I thought I was just getting crotchety as I noticed how loud the music in restaurants was becoming. When I ask the waiter to turn it down they sometimes give me a look to check I am from this planet. But then I find that many others, young and old, also notice and feel the same. Public spaces are increasingly designed to block personal communication and to saturate all conversation in media-generated content.
For many people in an over stimulated and mentally noisy world silence is alien and frightening, the sign of something wrong, a spectre of dread. The spiral accelerates. The noisier we are the noisier we need to be in order to skirt the great plateau of silence that seems uninhabitable and uncrossable. Increasingly, silence disturbs us.
There are different kinds of silence and different levels. The negative kind is the refusal to communicate. This is created when anger or hostility throws up barriers between us and others dismantling trust and the natural human curiosity about others that is the basis of relationship. I won’t talk to you because you frighten me by the anger or fear that you stir in me. There is another kind of negative silence generated by chronic isolation, increasingly common today, which makes you seem like a phantom to me, something from another dimension, of no interest because of no relevance. So, I will turn my headphone volume up and remain in the music or the video that poses no threat because I have complete control over it and it blocks out the otherness of the world.
True silence is powerful. It can survive noise, distraction and isolation because it is the work of attention, in fact of love, bearing the fruit of human rather than digital connectivity. The human smile flashed and exchanged in silence crosses astronomical distances of isolation and alienation, distrust and fear in microseconds. The proof that we can co-exist in a friendly silence and overcome its initial nervousness or embarrassment opens the heart to a unique kind of intimacy free of all desire and fear.
There is nothing so much like God as silence, said Meister Eckhart.
The practices of Lent and the general mood we should be cultivating during this season of spiritual training predispose us to regain the meaning and enjoyment of silence. At first, it may involve being immersed in media less. A digital fast. But it is essentially about developing the quality of attention we bring to every moment, the clarity to see and relate to what is in front of us. If you meditate seriously this is inevitable. Meditation raises awareness because it strengthens the wavelength, the network, of silence.