Inner peace

We yearn for silence, yet the less sound there is, the more our thoughts deafen us. How can we still the noise within?

by 2,300 words
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Photo by Gallery Stock

Photo by Gallery Stock

Tim Parks is a British novelist, translator and essayist. His latest book is On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo (2013). He lives in Italy.

Years ago, in my novel Cleaver (2006), I imagined a media man who is used to frantic bustle and talk going in search of silence. He flees to the Alps, looking for a house above the tree line – above, as he begins to think of it, the noise line; a place so high, the air so thin, that he hopes there will be no noise at all. But even in the South Tirol 2,500 metres up, he finds the wind moaning on the rock face, his blood beating in his ears. Then, without any input from his family, his colleagues, the media, his thoughts chatter ever more loudly in his head. As so often happens, the less sound there is outside, the more our own thoughts deafen us.

When we think of silence, because we yearn for it perhaps, or because we’re scared of it — or both — we’re forced to recognise that what we’re talking about is actually a mental state, a question of consciousness. Though the external world no doubt exists, our perception of it is always very much our perception, and tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the world. There are times when a noise out there is truly irritating and has us yearning for peace. Yet there are times when we don’t notice it at all. When a book is good, the drone of a distant lawnmower is just not there. When the book is bad but we must read it for an exam, or a review, the sound assaults us ferociously.

If perception of sound depends on our state of mind, then conversely a state of mind can hardly exist without an external world with which it is in relation and that conditions it — either our immediate present environment, or something that happened in the past and that now echoes or goes on happening in our minds. There is never any state of mind that is not in some part, however small, in relation to the sounds around it — the bird singing and a television overheard as I write this now, for example.

Silence, then, is always relative. Our experience of it is more interesting than the acoustic effect itself. And the most interesting kind of silence is that of a mind free of words, free of thoughts, free of language, a mental silence — the state of mind my character Cleaver failed to achieve despite his flight to the mountains. Arguably, when we have a perception of being tormented by noise, a lot of that noise is actually in our heads — the interminable fizz of anxious thoughts or the self-regarding monologue that for much of the time constitutes our consciousness. And it’s a noise in constant interaction with modern methods of so-called communication: the internet, the mobile phone, Google glasses. Our objection to noise in the outer world, very often, is that it makes it harder to focus on the buzz we produce for ourselves in our inner world.

There is, as it were, a catharsis of exhaustion, exhaustion with the dazzling, disturbing voice of the mind

Yet all of us, at least occasionally, reach the point where the motor of thought feels out of control. Thoughts run away with themselves, go nowhere new, and are nevertheless destructive in their insistent revisiting of where we’ve been a thousand times before. So much of Modernist literature is about this buzz of consciousness, emphasising its poetic quality. One thinks of James Joyce, or Virginia Woolf. Some, however, understood how exhausting and destructive it could be: a character who can’t still her thoughts was ‘destroyed into perfect consciousness’, writes D H Lawrence in his novel Women in Love (1920). By contrast, a certain genre of late 20th-century literature — from Samuel Beckett through Thomas Bernhard to Sandro Veronesi, David Foster Wallace and many others — is dominated by a voice constantly trying to explain the world, constantly denouncing the scandal of the world, constantly disappointed and frustrated, but also pleased with itself, pleased with its ability to be scandalised, a voice whose ceaseless questioning and criticising has long become a trap, from which consciousness seeks release in various forms of intoxication, or sleep, or suicide. There is, as it were, a catharsis of exhaustion, exhaustion with the dazzling, disturbing voice of the mind.

Such a mental voice is also a source of self-regard. This is the catch that springs the trap. The mind is pleased with the sophistication of its thinking. It wishes the monologue to end, and yet, simultaneously not to end. If it did end, where would identity be? It yearns for silence and fears silence. The two emotions grow stronger together. The more one yearns for silence, the more one fears the loss of identity if the voice should quieten. For example, when a person contemplates a radical change in life — going to live alone in the moors of Galway perhaps, or to a 10-day silent Buddhist retreat — the more he or she fears it, too, fears the moment of change. So our ideas of silence are tied up with questions of self-loathing and self-regard. The end of the monologue is inviting but also frightening, the way children are frightened of going to sleep.

Our desire for silence often has more to do with an inner silence than an outer. Or a combination of the two. Noise provokes our anger, or at least an engagement, and prevents inner silence. But absence of noise exposes us to the loud voice in our heads. This voice is constitutive of what we call self. If we want it to fall silent, aren’t we yearning for the end of self? For death, perhaps. So talk about silence becomes talk about consciousness, the nature of selfhood, and the modern dilemma in general: the desire to invest in the self and the desire for the end of the self.

