(extracts from chapter one)
Out of Silence
When was the last time you listened to the silence?
In the beginning, the very beginning, there was silence.
The ‘Big Bang’, despite its name, could not have been heard by anyone even if there had been anyone to hear. It was energy expanding and until the temperature started to fall and the basic elements of matter condense, there could be no sound. The universe began without a fanfare.
In the vacuum of space there is no sound. But we do not live in that space, limitless space. We live in ‘our’ space, which is always circumscribed by the limits that our awareness in each moment is applying. Our attention in any moment may be spatial or it may be relational or it may cerebral, but it is always bounded with a cordon which we cannot break through. And in our space, this space, there is never silence. There cannot be.
We have never been able to listen to the silence.
Even in our beginning, our own individual beginning, there was no silence. The womb was a noisy place, yet in those times when we go behind the interference - peripheral sounds, thought chatter, physical tension - to describe the soundless space we reach out to, we use words that echo our romantic womb-image… wrapt, surrounded, blanket. As if there is a comfort in the notion of somewhere beyond the clamour, even though we are reaching beyond our lived experience.
In a world of tumult and turmoil, the associations we make with silence resonate with our most deeply-felt yearnings: peace, stillness, tranquillity. And the source of their comfort, similarly, we look to discover through solitude, withdrawal, retreat.
What is it about us, social animal that we are, that at times we demand the isolation of our being in the containment of self-awareness, but still want to set that in a context of infinity, the endlessness of space, the nothingness of silence? It feels like the response to a tension vaguely sensed between a ‘now’ which is immediate and apparent and manifest, and a need for a place in the passage of creation; our place in eternity, to lend meaning, a purpose even, confirming an existence not circumscribed by relativity.
In a monastery on Mount Athos, a rocky promontory high above Homer’s “wine-dark” sea, a father Seraphim will talk to you about meditation and he will start with this sense of the eternal. In the tradition of hesychasm in the Eastern Orthodox churches, the practitioner retires inward, sublimating even their senses to make contact with the eternal in God. The origin of the name of this pathway of meditation comes from ancient Greek words meaning stillness, rest, silence, words that foster the idea of inner being. But the father Seraphim will show you the mountain and require you to contemplate its outward presence and sit in meditation in its way. In our time-span the mountain is unmoving, anchored at our point in the flow of creation. But our view is relative and the mountain is moving, moving and changing, from a time immemorial before our species began to a time invisible beyond our extinction. In watching the mountain, he will tell you, you can feel the substance of your being in the ongoing narrative of creation, released from the domination of self. The mountain is simply there. And its presence is silent.
Since the time when man’s growing mastery of his immediate material circumstances allowed the occasional break for reflection and simply gazing out, right through to our present day, humans have stared at mountains. What do we see? A world removed? A world contained? A world complete? A presence beyond our own? Unapproachable proximity. Above all they invoke mystery with their sense of not needing us: where we need everything around us in our own world, the mountain just is, in the way that we ourselves so often yearn to be able to just be. It stirs in us that illusion that we would find peace in its containment; we anticipate joy from a kind of holding, like a child skipping behind the Pied Piper. But the support that the mountain offers is of a different kind. It is a linking with our eternity - at once cold, impersonal, silent, but also connecting, affirming, grounding - when, with the hesychast on Mount Athos, we find a path within ourselves, as we sit alongside the vast presence of the massif.
In meditation, though, that path within is not bound to be comfortable. Before the stillness of pure contact with a divine comes the arena in which the spirits of the ego work their disruptive manoeuvres. Often impatient of the slow persistent work of meditation and self-understanding, but craving release from our self-inflicted struggle, in most cultures we have projected our source of salvation beyond and above. That source of deliverance - whether punishment or absolution - will come from on high, from the mountain. For the ancient Greeks the gods resided on Olympus from where they dispensed justice to humans for their hubris, the extreme version of which would be the belief that “I” am right because I am “me”. The ego supreme. For the Israelites after the exodus, Mount Sinaï was where Moses received their God’s conditions. Mount Kailash is the home of Shiva, one of the ‘Great Gods’ of Hinduism and the same mountain is home to Samvara, a representation of the Buddha. While for Christians “heaven” cannot escape being associated with somewhere away from earth, which, inevitably, meant the sky, a location ‘corroborated’ by designations of events such as the ‘ascension’.
