NOTE: This is the second draft of the “Silence” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Silence: Outside in
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
About silence I am tempted to say, “I have nothing to say.” And yet I do.
I have always had an ambivalent relationship with silence. Initially, silence was a haven. As a young boy, I retreated into silence to get away from the literal and emotional noise of my family. I spent most of my non-school time either holed up in the basement, performing chemistry and electronic experiments and making model rockets, or up on my top bunk, reading science fiction and comic books.
Beginning with my senior year in high school, radicalized by sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and the War in Vietnam, I tried to break out of silence. This process of engagement with the world led me to New York City, where I became a reporter, a photographer, a teacher, largely to force myself to connect. I remember a Catholic priest with whom I had become friendly observing that I came alive in relationship. Yes, that’s right, I thought. How could I have failed to notice?
Yet even then, I often craved silence, which was in short supply in Manhattan. I relished my time in the darkroom making prints and at my 1909 L.C. Smith typewriter, grinding out newspaper articles, short stories about the street people I encountered, and a book about American folk music. It was a noisy world and I was also noisy inside. I fantasized about the silence of space and wished I could shut my ears as easily as I could my eyes.
I moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn to get away from the screech of the elevated subway, yowling cats, blaring sirens. I lived on the top floor of the house, in an attic room, with a view of the brownstones stretching down the block like twin rows of cardboard boxes. But Brooklyn was no escape from noise. Dogs barked, sirens still blared, garbage trucks growled. Over time, Brooklyn also became more noisy than I could bear, and after a near-mugging incident, I retreated again.
I spent half a year travelling and living in artist colonies in New York State and Virginia, and then moved to the Boston area to attend a graduate program in writing. I first lived in Cambridge, which seemed manageable compared to New York City, but that density of people and noisy things, too, soon became too much. I drifted slowly up the coast, situating myself progressively further from urban centers. I moved to the end of a dead-end street in Medford, where the insistent barking of the neighbor’s dogs turned out to be more than I could handle. I continued on to the Salem Willows, an isolated part of the city that was quiet during the winter months, when I’d arrived, but became a bedlam in the summer, when the 1950s-style amusement park nearby opened for business again.
In 1991, I returned to graduate school and moved, deliberately, to a rural suburb of Albany, NY, still seeking solace in what I hoped, in this truly isolated location, would be true silence. But noise followed me even there, where I found myself living almost adjacent to a shooting range. When target practice was in full swing, it felt like I was in the middle of a war zone.
My relationship with noise took a completely different turn after my near-death experience, which was – and remains – the most still, silent place I have ever been, a place of true emptiness, where I was momentarily stripped even of the noise of a conscious self, and only awareness remained.
Since then, rather than exclusively seeking ways to avoid noise, I’ve also been trying to adapt to it by turning off the noise I generate inside, which is almost always much louder than the physical noise of the world. This, I have come to understand, is the silence I have always sought.
The process of becoming silent inside began in Brooklyn with a strange, burbling undercurrent I heard while I was completing my book on American folk music. The sound penetrated closed windows, snaked past ear plugs, and even the white noise of Reverend Blind Gary Davis singing “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” over and over failed to mask it. My first instinct was to take action by seeking, and hopefully silencing, its creator.
The sound that had been driving me crazy emanated from down the block. Its source was a large, dignified-looking black man, perhaps 50 years old, who stood in front of a brownstone, leaning on a cement birdbath as if it were a lectern, declaiming in a loud voice. He read from an assortment of books and from notes he scattered about his small slate-covered yard. His neighbors and passersby ignored him. I approached him, and for several days engaged him in conversation, hoping that if he became aware that someone actually heard him, he would shut up.
I had to listen with great attention, because his accent was thick and his story not easy to comprehend. Over time, I saw that the books he read from were Bible, that he was quoting passages that described both the Second Coming and the Apocalypse, and that he believed he was Jesus come a second time, letting us know, as a courtesy, that we had sinned against Him too many times, and the End of Days had arrived.
He disappeared a few days later. From neighbors I learned that he had entered his “landlord” phase, during which, as the Creator of everything, he exercised his rights of ownership by going house to house, demanding rent. Each time he entered this phase, he was locked up for a few months. These institutionalizations were, I understood, the sins of Man against God that would bring about the impending Apocalypse.
My silencing strategy was successful, but not in the way I had anticipated. Throughout the week I’d spent talking with him, and even on the days I did not pay him a visit, the sound of his preaching had not bothered me at all. Instead, I had a friendly, curious attitude toward it and when I heard his distant shouting, sometimes I would go out to see him or, more often, simply note he was out and then get back to work. That process of forming a relationship with what I had previously thought of as noise enabled me to become quiet inside. The real noise was my own irritation.
Silences like the ones I sought in my younger days – of the basement workshop, the darkroom, the writing desk – are still important to me, but more essential is entering, when I can, an internal silence. Meditation, with its continual centering/distraction/noticing/centering cycle, has been helpful, but so has reminding myself to adopt a friendly curiosity about my response to noise, both inside and out: Why does that noise, that thought, that memory, that emotion draw my attention? What is it stirring?
Reminding myself that most of the noise I experience is self-created has been a powerful internal silencer. An example: Recently, someone moved into my neighborhood. His car is old and muffler bad, and he usually parks it beneath my bedroom window. At 6:20am he starts the car. I’m a light sleeper, and I wake immediately. For the next ten minutes, he idles his engine, periodically racing it, and then he tears off down the block. 6:20am is much earlier than I need to awaken, and for the first three days I lay in bed fuming helplessly and angrily, trying to figure out how to get that noise to stop. I spent two hours doing that, groggily rising from my bed at 8:30am, consumed by resentment. On the fourth day, I realized that although it was true that my new neighbor and his noisy car were keeping me up from 6:20am to 7:20am, my anger was keeping me up for the next two hours. He was gone. Since then, sometimes I wake and sometimes I sleep through it, but I no longer see it as an intrusion. It’s part of the environment, a piece of impermanence, and it, too, shall pass.
Silence has become a kind of haven again, but not an isolating one. As I increasingly find quiet within, I have also discovered that I am building a refuge from which I can pay fuller attention to the still, silent place in others, the place in which acceptance incubates and from which positive change can emerge.
Inner silence has helped me enormously in my work as a therapist. It allows me to attend carefully not only to the words and the nonverbal cues I get from clients – facial expressions, posture, ways they move their arms and legs, tone of voice – but also to an ongoing inner sense that resonates, like a tuning fork, with what my clients are feeling. While a client is talking, a sensation, an image, and a word often emerges. In a few minutes, the client begins to talk about what I was sensing, frequently using the exact word I had been thinking. At first I thought this was déjà vu, so I started to write down the word when it occurred, to make sure I’d actually thought it before the client said it. Now I understand that I have developed a way to quiet my own inner noise enough to create a silent space inside from which, sometimes, I can hear what my clients are saying without words, without even gestures, but with their hearts.