Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Sound of Silence

Odanglesex fans - and there do seem to be some in the U.S., U.K. and France - I'll return to and finish "the Partnership" next time I'm on. Right now I want to write about something else.

I'm a Quaker. Quakers are a worldwide movement and in some places - notably the U.S. - practices have gone a long way from the original. British Quakers have stayed close to the original in terms of practice and organisation - no clergy, meeting for worship centring on silent contemplation, a great shortage of DO's and DON'T's, just "advices and queries" - but I'm sure some would say that with our ranks including Buddhists, Hindus and agnostics, we're some way from the original theology. But this is not an essay on being a Quaker and still less a piece of proselytisation. It's an essay on silence.

Quaker worship starts with a period of silence we call "centring down" and it can happen a whole one hour meeting is silent. This is evidently very challenging for some people, and we hear the same from people leading meditation or spiritual experience in other traditions: people don't like silence as it makes them uneasy and they don't know what to do to fill it. This seems to be a growing trait. I occasionally attend my local Church of England church and when the priest says, "We will now have a moment's silence", the moment seems to last 5-7 seconds. However, there are still people who love spending hours alone and largely silent, fishing (and say the peace, not the fish, is the main thing) and others who walk alone in the hills as I do given a chance.

We're getting more and more used to instant replies and instant gratification. I hear someone on their mobile phone, perhaps walking along oblivious to the physical world outside, telling a partner or close friend about something that's just happened and is clearly not urgent, and I wonder if anything would be lost by waiting till they met. Many people apparently are really afraid of being separated from their mobile phones, unable to make or receive instant contact. If I'm curious about something factual, Wikipedia will tell me, and that's marvellous; but when do we leave time for calm thought, or beyond that, an emptying of the mind so the unexpected can come into it - or is that precisely what we want to avoid?

Any number of people have told me they find classical music "gloomy", and even apply this to gloriously joyful works like Grieg's "Wedding at Trollshaugen". Do they mean "gloomy", or disturbing because it encourages you to think, or are the thoughts that come to them below the surface all gloomy?

I strive to fill silence myself sometimes. I walk by an estuary or in a wood, and if I have no bird identification tasks before me, I analyse the relegation-threatened end of the football Premiership, or consider Diplomacy moves. That's why the discipline of the Quaker meeting with a common silence is so valuable - that plus the sense of coming closer in silence. I think I should be in silence more often - and if someone finds silence threatening, can they identify the threat and consider if it really is a threat?


  1. in the world of instant gratification,
    silence frightens I think because it causes one to live with themself in that moment, in instant gratification they exist, going with the flow of where-ever they me be at that moment, silence is peace to me, withour peace you cannot truely know love for it isn't material gratification, it is seeing a reflection in a raindrop, a flower opening first thing in the morning, listening to the trees whispers thank you to the birds singing for them....
    just my thought...
    i liked this post...
    a very good one for the First day of Spring

  2. Many thanks, ladybluerose. That's precisely what I think and you've expressed it beautifully. It recalls Blake: "To see a world in a grain of sand/ And Heaven in a wild flower/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ And eternity in an hour".