Of course, we have strategies for getting by. There are soft solutions such as listening to music, or reading. Consciousness is invited to follow someone else’s score or storyline. We temporarily hand over the controls to another director. But as soon as we stop reading or listening, the mental noise starts again. We haven’t resolved anything or learnt anything about ourselves. We haven’t changed the nature of the discomfort.

More radical, and mortifying perhaps, are solutions involving ritual prayer, rosaries, or mantras. Such an approach feels like a full-scale assault on the self, with an acoustic weapon. Despite, or perhaps because of, my religious childhood, I have never tried this. I’ve never desired a mantra. I suspect, as with music, once the mantra is over, the chattering self would bounce back more loquacious and self-righteous than ever.

Or one might try Vipassana — a form of mediation that goes to the heart of this conflict between yearning for silence and fearing it. Without being too specific about why I originally approached Vipassana — let’s just say that I had health problems, chronic pain — someone suggested that this discipline might help. I had become aware that though my pains were not, as they say, merely in the mind, my mental state had certainly contributed to the kind of physical tensions that, over many years, had begun to make my life a misery.

The first Vipassana retreat I attended, some five years ago now, was in the mountains north of Milan where I live and work. There seemed no point in going further afield merely to sit on a cushion. In the opening session, I was asked to take a vow of silence for the full 10 days of my stay. So, for all this time, I lived in silence, ate in silence. Above all, I sat for many hours a day, as many as 10, in silence. But there were no chants or mantras to still the mind and get one through. Rather, I was encouraged to substitute, slowly and patiently, my normally talkative consciousness with an intense awareness of breathing and sensation; that is, of the present animal state of our being.

We use sound and movement to avoid the irksomeness of stasis. You shift from foot to foot, you move from room to room

It’s fairly easy to concentrate on the body in motion. If you’re running or swimming, it’s possible to move into a wordless or semi-wordless state that gives the impression of silence for long periods. In fact one of the refreshing, even addictive, things about sport is the feeling that the mind has been given a break from its duty of constantly building up our ego.

But in Vipassana you concentrate on sensation in stillness, sitting down, not necessarily cross-legged, though most people do sit that way. And sitting without changing position, sitting still. As soon as you try to do this, you become aware of a connection between silence and stillness, noise and motion. No sooner are you sitting still than the body is eager to move, or at least to fidget. It grows uncomfortable. In the same way, no sooner is there silence than the mind is eager to talk. In fact we quickly appreciate that sound is movement: words move, music moves, through time. We use sound and movement to avoid the irksomeness of stasis. This is particularly true if you are in physical pain. You shift from foot to foot, you move from room to room.

Sitting still, denying yourself physical movement, the mind’s instinctive reaction is to retreat into its normal buzzing monologue — hoping that focusing the mind elsewhere will relieve physical discomfort. This would normally be the case; normally, if ignored, the body would fidget and shift, to avoid accumulating tension. But on this occasion we are asking it to sit still while we think and, since it can’t fidget, it grows more and more tense and uncomfortable. Eventually, this discomfort forces the mind back from its chatter to the body. But finding only discomfort or even pain in the body, it again seeks to escape into language and thought. Back and forth from troubled mind to tormented body, things get worse and worse.

Silence, then, combined with stillness — the two are intimately related — invites us to observe the relationship between consciousness and the body, in movement and moving thought. Much is said when people set off to meditation retreats about the importance of ‘finding themselves’. And there is much imagined drama. People expect old traumas to surface, as though in psychoanalysis. In fact, what you actually discover is less personal than you would suppose. You discover how the construct of consciousness and self, something we all share, normally gets through time, to a large extent by ignoring our physical being and existence in the present moment. Some of the early names for meditation in the Pali language of the Buddhist scriptures, far from linking it to religion, referred only to ‘mental exercises’.

This form of meditation alters the mind’s relationship with the body. It invites the meditator to focus attention on all parts of the body equally, without exception, to guide the consciousness through the body and to contem­plate sensation as it ebbs and flows in the flesh, and this without reacting in any way — without aversion to pain, without attachment to pleasure. So we become aware that even when we are still, everything inside us is constantly moving and changing.

Moreover, this ‘activity’ is not subordinated in the mind to any other. One renounces any objective beyond the contemplation itself. You are not meditating in order to relax, or to overcome pain, or to resolve a health problem, or to achieve inner silence. There is no higher goal but to be present, side by side with the infinitely nuanced flux of sensation in the body. The silence of the mind puts you in touch with the body. Or simply, silence of the mind is awareness of being.

It is hard, at the beginning, to focus, first for minutes at a time, then for hours, on one’s breathing. It is hard, at first, to find any sensation at all in many parts of the body when they are still — the temples, the elbows, the calves. Yet once the mind does latch on to sensation, or when sensation responds to the mind’s patient probing, all at once it becomes easier. Suddenly the body becomes interesting and one’s obsessive interest in one’s own wordy thoughts begins to dissolve. Language melts away and in the silence all kind of changes occur in the body.

The process is neither that of a single switch being turned, nor of a steady continuum, but of a series of small gains and losses; perhaps a larger step forward, then a small relapse. If one is persistent, undaunted, in one’s attempts to concentrate, if one is successful in showing neither aversion to pain nor indulgence in pleasure, then, very slowly, the stillness and silence deepen in an atmosphere of beatitude that is simultaneously and indivisibly both physical and mental. It is as if, as the body is slowly put together and all its component parts unite in an intense present, so the historical self is taken apart and falls away. At no point is it experienced as a loss, but rather as a fullness of existence; something brimful, very ordinary and very beautiful.

The words we constantly use and the narratives we write reinforce a drama of selfhood that we in the West complacently celebrate. There is also much consolation taken in the way in which writing and narrative can transform emotional pain into a form of entertainment, wise and poignant in its vision of our passage through the world, intense and thrilled by its own intensity. Narrative is so often the narrative of misery and of the passage through misery.

What silence and meditation leaves us wondering, after we stand up, unexpectedly refreshed and well-disposed after an hour of stillness and silence, is whether there isn’t something deeply perverse in this culture of ours, even in its greatest achievements in narrative and art. So much of what we read, even when it is great entertainment, is deeply unhelpful.

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  • natcase

    Why should silence be an end in itself? Asian meditative traditions emphasize the elimination of the self, but to what end? Your quick sweep aside of western silent traditions seems overly hasty to me, but then I'm a Quaker so of course I would think that. It is easy for us moderns to dismiss prayer as irrational giving over to a powerful other, but it is also acknowledgment of an inability to "do it all" ourselves. Quaker tradition emphasizes "expectant waiting," where the silence is to remove distraction from what we need to be hearing, the presence and word of God (or the equivalent for those of us who are not theists, myself among them). This is different from what to Westerners can seem nihilistic in Eastern practice, and yet it is also performed in silence.

    Silence does not have to be absolute to be valuable. I myself do not crave perfect silence, I crave quiet. As an antidote to the off-balance, out-of-control, too-fast, too-loud matter of everyday life, I find it necessary.

    • Wayfarers All

      "Silence does not have to be absolute to be valuable. I myself do not crave perfect silence, I crave quiet."
      Exactly - I think most crave quiet and peace rather than absolute stillness, absolute silence.

      • Matt0wen

        "Asian meditative traditions emphasize the elimination of the self, but to what end?"

        The cessation of suffering. A worthy end, surely?

        Also, I don't think Tim is suggesting that silence has to be absolute to be valuable. In fact, I doubt very much that he achieves such a thing for more than brief periods, nor that he would claim to. Meditation is a constant process. Hence the old Zen saying "even the Buddha is only halfway there."

        • Al_de_Baran

          "The cessation of suffering. A worthy end, surely?"

          Not necessarily. It's not only passive, but negative. If cessation of suffering is to be the aim, then suicide is quicker.

          • saijanai

            In TM-style enlightenment, the nervous system is simply stable enough that the presence of pure consciousness is never overshadowed by normal experiences, whether one is awake, dreaming or fast asleep.

            The joys and sorrows of life are felt just as they always, but they don't overwhelm the nervous system's ability to maintain PC as a background to all that goes on.

            Suffering of teh "self" is impossible however, as "self" in an enlightened person, merely watches all that goes on.

            This is, in TM theory, how practices like mindfulness arise: people mistake the description of the uninvolved, ever-watchful,. never judgmental, never sorrowful, never joyful pure consciousness trait as a goal that can be obtained through the practice of non-judgemental watching.

            TM enlightenment is simply what the adult human nervous system is like when it is sufficiently low-stress and stable. In theory, at the far right of the bell-curve, there are people who spontaneously mature into this state without ever practicing meditation and other mystical/religious practices. They tend to become figures of legend and myth who *founded* the meditative, spiritual and religious traditions in the world today, but they're nothing "special" except in the sense that such people are very rare.

          • Al_de_Baran

            A very interesting reply, wand one that offers much food for thought. Thank you.