The notion of something beyond reach, physically and intellectually, has always served as the vehicle for our projections. But faith, as the sentiment needed to maintain the illusion of integrity, veils rather than resolves, the inner conflict. Each painstaking step mankind has taken along the evolving course of social, artistic and intellectual development that we call civilisation, creating myths around succeeding stages accomplished on the epic journey, acquiring faiths as talismans for his anxieties; each painstaking step seems to beg the question - “What would it take to be satisfied?” - which in turn evokes the response - “Not to be human” and echoes the tension between the silence of creation and the tumult of living. The elephant in the room… if only we could touch on the silence which lies beneath the tumult, then the pain of growing up and the wounds from lessons not learnt would be healed… if only mankind could connect with the silence of the spheres, he would discover the balm of true peace. Yet for all of us it is possible to sit and slowly allow a stillness to come over us, not willing anything, but simply allowing our bodies to become all that they are, our breathing the token of a presence in the world. Seeking nothing, we can simply be. Like the still point at the axis of the turning world, where motion is motionless and the stillness is nothing.
~ ~ ~
In a small village close to the dunes on the northern edge of the Sahara, where hard-baked dirt roads are whisked by sand and where buildings have the same grey unadorned mud-brick lines they have had for centuries and the mosque walls support a lean-to general store, there is a sense of hanging in time. You may see a solitary figure in a djelabah - it is winter now, so the temperature only reaches the low thirties centigrade - in his stately progress down the road; occasionally there will be Berber wives sitting against their houses, children scattered in empty spaces - boys, no girls - but nothing to dispel the void of time hanging.
Sitting as the sun goes down, looking out toward the palm trees which separate the village from the dunes, listening to young voices conversing between the rooftops, you start to understand the nature of stillness. The ethereal chatter marks out the silence, which lies like a blanket on the dusty desert earth; sounds creating, not breaking, the quiet; a deep calm untouched in the static air.
Walk out of the village towards the dunes and first you pass through the belt of vegetation - this is an oasis, after all - which allows each village household to have a meagre cultivable strip, irrigated through narrow channels where the spring water is switched daily to give each plot its turn. There are three colours in this world - the blue of the sky, the light orange Sahara sand and the vivid green of living plants and palms. When you leave this haven of moisture and shade, there will be only two colours.
Leaving, you must climb, because the dunes are hills, some are hundreds of feet high, and they are moving; with a vapour of sand particles blurring each crest, they slowly change shape and imperceptibly shift their great bulk to the tune of an orchestrating wind. Reaching a crest you see another and another, an endless labyrinth of sinuous undulating emptiness. A palette now of blue and dusty orange. The world suddenly simplified. Wind, sand, sun. And whatever you are bringing.
As if the simplicity of the stark surroundings and the searchlight beam of a scorching sun would lay bare the human soul in its minimal significance for the planet and its inadequacy in the face of a perfect godhead, we have always come to the desert to discover ourselves; to the place where no external variation can distract. Within a couple of centuries of the death of Christ, the Desert Fathers, coptic monks from Alexandria, were living in the Egyptian desert. The inspiration for the brothers on Mount Athos, as well as the Benedictine order, the desert attracted others, and soon there were over a thousand, hermit monks, ascetics, small communities, and with them the tradition of hesychasm came into being - a silence within for continual prayer. For the Desert Fathers, a self-renunciation in the face of their absolute belief in the necessity of a devotee’s faith. For others down the centuries who have followed their footsteps in the sand, without a faith but still a kind of fervour, it has been a search for clarity through understanding. Pare down the earth to its barest skeleton. Ego exposed and neutralised. Earth’s desert for a desert of the soul. Now, surely, there will be an answer… in the wind, in the heat and the cold, in the two searing primary colours, in the emptiness. But the desert is only a discipline. The answer always comes from within.
