Sunday, April 7, 2013

55. Silence

     It is all around us, we are immersed in it, and it is deep within us as well.  We come from it, and we will return to it.  It has no beginning or end, was there before the appearance of things.  It is immediate yet distant, being close to us yet stretching infinitely with no boundary, no end.  It is useless, can't be exploited, can't be made to produce anything, can't bring us any tangible profit.  It just is, and we need it, crave it, though some of us are scared, even terrified, of it.

     Silence has always fascinated me.  I have aspired to it for meditation and yoga, have needed it for writing, have treasured it in and for itself.   Not that I'm a silent person; on the contrary, life's vicissitudes -- misplaced files, crumbling plaster, computer glitches, junk mail, telephone solicitations --make me mutter, rant, and rage.  But then I calm myself and retreat -- for a while -- into at least a semblance of silence.  Very well, but then you may well ask, How can you even talk about silence, if you live in a big city in the very midst of the urban cacophony?  It isn't easy.  Every day I'm serenaded by sirens in the street below.  There are three kinds:




Our noisy guardians on the job.

Yes, they're all rushing to save someone's life or property, but in doing so they scrape and punch my ears.  And if I go out on errands in almost any direction, I encounter construction, street repair crews, and Con Edison's merry gangs with their posted motto: "Dig we must for a better New York."  God knows New York can use some improvements, but these improvements are ubiquitous and noisy, and they never seem to end.  Sidewalks are blocked off, huge machines lurch back and forth in the street, and jackhammers serenade passersby with a rattattattattattat that drives many of us to the other side of the street.  As for the subway, I won't even try to describe its screeches.  I have often asked myself, What are the values of a society that has put a man on the moon but never bothered to muffle a jackhammer?

My enemy at work.  Notice the passerby
covering her ears.
     Obviously, it's the urban cacophony that makes me prize silence and yearn for it, though I think our need of it is universal, familiar even to inhabitants of small towns and the country.  Why else do we flock to nature, a great reservoir of silence, whose soft sounds in no way impair silence but only enhance it: cricket chants on summer nights, the flutelike song of a wood thrush hidden in spring woods, even the croaks and twangs of frogs.  (I love those guys, yet hear them more than I see them.)  But best of all, for me, is the almost complete silence of deep woods, where on windless days there isn't even the rustle of leaves.  There is mystery in nature's silence, as for instance the sound of corn growing.  On a muggy summer night when conditions are just right, corn can grow one or several feet.  (I'm a Midwesterner by birth and love those tall, tassel-topped stalks with their long, floppy leaves, and grew up gobbling corn on the cob with butter running down my chin.)  Long ago I heard a recording of growing corn on the radio: faint creaking sounds such as I had never heard before and haven't heard since.  Silence enhances the mystery of growth.

Corn stalks at sunset.  Shh...  Soon you will hear them growing.
Charles Knowles

     As for perfect silence -- not even a bird sound or a rustle of leaves -- I have come close to it perhaps only once.  Taking an early morning bus along the south rim of the Grand Canyon, I got off at Yaki Point, the trailhead of the South Kaibab Trail, and for twenty minutes gazed at the wonders of the canyon while enjoying near total silence in solitude, the only sound being, occasionally, the faint croak of a distant soaring raven, until a car arrived and unloaded its platoon of visitors.  A few days later I took the mule trip down to the Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon, returning the following day to the south rim at exactly the spot where I had had this wonderful and soothing experience, but during the ride I never encountered the magical silence of those precious twenty minutes.

The view from Yaki Point.  What I saw during twenty minutes of almost total silence.

     Must one go all the way to the Grand Canyon to experience true silence?  No, occasionally one can get a hint of it right here in the city.  Years ago a friend and I went to Brooklyn to see a Zen garden temporarily installed near the Botanical Garden.  We were greeted by a Japanese lady in traditional garb, who had us remove our shoes and put on slippers that she provided, after which she waved us into the garden.  It occupied a small space enclosed by a wall, and we were the only visitors.   I knew nothing of Zen gardens and so was surprised to see an expanse of gravel raked carefully into rhythmic lines perhaps suggesting ripples of water, and, jutting up in the midst of it, several rocks resembling islands in a sea.  Raked gravel and rocks, nothing else; not even a trace of greenery, of anything organic.  At first it seemed stark and bare, but then we began to appreciate the quintessential quality of it, the subtle abstraction, the purity.  And the quiet.  Whether this was the message we were meant to get, I don't know; but it was a rare experience of silence -- unique, in fact -- in the very heart of the city.