          • saijanai

            For someone who is overwhelmed by life, a taste of Self, or even a hint of a whiff of a taste, can be overwhelming in a positive way, because it is such a contrast to have even a little relief from suffering. However, the long-term outcome isn't overwhelming joy, but just the ability to live a full life:



          • Matt0wen

            Sounds like semantics to me. Call it "an improvement in wellbeing," if you want the positive version. They're two sides of the same coin. Less suffering = more non-suffering.

          • Al_de_Baran

            As I mention in reply to JonJ, semantics can be important.

            That said, cessation of suffering doesn't necessarily lead to improvement, unless the idea of improvement is to move from a negative state to a neutral one. "Positivity", however, is not necessarily implicated in the change, except in a very relative way. And that isn't just a matter of semantics.

          • JonJ

            If suicide were the only way to get to the cessation of suffering, we'd really be in a pickle. Try learning more about what Buddhist teachings really are all about.

          • Al_de_Baran

            A rather spectacular missing of my point, which was to underscore the passivity and negativity of Matt0wen's formulation, to suggest its logical outcome. Try reading more carefully and engaging your brain before your huffy feelings, like the fine Buddhist I am sure you are.

          • Renzo Bruni

            Alternate opinions suggest that the cessation of craving is the real goal; see Stephen Batchelor for example.

        • saijanai

          Not all meditative traditions do this. TM practice enhances "sense of self."

          • Matt0wen

            True. But Tim specifically mentions Vipassana, and is evidently discussing Buddhist philosophy here (he even mentions the scriptures).

        • Renzo Bruni

          Or is it the Cessation of Craving? Craving is what binds us, limits us, and brings us back (if you go in for reincarnation theory).

      • fitz fitzgerald

        We crave -- calm

    • tien cya

      Thanks for the pointer to Quaker practice. I was very happy to see the term "expectant waiting" as that has what my meditative practice has evolved to over the years.

      I am also glad you are pointing out that there is a strong tradition of Western contemplative and meditative practices which have become unfashionable. Saint Teresa's description of the four stages of mystical union in contemplative prayer are not so different from the Buddhist jhanas. There are Stoic approaches that are particularly effective and it seems a pity that they are not more popular.

      However, the SN Goenka centres (which this article sounds like it is about) are remarkably well organised and low cost so that could explain their popularity.

    • lucien aychenwald

      Actually, no Asian tradition emphasises the "elimination" of the "self", but rather that our habitual egocentric notions of the self are illusory. The Buddhist schools maintain that careful investigation, through meditation and logic, shows that no such "self" can be found, while the non-dualist Hindu schools (particularly Advaita Vedanta) maintain that there is only one all-encompassing Self, which is another term for the pure unlimited awareness in which the so-called phenomenal world arises. Despite the apparent divergence here, I would cautiously suggest that Zen, Tibetan Buddhism (particularly the Mahamudra and Dzogchen practices), and Vedanta are ultimately quite similar, and that the classic debates between Buddhists and Hindus in India had more to do with the limits of language in considering what a "self" might be.

      This is a vast and deep subject, but I would also cautiously suggest that the reason this kind of thinking seems alien and sometimes nihilistic to Westerners (and Buddhist thinkers such as Nagarjuna were explicit in pointing out the dangers of such nihilism) is for the following reasons: 1) Judaism and Christianity posit a relationship between a transcendant Creator and incarnated soul that is thought to be in some sense autonomous, and free to intuit and accept the apparent agenda of that Creator or not; 2) Judaism and Christianity conceive of time as linear, and add the notion of destiny to it, meaning that history is progressive and moving toward some kind of goal or purpose; and 3) Western philosophical and scientific thought is subject/object-based, and thus dualistic (mind/body, self/other, observer/observed, this/that, Creator/creation, etc.). All of this is absent from most Asian thinking (even if some dualistic Hindu schools seem closer to the Judeo-Christian point of view.) Moreover, a Westnerner who knows nothing about philosophy or religion will think this way in any case, i.e., that they Really Are, so to speak, a free autonomous individual or subject who deals with an external world "out there" (Heidegger is very informative on this subject too). Asian traditions do not deny that reality appears dualistic -- but they teach how we can see through dualism and apprehend the profound unity that underlies it. Westerners get nervous when their notions of privileged subjectivity and "there is somehow a point to all this" are undermined, whereas Dharma practitioners find this liberating, not at all nihilistic. What "point" does there need to be to appreciate the miracle of here and now? Perhaps this is what Tim Parks discovered -- that there is something more to us than our obsessive stories about what we think we are, than all the justifications we throw out for ourselves and the world, than all the chatter that arises in our minds -- a chatter that ultimately leads to neurosis; a chatter that is getting worse with all the "information" now infecting our culture. Perhaps he found, beneath that din, that he was perfect as he is, and felt the fresh wind of Clarity.

