however, my growing familiarity with Taoist texts and the work of Eckhardt Tolle, my appetite for silence is rearing its head again.

Our translation of Chapter 11 of Tao Te Ching offers the same sentiment, with a focus on emptiness rather than silence:

The potter knows she plays with clay but works with space,
for the use of the bowl is its empty space.
It is the same with the room: made whole by the emptiness between the walls.
Remember: Something is not everything. Nothing is also essential.

On our page labelled, “What is Nothing Just Is“, we offer three interpretations of the meaning behind our site’s name. One of them in particular is applicable to the problem of silence:

Nothing just is is an acknowledgment that nothing, emptiness, absence, is a simple fact, an assertion which stands in stark defiance to the first definition. More than the mere acknowledgment of emptiness, however, this statement is in fact what allows the universe as we know to exist. There is no light without darkness, no full without empty, no sound without silence, no thing without nothing. The room is created not by the walls, but by the space between them. So while it is easy to forget amidst all the noisy chaos of somethings, we live in constant contact with nothing. Nothing just is. It is the primary mover.

In his books and lectures, Eckhardt Tolle has expressed similar ideas, urging us to focus on stillness and silence (the silence behind and between the words). To him, the ability to hold such a silence in your awareness while surrounded by the noises of life is a sign of true presence.

I cannot speak to the accuracy of his assertions, but I can say that my ability to hear the sound of silence has been increasing consistently with practice. A successful attempt always leaves me with a pleasant feeling of being once again aware of something that was obvious to me as a child. It is a good feeling.

One Response to “The Sound of Silence”
  1. Johnny Pinball says:

    Excellent post! I’m inspired to “hear” silence. You’ve also rekindled my interest in sensory deprivation tanks.

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