…may not be what you think it is!
I recently heard a self-declared expert on contemplative silence saying that it can be hard to find silence in nature because animals and insects make noises. As I screamed “no!” at my podcast player, it occurred to me that there may be more confusion on this issue than I had realized. So, much as it pains me to talk or write about silence because it seems an exercise in missing the point, a point that would be much better made by simply remaining silent, here we go.
Silence is not the absence of sound. The absence of all sound is either the result of a serious hearing impairment, noise cancelling headphones, or a sensory deprivation tank. When we talk about silence in the context of contemplation, we are referring to human-generated sound. That sound may be speech, it may be thought, or it may come from a television set, radio, computer, or other electronic device. This kind of sound can generally be thought of as noise. Birds chirping, brooks babbling, or crickets cricketing are not noise. They are ambient nature sounds and are not a distraction to contemplation. If anything, they can be an aide to contemplation as most of us find those sounds relaxing.
In contemplative silence, we are trying to slow the relentless chatter of our minds. If you are thinking that your mind doesn’t chatter, just sit quietly in your backyard or in your bathroom and “listen” to your thoughts. You will be amazed as your mind runs through a litany of disconnected and connected ideas. You will experience everything from “what’s for dinner,” to “I wonder if that spider is poisonous,” to your favorite movie, the person you would like to date next, to what that person walking by is wearing and why would they ever buy something like that, to just about any and everything you can think, worry, wonder, fret, or dream about. Contemplation seeks to quite the noise so we can listen. When we can listen, we will be amazed at what we learn – but we won’t learn anything running around trying to eliminate sound. Just stop for a moment and listen…