Human mind has a tendency to go to extremes when exploring an experience; it often negates the opposite of what it tries to explore. But life is not either or. It is much more complex; it contains opposites in a delicate balance. Combination of opposites, to be more precise, the unity of opposites in the dialectical sense sustains life that appears as a series of contradictory actions.
Experiences are defined by references, direct and oblique, to what contradicts them. Can we imagine and conceive silence without what contradicts it, sound? Presence of one pointing to the absence of its opposite proves that both are linked but negatively. Presence of one cannot be conceived without a sense of ever-present absence of other. When we think of silence what immediately comes to mind is stillness, absence of sound, non-presence of all kind of natural and mechanical noise that surround us in social and private life.
Sounds is a sign of activity emanating from human society and nature that has made our life through an evolutionary process what it is. It signals human triumph over natural forces and organising of individual and collective life with grit and sweat. Unfortunately, it is more of sweat that makes life landfill of noise that never allows us to pause and ponder over our relationship with ourselves and nature we are product of.
Cacophonous nature of non-stop gain driven activities makes humans incapable of epiphany; they remain mired in what is immediately present and becomes oblivious to the prospect of beyond that beckons with its serendipitous gifts. That is perhaps the reason why the wise emphasise the role of silence in the journey of self-discovery.
Silence in the real sense i.e. not merely absence of sound means discovering the real nature of one’s relationships with oneself, society and finding out the pattern of human existence that is compatible with flow and rhythm of nature.
There are different types of silence we encounter. It can be voluntary and forced one. Voluntary and forced silence has several subtypes. The former can be out of one’s choice with a view to contemplate, meditate and redefine the ensemble of one’s relationship in a state of detachment. But it can also be out of selfish motive in order to avoid a difficult choice or not committing to any position on important issues out of fear or to avoid any loss that may accrue from making one’s stance clear. “Silence is worse; all truths that are kept silent become poisonous,” says Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
As to the forced silence one can assert that it is invariably an outcome of coercion or threat of coercion in an oppressive socio-political system that denies freedom of expression, insists on compliance, prizes conformity and rewards the acceptance of official truths which are nothing less than concealed lies. Any truth that is made acceptable with the force of a whiplash is a lie waiting to be unveiled. But it is also true that silence can be mere silence, empty and a void left by cessation of sound.
Antonio Gramsci, a highly creative Italian thinker, narrates a joke about the Italian communists’ love of ‘silence’ that goes like this. In a certain part of Italy, three mountain ranges meet and on the summit of each range a giant lives. First giant says to the second; “listen, I hear the jingle of herds down in the valley.” Five hundred years pass and second giant responds: “yes, I can also hear it.” Another five hundred years pass and then the third giant speaks: “you make so much noise. So I leave this place.” Hence silence can also be rocky soil incapable of producing anything.
Silence can only be an intuitive and serendipitous if one who experiences it is able to eject all the noises that keep them tied to a so-called system that thrives on the promise of individual gains at the expense of others in a competitive no holds barred race. At times even sound can be silence pregnant with meanings that acts as counterpoint to the hollow noise of prevalent system.
A Zen master after years of learning and training in China returns to Japan, his native land. His fame spreads far and wide. His Japanese king summons him and showing him all the respect requests him to share with the court what he learnt in China. The master does not take seat. He keeps standing, takes out his flute from under his arm, plays some notes on it and leaves the royal court without uttering a single word. The sound of his flute is the silence that leaves the court speechless.
Mystics have always highlighted the significance of silence in the process of self-discovery in the face of wonder our world is. The author of Guru Bilastalking about mystic/poet Shah Husain (sixteenth century) wrote that when Guru Arjun was compiling Guru Granth Sahab in Amritsar, there were four mystics namely Kahna Bhagat, Chhajju Bhagat, Pilu Bhagat and Shah Husain in Lahore. The four got together and decided to visit Guru Arjun in Amritsar. Receiving them Guru Arjun said: “very kind of you to have visited me.” The Guru heard verses from the visitors. Shah Husain recited the following verses: “This is no place to open one’s mouth / keep silent friend/ there is a heavenly presence inside and outside / of this who should I speak to?” In another verse he talks of an agonising ordeal the choice between silence and sound poses: “If I keep silent, I suffer taunts / if I speak out, I am done for.”
Our contemporary society suffers from fear of silence because it erroneously takes silence as lack of activity. And it defines activity as something that is done for profit and gain, not for happiness illuminated by intellectual and spiritual insights.
Obsession with excessive production and consumption takes silence as deadness or at least inertia forgetting that great ideas, scientific and intellectual, usually occur to great human minds in a state of undisturbed silence.
Silence creates enabling environment that helps the intuitive activities to surface away from the joyless noise of mundanity. “The real valuable thing is intuition,” says Albert Einstein, the scientist. — firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2023
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