And the process can work: the minimal, whatever might be the setting, as the counterpoint for our being. Not so much a method of exposing the soul, as of holding a gaze. At one extreme the desert and a commitment to an unspecified period in a brutally harsh environment, at the other an intentional and disciplined practice, within the humdrum of an ordinary life, of looking within through meditation. The metaphor of the soul encompassed with emptiness applies to both. The discoveries from each come from replacing our human urge to always ‘be at something’ and always stepping forward to be somewhere else, with an abiding with what is and a persistence in just being here where we are. Eugene Gendlin offered a route for discovering our most meaningful process in the moment, touching that edge of awareness which is sensed rather than articulated in thought or identified as a feeling. At our edge of awareness we can locate something else - something we know that we know, but for which our cognitive mind has not yet completed the links. The sensing is almost visceral, like leaning over an edge to the point where gravity is about to take over, and then it does, and you realise you are flying. Look down now and you can see the terrain, which your fear of falling no longer obscures. The terrain ‘makes sense’: it has a logic and consistency which we can see, now that the blockage has been removed and a link made.
This is a route we can take in meditation to open up a pathway for understanding. It is the route we find we are following in the desert, each footfall on a surface which keeps no record, in a landscape which does not even acknowledge our existence. No track to follow, no trace left. The ultimate clear space. Stand in the broad deep bowl between these shifting mounds, hard underfoot, here and there textures of rock superficially whitened, sandy swirls drifting on hardened ripples of a prehistoric sea, like the ephemeral brushing of awareness forming. Start up a dune, sinking in the soft sand, straining muscle-paining effort, for a short passage the sand hardening on a flank crisped by the wind-shadow in a freezing night, but still a steepening aching slope to the soft sharp ridge. Sit astride the sand-whale and gaze out over the endless landscape unaltered by human hand and undifferentiated by nature’s intervention.
When we look within it is hard to find the clarity of an unobscured view. Layers of ‘noise’ come between and clutter up our gaze. Surface noise, the twittering chatter of daily irritants - the “why can’t?” “not again” “she could” “that’s me” “not now” “give up” - incessant babble of uncompleted work and re-work. Below this surface, the slower swell of unfulfilled intention and desire, a landscape forming and re-forming, fault lines present, sometimes clear, sometimes hidden, and always with potential to reveal themselves and mar the outlook or change the course. But if we are patient and allow the surface rippling to be still and the swell subside, we can hear the beat of our being behind our breathing: the rhythm of the earth itself. The desert floor.
Vermilion is the colour of the sunset in the desert, the burning disc igniting, drawing down its captured world, sand now dark orange slowly becoming black until the switch is flicked, the light is gone and scorching sand turns cold. Sit still and wait. Your eyes must cease their recoil from the glaring brightness of the day. Here is a different world. Here you can only feel your way, follow a direction through the chaos of dunes until exhausted, washed up on an endless shore, you stretch out on a bed made hard by the chilly touch of night. The passing of the day has opened up a space so vast the mind shivers. You are afloat in a gleaming sky of a billion stars. Sleeping in a soundless eternity.
Briefly before dawn comes a chill breeze from the east, and you shiver in the disappearing night. Look out over a day’s journey-worth of flat harsh stoney plain to the mountains beyond, outlined against a sky very slowly turning pink. The breeze stilling now, leaving only a sense of something coming closer… no sound, no movement… then, light-speed arrow of burnished gold shoots across the plain and strikes the dunes - shapes suddenly given form, grey melting to orange and red, a blinding disc burning away the horizon, the sun, the sun is here.
And still no sound.
You will never come closer to the silence at the birth of the universe.
~ ~ ~
We could say that we only know we exist in terms of what is happening and that there are two primary conditions for our awareness of our own existence, namely, our world changing and our mind interpreting. Our attention is awakened by a change and simultaneously our interpretation of the source of the awakening takes place. The process of interpreting extends through many levels, but first it presents the stimulus of something which is present to us. The arrival of a stimulus creates an awareness and an awareness signifies a ‘joining’, which is the first indicator of existence. Awareness is firstly this joining brought into existence by change. After that may come a description, a contextualisation, an understanding, but these are all different levels of interpretation building on the awareness. Before them has come the joining, the indicator of existence. And existence, joining, is the ending of nothing.