      • Renzo Bruni

        In many ways yours was a much better read than the original that prompted it. Your essay was a more hierarchical and objective (Western) take on the subject while TPs was, perhaps self consciously and deliberately (stylistically), more descriptive and subjective (Eastern).

        Vis à vis 'self' as you presented it, I would suggest that the most substantial difference between Advaita Vedanta and Buddhist philosophy is what remains of 'self' when the mind is stilled by meditative practice. For Advaitans, clearly and emphatically, god is waiting inside us all, patiently and eternally, and discovering him/her/it inside is the goal of practice. For Buddhists there is clearly nothing left over since there was no enduring entity called 'self' there to begin with.... [with nothing to say about reincarnation theory for now]. Personally I find the emptiness, selflessness & impermanence of the earliest buddhist writings to be comforting, the way only truth can be, even if harsh, as you pointed out with the phrase "the fresh wind of Clarity".

  • Archies_Boy

    Obviously, this man projects his own meditation problems as typical of everyone's. And it's obvious to me that he's never had tinnitus, which I've had for almost 25 years. It is also obvious to me that *no one*, unless they're drugged or unconscious or dead, will ever hear total silence. Even if you were in an anechoic chamber, you'd still hear your own body sounds: heartbeat, breathing, stomach growling, etc. The man confuses acoustic silence with a mind at peace, something he apparently has never had. He seems not to be able to stop obsessive cogitating — what is called in Hinduism the "monkey mind."

    One of the classes I had on meditation many years ago included meditating in successively more and more noisy situations. It can be done. One can achieve inner stillness and peace on the tarmac of O'Hare, or in the middle of a Ford assembly line if one has the training and the right mindset.

    • saijanai

      The deepest point of TM, aka "pure consciousness," is thought to be a situation where the thalamus has stopped passing sensory data from the outside world ton to the cerebral cortex AND has stopped taking processed data from the cerebral cortex and merging it with the [non-existent] raw sensory data from the outside world.

      This can give rise to a situation where the brain is remaining in an alert mode of functioning but isn't processing any "qualia" at all: no thoughts, no sensations, no emotions, no intuitions, no memories, no intents, no nuttin'.

      Just pure wakefulness, pure awareness, aka samadhi or turiya -- the fundamental aspect of consciousness that is at the basis of all other states of consciousness.

      So yes, even if you're not dead or unconscious, you can be in a state of complete silence while not being asleep -- you won't notice that you are IN this state until you start to come out of it, but that's a different issue.

      The repeated practice of TM alternated with normal activity starts to give rise to a "trait" outside of meditation where some level of pure consciousness is noted as being the background of all normal thoughts and activities. As this trait becomes more pronounced, teh meditator starts to note its existence at all times, even during deep sleep and dreaming.

      As this progresses, the meditator spontaneously starts to identify this most permanent aspect of their inner landscape as their "real" self, while all thoughts, actions, motivations, intents, intuitions, sensations, beliefs, feelings, emotions, etc., are seen as transitory "not self."

      This is the beginning stage of the first state of enlightenment in TM theory. Physiological and psychological research has been published on people who report the presence of pure consciousness at all times, whether waking, dreaming or asleep, for at least a year.

      As a side-note, people who practice mindfulness and concentrative forms of meditation show an EEG signature radically different than pure consciousness during TM, and in fact, while TM enhances the functioning of teh part of the brain thought to be responsible for "sense of self," mindfulness and concentrative practices tend to repress the functioning of the same part of the brain that TM enhances. These practices also produce a trait effect in long-term practitioners, but it is a very different trait than that found in long-term TM practitioners.

    • Renzo Bruni

      Respectfully, I believe that the 'monkey mind' is a metaphor derived from Buddhist writings.

  • I

    Be still and know that I am God.

  • Manoj Thaker

    To read your essay in itself was a meditation.I felt cathartic .

  • Beth Cioffoletti

    This essay is very interesting and I find much that resonates with my own experience of stillness and meditation, even though I have not yet settled on a particular technique. I haven't given up prayer, mantras, or music - and find them useful - but find that compassion and serving others is the best antidote to my ego. WIthout that, all my efforts for quiet become just another manifestation of ego.

    • Jeff

      It is intriguing, isn't it? And from a man who has written almost thirty books. Were all his years of sitting down to write "deeply perverse"? Are the products of all that labour "deeply unhelpful"?