A Zen garden similar to the one I saw in Brooklyn.  Gravel and rocks, nothing else.
Subtle -- too subtle for Westerners?-- and suggestive.


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A Trappist praying.  No idle chitchat here.
Daniel Tibi

     How can one describe silence?  It's like trying to describe the color white, which really isn't a color at all but rather the absence of color.  So silence is simply the absence of noise.  But if some sounds in nature enhance silence and almost approximate it, can't music do so as well?  Music can be gentle and relaxing, and surely it can help in healing.  With this in mind, after my cancer surgery long ago a friend gave me a CD with soothing music.  That music was too oozy-woozy for my taste, but I don't doubt that music can lessen stress.  But can it approximate silence?  No, I don't think so; even the softest music is, in its discreet way, assertive.  Yet there is one exception: Gregorian chants, where the human voice without musical accompaniment becomes quintessentially spiritual.  And silence, of course, is spiritual, being the home of deep reflection, meditation, and prayer.  The Quakers are famous for using silence as a form of worship; William Penn, who founded the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania, saw speech as folly, and silence as wisdom.  In Trappist monasteries conversation is reduced to an absolute minimum, since speech is of this world, whereas silence conveys the mystery of the next.

     The art that best conveys the essence of silence is sculpture, which is by its very nature static and colorless; movement and color would distract.  Not all sculpture, of course, for some of it conveys movement, passion, excitement -- Bernini's baroque sculpture, for example -- and some of it expresses power and authority, like much of Michelangelo's work.  But the figures of saints and apostles flanking the portals of Gothic cathedrals suggest silence and the spiritual; I have devoted much time to them at Notre Dame in Paris and at my favorite of all cathedrals, Chartres.  These figures all seem to possess a profound inner peace and impart something of that peace to viewers, if they take the time to look.

Chartres: the silence and serenity of faith.

     Chartres and Notre Dame in Paris?  And before that, the Grand Canyon?  Hey, some viewers may remind me, isn't this blog supposed to be about New York?  True enough, though I will always allow myself an occasional digression, an occasional excursion to distant places of interest.  But there is sculpture aplenty in New York, and some of it deeply spiritual, a repository of silence.  Let's return to the Met, paying a dollar or ten dollars or thirty, depending on our mood, our budget, and our chutzpah (see post #52).  In the South Asian hall one can find Hindu statues of exquisite sensuality all but juxtaposed with Buddhas of exquisite spirituality.  To know both extremes of human experience says a lot about the culture and people of India.  But the Buddhas -- like Buddhas anywhere -- convey the world of silence, the deep spirituality that characterizes all the world's great religions.

Hindu sensuality: a dancer.
Even headless, a Buddha
breathes serenity.


     Is silence antisocial?  By its very nature, yes, being the opposite of babble and bustle.  It is hard to avoid the equation civilization = cities = noise.  I have often celebrated the excitement and dynamism of New York, and by extension that of the nation.   We have always believed in Progress, in the virtues of grab, get, and go.  Even the great revival meetings of the past were known less for silence than for soul-wrenching and rather noisy convictions of sin, followed by a great hullabaloo of conversion and joyous celebration.  If some of us at times today feel the yearning for silence, we obviously feel a lack of something in all this blatant to-do, a recognition of a deep spiritual need that can be satisfied in various ways, depending on our beliefs ... or lack of them: by God, Nature, meditation, poesy, music, dance, art, this or that sect, this or that guru, religions old or new.  This country has always been fertile in new religions -- as in new ideas, new lands, new cities, new industries, new gadgets (clothespins, the telephone) -- so our spiritual needs will surely be met, whether by new modalities or old.  And so, wishing everyone just the kind of silence they need, and with all those options in mind, I will end this post with a whisper.

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                                                      Simon Eugster


                             Antonio Melina/Agência Brasil

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                                           Steve Jurvetson

                                                                        Vaishsnava 108

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om  shanti

                   pax vobiscum


                  Allahu  Akbar

   And may the universe smile upon you

      Coming soon:  Monumental New York 2, Steamboat Wars on the Hudson, Farewells, Earth Goddesses: Big Mama, Gardens.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder