There’s so much noise in the world—from engines and various electronic hums to the TVs that play in waiting rooms and laundromats to the music and ads pouring out of speakers in every retail space and even at gas pumps. Partway through working on this post, I went to the hardware store to get a new battery for my car key. Ford chip keys are hard to open, like a kind of puzzle, and mine defeated me. I let the man who was helping me concentrate on solving the puzzle without talking, and over the speakers in the store came Simon and Garfunkel’s song, “The Sounds of Silence.”
How often do we really hear silence? Hiking in Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument a few years ago, I came through a slot canyon and stood alone in the desert, in awe of the view—and realized with even greater awe that there were no sounds.
Then, a single insect made a single sound. One living note in the stillness.
More recently, I was practicing yoga at home while my washing machine was running. I heard my thoughts running, too, chasing each other. When the machine cut off my head suddenly went quiet with it. Such a bright silence, that special kind that comes when noise stops. It made me think of my favorite section in The Phantom Tollbooth—a children’s book I’d recommend to every adult. “Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”
Last week one of my regular yoga students mentioned how much he appreciated the fact that I’d used some non-melodic tones for background music. Being a musician, he found that most music took so much attention that he didn’t meditate or focus as deeply as he had with these simple tones. When I told him that the studios where I take classes don’t use music at all, he said that sounded like the perfect way to practice yoga. His wife disagreed. But she works with words. Music without words helps her quiet her mind. She feels a need to get away from words.
In his book of essays The Man Made of Words, N. Scott Momaday discusses the relationship between words and silence in Native American songs and stories. He says that silence “… is powerful. It is the dimension in which ordinary and extraordinary events take their proper places. In the Indian world, a word is spoken or a song is sung not against, but within the silence. In the telling of a story, there are silences in which words are anticipated or held on to, heard to echo in the still depths of the imagination. In the oral tradition, silence is the sanctuary of sound. Words are wholly alive in the hold of silence; there they are sacred.”
The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster, Random House, 1961
The Man Made of Words, N. Scott Momaday, St. Martin’s, 1997
Pictures of Kasha-Katuwe by Julius Ruckert, from Wikimedia Commons