  • Dan Joyce

    Eastern thought is so different from Western thought...even Eastern music. The repetitiveness and waves of sounds can actually be more fulfilling than listening to anything with a chorus or verses. Maybe that's why I like Drone music. Very good article.

  • jrbarch

    Process is described well in Patanjali's aphorisms - suggest AAB's translation: Light of The Soul

    What you are looking for is within you - not in the mind. Mind has nothing to do with it - it's just a distraction - (that's all): else people would have discovered what is inside of them long ago. Ego lives in the mind and is distraction Personified. Mind just wanders in circles - it doesn't matter if those circles are academic or simple. Allowing the mind to wander around the body is still wandering and wondering. Mind is not the tool to take up. The fact that the mind quietened down a bit and allowed you to feel a little of what is inside of you is good. That should tell you that 'feeling' is the tool to take up. You have to feel your way inside and ignore mind - no matter how sophisticated you think that it is (and the 'I' along with it)!

    Going inside one begins to contact the 'silence' within - its vibration and energy helps still the mind. The silence is like an ante-chamber if you like - a feeling of dawn breaking on a brand new day. A silent 'space' within; energy, consciousness - beyond the day to day awareness of the persona. Within this 'space' is a 'door' and behind that 'door' is the bright (unmistakably bright) Sun of the 'SELF'. All roads of the persona lead to the SELF although people don't know because they haven't been there yet. Some people's minds know the theory but not the practice. Arriving you will probably laugh a lot about how simple it all actually is! If you want to know more I would listen a little to Prem Rawat - see if that helps ...!!

    • saksin

      Priceless: A cock-sure know-it-all who has arrived, and refers us to the latest repackaging of 12-year "Lord of the Universe" Guru Maharaj Ji, currently donning business suit as Prem Rawat, running his cult from his mansion in Malibu. I am laughing so hard I am... wait, wait, I am starting to see "the bright (unmistakably bright) Sun of the 'SELF'"... and yes, indeed, "how simple it all actually is"!!!

      • jrbarch

        Accept the cocksure bit: re Prem Rawat - In the 1980's there were a few 'hate groups' holding the view of saksin - people can make up their own minds visiting if they would like to.

  • Matt0wen

    Excellent piece, Tim.

  • Versus

    Interesting description of your meditative journey, but beware of overgeneralizing with that sly "we". My experience of meditation, and that of many others, is often nightmarishly dark. See: "dark night of the soul".

  • Jesus

    In the beginning was silence, womb of all words which all words seek, mother of these: breath of my life. How or when the first word sprang thence hither, I'll never know, nor why. Does it really matter? Perhaps sound is only an insanity of silence, a mad gibber of empty space grown fearful of listening to itself and hearing nothing. Thus are we madmen all. Or perhaps we are silence talking in her sleep, perhaps we are a long nightmare of silence as she thrashes in torment on her downy bed. And when she wakes? (…) For silence is to sound as the whiteness of pages is to blackness of words: tempters both, though whether to hell or heaven no man knows.

    Steven Millhauser, ‘Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright’.

  • Mark Shulgasser

    The inexhaustibly garrulous TP writing about silence is too funny for words.

    • Renzo Bruni

      At least he didn't write it twice. (smile)

  • Mark Shulgasser

    The inexhaustibly garrulous TP writing about silence is too funny for words.

    • Renzo Bruni

      At least he didn't write it two times. (smile)

  • annie morgan

    In this case, parts of what I read were anything but 'deeply unhelpful', and much of what I read in the comments was.

  • Fb

    Beautifully done. Thank you, Tim.

  • rigaud

    Didn't the late Krishnamurti write at length about this "problem"?

  • MarkS

    Have you seen the large amount of high-quality scientific research on 'transcendental consciousness', produced by transcendental meditation? It includes plenty of research by top universities and medical institutes published in reputable scientific journals.

    It's a different mode of brain functioning, as shown by EEG, brain scans, etc. Subjectively it's pure silent awareness. Consciousness itself, without any object of experience. Self-referral consciousness, with no thoughts, only the self aware of itself.

    In Sanskrit it's known as samadhi. It's been known, written about, and experienced for millennia. The subjective experience is 'sat, chit, ananda' - pure bliss consciousness.

    And it also has many practical physical and mental benefits in everyday life.


    To skeptics, if you don't believe solid, repeatable scientific research, then what will you believe? You are just being superstitious, and holding on to an outdated and over-simplified belief system.