Sound, but more specifically music, is unique in creating a channel between nothing and existence. Music could be as old as language: flutes made out of bones have been discovered, which are 40000 years old. Superficially music serves no function in nourishing or protecting us, but over the last twenty years it has been discovered that it prompts activity across wide areas of the brain, even in memory and reasoning functions. In terms of our sense of our being, music holds us at the level of pure awareness: further interpretation is foiled because all music is abstract. Whereas a sound which is not a musical sound will have us wondering about its source and the nature of what is creating it, a first note of music may have us asking what instrument is playing it, but with far less mental activity and far less insistence. And more than this, it draws us in, calling forth appreciation and expectation. It always evokes a response from us.
In this way it also initiates an ongoing flow of consciousness, because our response does not end when the note can no longer be heard, even if no other notes follow. If you are able, take a stringed instrument - violin, guitar or piano - sit quietly for a few moments and then play just one note, somewhere in the octave above or below middle C. (If you are using a violin do not use the bow, just pluck the string, if you are using a piano, press the key and hold it down.) Listen to the note you have played. Listen by letting the note be all that is happening for you, ‘look’ at the note, letting it fill your being and move in your consciousness. Listen until the sound has faded away and then go on listening to the space which it has left… the space will be ‘coloured’ by where the note has carried you.
But music in its essence is note and rhythm. If it is the note, even the single note, which brings about existence through the purest joining of the hearer with the heard, the change which brings the joining, marking a life, starting time, then “rhythm is the colouring of time”. This phrase was used often by the French composer Olivier Messiaen, who in 1943 wrote ‘Visions de l’Amen’ for two pianos. The work begins with ‘Amen of Creation’, which encapsulates space becoming created matter and inspiring the ongoing flow of existence. This music of Creation emerges from an almost inaudible rumbling bass and over six minutes builds through the higher registers with an insistent rhythmic urge, the listener enveloped and propelled towards… space. The end is sudden, mid theme, but the flow of consciousness it has evoked in us carries on when the music stops.
Space is not just physical and, in any way that we can know it, it is not nothing.
Silence, if we could know it, would be a kind of space. The ending of the music leaves us standing on its edge. Then we fill it with our flow of consciousness. There are moments like this when the flow can be stilled, allowing glimpses of pure experience, like shafts of sunlight through the clouds. The music, having filled our minds and ended, now silently enriches the moments which follow, leaving us differently disposed to our world, without any need to let our mind replay, for in replaying we would lose it. These are moments of stillness and what we experience is their essence. There are others and they are always unpredictable. It is the ‘redness’ of the sky at sunset on that evening, the ‘piercing-ness’ of the light-speed arrow of the sunrise, the way the light and shade re-created the mountain today, the unadorned purity of the single note intoned, like a beacon in the infinity of space and the eternity of time.
In poetry we might record what they have been - the words of John Gillespie Magee, who in 1941 test-piloted a new spitfire at 30,000 feet were as close to such an experience as we can find. He started to compose as he reached the highest altitude and had just completed the poem as he came in to land:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Recorded but not retained, these are moments with ‘attachments’, which stand in time outside the flow.
Such moments of transcended consciousness occur for many and in different contexts. In a devotional setting they are felt as a connection with the divine. Others might use the description of ‘peak experience’. For many they are moments of removal from the flow of life happening, for which description and explanation are inconceivable because the duality of consciousness has been superseded. In the root meaning of the word they are moments of pure ‘ecstasy’, a standing outside one’s being, one’s self in abeyance. But they can never be sustained, for the act of holding demands objectivity - we must know what we are holding - and the duality of our consciousness is immediately re-kindled; we are returned to the flow of living. We are returned to normal existence. But the experience is never erased: a different kind of sensibility has been known: against the ground of such pure experience, living appears in relief.