Not that long ago, in the middle of a quiet moment, I caught myself wondering about the notion of silence. When you ponder such a thing, one of the first thoughts is that it is more than just a “notion”; it is itself a physical reality that can be represented and expressed in so many forms. You also quickly realise that there are possibly even degrees of silence that should each be acknowledged. Go even further with this thinking, and you can easily be in awe of how many different responses silence can evoke in your average human being. From the wonderment that a person can feel, to stark beauty, to fear & terror; silence is indeed something to behold.
I was watching a film the other night called “gravity”. Set in the vacuum of space, the opening byline of the film tells us that “At 372 miles above the Earth, there is nothing to carry sound. No air pressure, no oxygen; life in space is impossible”. What follows is catastrophic damage accompanied by a menacing silence. This took me deeper into my pondering about the very nature of silence, and what it can do to help or harm the human spirit.
Silence that provokes awe and wonder:
Thinking back through the events that make up my life, I can recognise moments where silence played a huge part in awakening or adding a sense of profound wonder to a moment. Possibly one of the more significant moments was the first time that my wife and I drove from the east coast to the west coast of Australia. This is the trip where you get to cross the famous Nullarbor Plain.
We were travelling with two friends; taking our time, camping our way across. Seeing sights we’d heard about but not yet seen. The day arrived where we would be on the actual Nullarbor. The Nullarbor plain is quite expansive, but when you cross it by road, you only traverse around 28 kilometres of the actual treeless plain. As the day & the miles wore on, we knew that we were getting close. Vegetation was getting more & more scarce. “Was this it?” We wondered at each new slowly changing vista. The car was buzzing with anticipation. Just when our guessing was becoming tedious, we passed the sign that stated “you are now entering the eastern end of the treeless section of the Nullarbor plain”.
The stark beauty that was before us, demanded our silent obedience. No words; just take it in. There was nothing and there was everything. Even though there was noise, (the car engine, the noise that the tyres make on the road, the wind rushing past) there was also a unique kind of silence. It pushed its way passed your outer senses and quieted your spirit. You engaged what was before you, on a level that bypassed your intellect.
I have crossed the Nullarbor many times since that day; it still has a profound effect on me; it still demands silence.
Another moment of silence that provoked awe and wonder, was at a football match. It was Anzac Day, I don’t remember what year. I was at the ground that used be known as Waverley park. There were some 50,000+ people in attendance. The pre-game buzz increased in fervour as the start of the game drew closer. I was there with my oldest son. Anzac Day is the commemorative day when we remember all who fought in the name of their country to defend the oppressed It is anchored on the 25th April, the day that Australian troops landed at Gallipoli. I wasn’t aware of any pending commemoration at the game and so what happened took me by surprise. It started when all the players and officials formally lined up on the ground. A master of ceremonies then spoke explaining what was about to happen. A trumpet blew the last post, then it happened. 50,000+ people stood in deafening silence for 1 minute. It could have been 10 minutes; it seemed like forever. It was wonderful, it was glorious, it was awe inspiring. For that one minute, the expectation of the impending contest gave way to all of us focused on what it meant to lay down your life. I would like to think that each and every one of us gave thanks for the sacrifice of these brave souls.
One early moment of profound silence, occurred when I was 16. I was a participant in a leadership training course. This was an intense 5 day experience where we examined many aspects of leadership under the banner of Christian spirituality. At the mid point of the week, the director, my dearly loved mentor in Fr Pat Jackson, called a break and we all went down to a nearby river for a bbq lunch and some down time. The group was buzzing; laughter and games prevailed. Not me though. I felt drawn to move off to a spot by the river on my own. As I sat there there, I remember that the sound of the rushing water provided a mesmerising backdrop to my contemplation. I thought about the life changing challenge of the week; about the beautiful people I had met; about my faith and how it had grown so much in one week. Before I knew it, nearly two hours had passed by and it was time to head back. In those two short/long hours though, something had happened. I didn’t know it then, but I can now say that my life was never the same after that. For the first time in my life, something in my spirit had been awakened. Something had transcended my intellect, and it felt amazing. It was like being able to see for the first time & I wanted more of it, I wanted to pursue it like someone pursues a treasure. I still walk past that place by the river and smile in the knowledge of what happened there. It is my own little “sacred place”.
To this day, I still see & use silence as a tool to foster mental health or promote creativity. To be silent and contemplate the world around me is a gift that I treasure whenever I have the opportunity to access it. When the confusion of life around me is crowding in I will often find somewhere just to sit and be still, and think. Indeed, I have had some of my most creative moments doing just that. I used to regularly go into the city and take a vow of silence for 1-2 hours. I would sit for a time, and move around for a time, always just observing, writing notes in my songwriting journal, often simply writing down what I was seeing and hearing. It is a powerful juxtaposition of dynamics i.e. sitting and becoming silent in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a major city.
If this appeals to you, then can I encourage to maybe become a practitioner yourself? Find ways and means to eek out silent moments, just a little at a time.
This is part one of a series of thoughts on silence. I hope you get something out of it. Part two will be looking at some darker aspects of silence