    • Joan Worden

      I am all for meditation and Indian spirituality, but having known several people who used to be quite high up in the TM organisation, I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole, from what they have told me. Despite it's high profile adherents, such as Dr Oz, it is a cult that puts people into subconscious or supraconscious states where they fall prey to mental illness.
      Much of their research is carried out at their own universities, and is not independently verified.

  • Ted Schrey Montreal

    Of course, much, or most, of so-called Eastern meditation is plain nonsense. Having said this, focus is nothing to sneeze at--except perhaps when one concentrates too much on some deity or other, or some other nonsensical and/or bizarre evil.
    I have done yoga meditation since 1960, by the way.

    • MarkS

      I agree with you there. But not all types of meditation are the same. Different practices produce different effects, as measured objectively by scientific criteria.

      One reason I mentioned Transcendental Meditation is that the method is quite different from any other form of meditation I am aware of.

      There is NO concentration or focus, not even focus on nothing, but the nervous system and physiology enter quickly into a meditative state with a little practice.

    • lucien aychenwald

      It would be helpful if you could specify which forms of meditation you are referring to (not to mention what kind of yoga you pracice), and how you consider them to be nonsense.

      The fruits of full Dharma practice lead to a fundamental shift in worldview (and corresponding ethics), and these are not realized by concentration alone. It seems that many people use various forms of yoga or meditation these days in order to focus, or relax, or quiet down -- and fair enough -- but in themselves these have little to do with the Dharma or the shift I am talking about, nor does the cliché of "living in the moment." As the second part of your second sentence suggests, it is quite possible for an SS man, as much as a Dalai Lama, to be focused, calm, and "in the moment" as he goes about his hideous business. For that matter, oceanic feelings of "oneness" and "bliss" are more easily procured by certain drugs, and most drug users I have met did not strike me as particularly enlightened. Such experiences may point a person in the right direction, but much, much work remains, and few people seem equal to it.

      Unfortunately there are a lot of charlatans and otherwise confused people in the spiritual milieu today, not to mention a fair number of New Age elements that have nothing to do with the Dharma. The few people I've met who have gone far on the genuine path have tended to be anonymous, soft-spoken, and extraordinarily humble individuals with no particular desire to teach anyone anything. I once met an old Tibetan monk who had been tortured for years in a Chinese prison, and his sparkling humanity was breathtaking.

  • Realspiritik

    There is more than one way to hear the quiet of heart and soul. As a Christian mystic (cataphatic, not apophatic and not anagogic) I've learned that the clearest avenue to peace is through the heart, which has its own wisdom and its own language.

    I learned early on that meditation doesn't work for me. Neither do mantras or prayers or rituals. So I'm not a typical Christian mystic. I also began my journey as a student of the hard sciences, and there in the simple honesty of chemistry and physics and math I continue to find the beauty and comfort of Divine presence and Divine Love.

    I understand the "buzzing monologue" described by Mr. Parks. I recall the very exhaustion he describes and the yearning for silence. I no longer experience the "dazzling, disturbing voice of the mind," though, and I have done so through a practice of active engagement with suffering rather than an attempt to escape from suffering. I do not believe that suffering or the mind's perception of suffering or the experience of "self" are illusions. But I do believe that a great deal of unnecessary suffering results from the way we teach our children to use their biological brains -- or rather I should say, misuse their brains.

    The brain is not a single organ, as most of us imagine. It is more akin to an orchestra, with a number of different "instruments" each vying to be "heard." An orchestra in which individual instruments each do their own thing sounds cacophonous. Who wouldn't want to escape from that? Many well-known approaches to this inner cacophony involve the effort to silence all the sections of the orchestra. This way the nails-on-chalkboard brain conflicts we've all been living with (all unawares) are mercifully dampened. But at what cost?

    Another approach to healing the brain is to give it some sheet music and a strong conductor so all the sections of the brain can learn to work together to create something quite stunning. Through the practices of forgiveness, gratitude, empathy, tough love, balance, and humbleness (not to be confused with religious humility) it is possible to slowly reshape the biological brain (neuroplasticity) so that all the different centres of the brain work together in a unified, harmonious way. The result of this process is that eventually a single inner voice emerges within you. It is your voice. Your very own voice. A voice that is sane and sensible and knows when to shut up and simply listen.

    The sound of Divine love is very quiet and shy, and you won't hear it if you're pretending you can't hear it because there really isn't a "you" to begin with.

    When narcissism is shed, when status addiction is recognized and addressed, when harms are forgiven, and when empathy emerges, the brain becomes more full, not less full, and the capacity to love and to rejoice in simple beauty and quiet harmony is greatly expanded. The raging currents of thought and rethought slow to a measured river of calmness and kindness. Sleep becomes becomes a time of healing instead of a time of dread anxiety. The body begins to repair itself. Relationships improve. Senses are heightened. Intuition and creativity flourish. You understand you are both very important and very unimportant. And eventually, without even trying to, you realize you can like yourself.

