January 18, 2013 6:48 pm

Is silence golden?

It may not be enough to take ourselves off to quiet places. We also need to address the noise inside our heads

The Shrink

Illustration of Tube passengers listening to music on headphones, by Laura Carlin©Laura Carlin

At a silent retreat centre I used to attend, some people couldn’t wait for the pent-up chat to spill out at the end of the week while others, like me, just didn’t want to emerge from the still place they’d been inhabiting. It seems that silence is a bit like camping: we either revel in it or we find it intolerable.

Silence can indeed be a symptom of one problem or another: the taciturnity of a couple who have long stopped having anything to say to each other, the quiet of hostility, or loneliness. But the right kind of silence enriches us. Most of us could benefit from removing ourselves at times from the relentless soundtrack of noise and redundant words that underscores our daily existence.

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But silence is not just absence of sound. We can be in the quietest of environments and yet if our inner chatter is unchecked we may as well be in the middle of a busy street. So if we want to create more silence in our lives it may not be enough to take ourselves off to quiet places. We also need to address the noise inside our heads.

Talk of “emptying the mind” – as if we could almost literally reach for a switch that will turn off the chatter – may be misleading. It is more a question of developing a different, less compulsive relationship to it. It’s about noticing the thoughts and feelings that arise and breathing space into the constant stream of pushes and pulls that normally drives us.

So sometimes you could resist switching on the radio, TV or computer and instead sit quietly for a little while, anchored to your breathing, attending to the internal jumble with gentle curiosity, without getting too caught up in it. You may find that concerns begin to settle into their rightful place, quietening down or gaining urgency, in perhaps unexpected ways. Or neglected feelings may blossom into awareness.

Silence is indeed golden: not only can it help us gain calm and perspective, but it is also a tranquil and restful place to retreat to in our frantic lives. Try it.

The Sage

Is Wittgenstein’s famous aphorism, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”, a profound truth? Or is it a banal truism, along the lines of “That which you cannot move, you must leave where it is”? It may sound platitudinous, but if you think about what exactly lies beyond the limits of language, matters soon become much more opaque.

Consider all those occasions when words are simply not enough, such as when we try to express some of our deepest emotions. Phrases such as “I’m sorry for your loss”, “I love you” and “that’s awful” can all be true yet sound pathetically inadequate compared to the intensity of our feelings or the enormity of what has happened. Perhaps that is why the tradition of a minute’s silence for the dead is so powerful: it is not so much a mark of respect as an acknowledgment that nothing we can say or do is up to the task of capturing what has been lost.

Then there are the art objects and performances that speak much more eloquently than the clichéd words which describe them. I’ve lost count of the number of times an original, striking work of art has been described generically by a curator or critic as a “meditation on the distinction between appearance and reality” or a “comment on the transitory nature of being”. If works of visual art and music could achieve their effects just as well in prose form, we’d have no need for them. Since they can’t, we would do better to say less, and look and listen more.

Finally there are things which many believe to be completely ineffable, such as the nature of God. Words like “good” and “loving” merely gesture towards the divine mystery by a kind of analogy with their familiar meanings, but they are chosen precisely because their secular meanings get close to their divine counterparts.

The obviousness of Wittgenstein’s aphorism is thus a challenge to all those who insist on talking about things that they claim are beyond human understanding. Or as I like to say: if it really is ineffable, effin’ well shut up about it.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England

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