This article appears in the April issue of Saskatoon Well Being Magazine. Pick up a copy yourself, or read it here.
Is it me or is it really loud in here? I mean, I don’t know where you are as you read this, but chances are, something is making noise. You’ve got your iPod going, or the TV’s on, or your significant other is trying to explain to you that putting a fresh roll of toilet paper on top of the toilet tank is not the same as actually changing the roll and you’re like, “I’m trying to read this thing here.” Wherever you are, click off your devices (unless you’re reading this online, then by God, please continue), shut out whatever noise you can and sit with me a while, won’t you?
When you’re a child, silence is a kind of punishment. Teachers demand a silent classroom, parents “don’t want to hear another word” around the dinner table and after a certain point in the day, kids are permitted an activity “only if it’s quiet.” It seems like we rebel against this restriction when we grow up by filling our adulthood with as much noise as possible. We get in a good conversation while watching bad TV. We listen to the radio in the car while we drive to the concert. We play our Sounds of the Ocean CD to help us fall asleep (which works for me up until track five when the oil tanker rolls into the Pacific).
I work in a retail store that plays upbeat, if a little repetitive, house music that surely subliminally encourages people to buy things (“Untz. Untz. Untz. You need another sweater. Untz. Untz. Untz.”) Our speaker system recently broke down, meaning that dead time in the store was eerily quiet. Funnily enough, my fellow employees and I complain about the banal music pumping through our store all the time, but we were far more upset in its absence. I wondered why having no background noise was so significant to me and just what our environment of constant noise is keeping us from hearing.
Dream: Experience true silence.
When I went in search of silence, it was impossible to find. I turned off the TV, shut down my computer, unplugged the stereo and hid the cell phone. Then I started hearing the hum of the refrigerator, the traffic outside and my next-door neighbours arguing with each other. I live in an apartment, so noise is virtually inescapable. I wear earplugs to bed every night, but they only succeed in muffling sounds like the downstairs neighbours’ dogs barking, the elevators wheezing and clanking and the helicopters. I live in a high rise near a hospital and sometimes hear and see a helicopter landing on the roof. It’s hard to be mad about that because it means that most likely, someone from a nearby rural community is so badly ill or injured that their only option is to be airlifted to hospital. I can’t really watch them be loaded off on a gurney and think, “Aw geez, I’m trying to read my Garfields in peace, here!”
Plan: Find my version of silence.
Unless you live out on a farm somehow (and have only mute livestock/chickens), chances are that achieving true silence, without any aural interruption, is impossible. You can approximate it with earplugs and white noise and attempting to deafen yourself, but why waste the time? I think the secret of experiencing quiet comes in finding your version of peace.
For me, one of the occasions when I experience silence is when I swim. No matter how busy the pool is, no matter how short my sojourn in the shallow end, there are always a few blessed moments when I plunge deep into the water and my awareness seems to heighten and disappear, all at once. I feel my body anew, as it moves through space, achieving a kind of watery weightlessness as my arms and legs propel me forward. As long as I know I have a clear path to the other end of the pool, what I hear and even what I see barely registers. Coming up for an extended period after swimming a few lengths is always a bit of a shock to the system. I suddenly hear how much splashing goes on and how the lifeguard’s nasal voice just carries across the pool. I see how pale and vulnerable and lumpy most of our bodies are. The fact that we’re so self-conscious about these sacks of bony flesh that move us through life is a bit ridiculous when you consider how most of us look in bathing suits. But anyway, it may not be technically a calm oasis of quiet contemplation, but give me a public pool and my blue trunks and I’ll give you some quiet time.
I also think one can experience a kind of silence in the loudest of places. When the sound around you reaches a kind of indistinguishable cacophony, there’s a moment when you realize that you’re completely, comfortably in your own head. Don’t believe me? Go for a walk, alone, on a busy Saturday through downtown Saskatoon. Maybe bands are playing down by the river. Maybe Second Avenue has one of their sidewalk sales going on. Maybe that transit hub where all the buses gather is blasting classical music to discourage loitering. In any case, there is sound all around you, but it is not directed at you specifically. I love that state because I find it absorbs me into my own thoughts. “What shall I have for dinner?” I wonder, or, “Would it be cooler to be able to fly or be invisible?” (I’m inclined to pick invisibility because wouldn’t it be so interesting to sneak into your friends’ homes and see how they live when they’re by themselves? I’m convinced more people just eat Pop Tarts in the tub for dinner than will admit it to me).
The last and best kind of silence I can think of is the shared kind. That scenario where you lapse into a prolonged silence when you’re with someone you love, be it a friend or a mate. Instead of being weird or tense, this silence is one of deep contentment and connection. Where you realize that sometimes all it takes to enjoy someone’s company is to simply be with them. The next time that happens, try not to hear the noise. It’s so tempting to fill those voids with chatter, with nervous laughter, with activity. But if you can live in that companionable silence, strain to listen to your heart. Moments like these are special and they needn’t be scored with any soundtrack. Sometimes our silence can speak volumes.