On New Year’s Day, my partner and I decided to go for a walk at a park near my house. The day was a cool one but much warmer than many other winters we’ve had recently. The park is a local city park with many trails that weave in and out, meeting at different junctures. We took the perimeter route around the park, which leads you on a gravel path through groves of trees. Water ran in small rivulets throughout the walk, with the overhead greying winter trees spiking upwards toward the sky, some barren and others evergreen.
We talked and laughed and played games along the way. But we also walked in silence, only hearing the crunch of the ground under our feet and the distant call of winter birds (mostly the crows stick around).
The silence, even in nature is striking. Devoid of man’s artificial sounds, your senses are only filled with the quiet that weaves itself through the trees.
I’ve been thinking a lot about silence lately. Coming off of a busy holiday season, which was filled with sounds of joy and laughter from family and friends, silence has become a bit of a stranger.
I recently discovered a podcast on BBC Radio 3 called “Slow Radio.” The 15-minute excerpts are meant to take you away from your normal existence and put you in places where slow and silence and solitude are the order of the day. You can walk along the British countryside, wander through winter forests and listen to sounds of bygone eras.
My favourite one is a five-part series in which Benedictine monks talk about life in the monastery. They talk about the importance of silence in their practice. There is one part of the episode where the monk describing silence references St. Benedict’s idea of the “silence for a purpose.” This is the type of silence that is necessary for us to create, pray, remember, read or even just think. It is my favourite passage because of the sheer delight that this order takes in reveling in the silence that brings them close to their creator.
We have become afraid of silence. In his book, “Solitude” Michael Harris describes in detail the fear of silence and solitude that is now the course of everyone’s lives. Technology, though sometimes the catch-all culprit, has a job that specifically promises connection and distraction. In this way, we are never alone. We are never silent. And even if we are, we aren’t for very long. It’s too uncomfortable. We fidget and fret when left alone with ourselves. The inevitable buzz of the phone will call us urgently back.
Yet we crave the silence that we are unwilling to observe. From slow food movements to yoga to silent retreats, we want it so badly, we create entire movements in its honour, only then to fear our own creation. A multi-million dollar industry will have you sitting on the floor trying to silence the clanging of your dear brain, followed by a vegan lunch.
Part of the problem, I think, is that we see silence as a removal, a negative space that is lacking. If we are not doing or talking, we are simply giving into the vacuum that threatens to consume us. In a noisy world, silence has become an enemy because it offers us nothing. And we will choose anything but that.
But silence is a necessary friend. It is the wellspring of the creation of the world. Everything in fact, comes from nothing.
Musicians will know that the balance of silence and sound are both equally important in the creation of music. As a performer myself, there is a moment, mostly right after a piece ends, when the conductor’s arms are still up and the sound is reverberating in the space as it comes to an end. That short silence is filled with everything that came before it - breath, meaning, harmony - before it’s released into the world. It’s my favourite part of the piece, almost always.
We are trying to make meaning of our worlds. But we layer sounds and narratives on each other, hoping that the more there is to sift through, the more we’ll have to figure out what that meaning really is. But like many of the most prolific creators in the world, silence is a necessary ingredient to creating meaning. Thoreau, Dickens, Rowling all revere the silence of being with your thoughts and I’m happy to take their word (hah!) for it.
It’s still early in the new year and we aren’t completely encompassed by the hum-drum buzz of our everyday lives. As Maria Popova said on her ultra-popular, super nerdy blog “build pockets of stillness into your life.” I plan on enjoying moments of stillness in my day - whether it’s my early morning coffee or writing or reading or simply stepping into an empty yoga studio on the weekends. You don’t have to believe in a higher power or even live in solitude to benefit from silence. You simply have to take a minute every day to step into silence, let it envelope you like fragrance, and breathe it in.
A few things to help you meditate on the meaning of silence:
The Origin and Cultural Evolution of Silence on brainpickings
Slow Radio on BBC 3
Paul Goodman on the Nine Kinds of Silence on brainpickings
Solitude: A singular life in a crowded world by Michael Harris
This is your brain on silence on Nautilus