    • natcase

      Beautiful, grounded images. Thank you.

  • fenris

    This article is so annoying that I'm not able to finish it. The author keeps saying we, as though everyone in the world is like him.
    I long for silence and I'm really bothered when someone is talking loudly on a mobile phone, but if I am somewhere quiet, I only hear the sounds like the wind, running water, etc. These sounds are relaxing and give me peace of mind.

  • Teren

    First, I have to mention that I love the photo with the original post—very relevant and expressive for the ideas of the post and following comments.

    I consider myself to be really fortunate in one unusual way. When I was around 12 years old, I began to have severe migraines. After years of suffering—occasionally, intensely enough to wish for death—I decided that there had to be a better way to deal with the pain. I had never really heard about common methods of meditation, but my simple teenage rationale, and my desperation helped me to think that if my brain was the place where the pain really was, I should be able to control the pain with my thinking.

    What I came up with was a relaxation technique, coupled with isolating and
    focusing on a pleasant thought—attempting to exclude all other sensation. First, I consciously focused on relaxing every muscle in my body, starting at my feet and slowly moving up to my pounding head. Then I focused on remembering a dream I had recently had where I could fly. Three hours later, I awoke from a very deep, satisfying nap, with no sign of pain.

    I continued to use this technique, refining it as I learned along the way. I now define ‘silence’ as a choice. One of the things I discovered was that the way we focus and filter our thought is far more a part of our choice than we often recognize. We would readily admit that we are capable of selecting one conversation to listen to in a room full of chatter, but we don’t think about that same ability to build an internal sanctuary of silence, or comfort, or peace.

    Now, I meditate (my own way) every morning. I can use the same techniques to get to sleep and sleep deeply even in a noisy, lighted room. I can silence outside stimuli and create a very real and deep silence in my mind, which I like to do when I read books and when I pray. I can escape various kinds of pain, and focus intently and visually in my mind when I work or think or solve problems. I personally believe that this kind of silence allows one to hear the divine that is personally for us-- to hear inspiration.

    I think this kind of silence—which I blundered into accidentally—is something
    we are all capable of, and that we are all meant to have. I think we have just forgotten it in many modern cultures. It doesn't have to take a specific form, be part of a faith, culture or complex disciplne. I think it is just a part of being human that is widely and tragically lost, but very beneficial.

  • giùsotto

    I can't believe that an article on silence generated so much noise. I'm sure the Italian word noioso derives from this (ie boring).

  • Ravi Chinnappan

    Sri Ramana Maharshi guide people to realize God with the query "Who Am I?. Elimination of the self is the aim of the query. Elimination of self is entry to realize your true self or God.

    The essay inner peace is excellent.

  • japhyryder1

    Stunning. Sounds like you've come to Advaita Vedanta/Dzogchen in your thinking. Ultimately, all thoughts seem to fail us, all mind states fade, all concepts prove unfulfilling. That silence becomes a deep yearning. If you haven't discovered Mooji, you may like to!

  • andacar

    Nice piece, though I have a few comments.

    First of all, this article, and many of the posters, presuppose that the clamor in my head is something I could control if I just tried hard enough (or try to not try, or whatever). That’s something I’ve been trying to do for almost five decades. I hate using it as a crutch, because too many people do, but in this case ADHD really does factor in because it has a biological component. I can no more Zen it away than a fundamentalist Christian can pray away being gay. I reject the whole movement of ADHD as a "lifestyle;" It would be nice to quiet things down sometimes, but I can't do it, and it isn't just because I don't have the right guru.

    Second, one thing I have observed over the years is that many people such as myself who get uncomfortable in very quiet spaces have tinnitus. When I sit down in a peaceful, tranquil space I don’t hear the silence. I hear a cacophony of high pitched screeching and buzzing. I would dearly love to be able to experience total silence, but until a cure can be found for tinnitus, I can’t.

    Finally, one thing that has never been explained to me is why I would want to destroy my self. This whole sentiment is hardly new; I heard it all the time when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. But I am an artist, writer, family man and history buff. I like remembering things in the past, having opinions, being who I am, and so on. I don’t want to turn away from “distractions” like my wife, kids and creative life just to experience nothing. Like most things in life, you get what you pay for.

  • Edel King

    Could you point out the ''moors of Galway'' to me please...I live in Galway and I've never heard of them ;-D

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