"There's a great space in which this moment takes place. There's a great silence that is listening to the thoughts," says Adyashanti, a spiritual teacher who leads silent retreats at Omega and elsewhere.
“In the end it’s all very simple. Either we give ourselves to silence or we don’t,” he says.
But how can we find silence in the cacophony of our modern world? Cities have always been loud, but noise has now crept into the suburbs, and even the wild, and is nearly impossible to escape.
Finding Silent Spots
Retreats can help us learn to find an internal silence that can surround us even in the loudest places, but according to acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, there are few areas left in the United States where we can spend 15 minutes without hearing some human sound.
In 1983 in Washington State there were 21 places that were “silent,” Hempton says. (He defines silence as an absence of human sound, not as being devoid of all sound.) Now there are a mere three silent places in Washington State and fewer than a dozen in the nation as a whole. In Europe there are none.
Five minutes is the average time, for all locations in the United States, where you can escape the sound of mechanical vibrations or an airplane passing overheard, he explains.
Hempton promotes the protection of what he calls “the quietest place in the United States,” an area of the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park.
“Silence is part of our human nature, which can no longer be heard by most people.” He argues this disconnects us from our birthright, “to listen, quietly and undisturbed, to the natural environment and take whatever meanings we may from it. By listening to natural silence, we feel connected to the land, to our evolutionary past, and to ourselves.”
Not being able to tap into the sounds of the nonhuman world also disconnects us from our creative past, the very origins of human creative expression.
Bernie Krause, whose career spans everything from playing folk music with The Weavers to pioneering electronic music and soundscape recordings, says that without connecting to the sounds of the natural world, “there would be no music, no legend, no voice to stir the soul, evoke the memory, or transport the spirit!”
Krause explains, “The origins of music began in the wild, as creature voices joined in some particularly significant ways, likely inspiring humans to dance, sing, speak, and perform over eons of time.”
In his TED talk from 2013, he highlights the marked decline of places where the full range of natural sounds is now absent because the locations have been so altered by human activity.
“When I began recording over four decades ago, I could record for 10 hours and capture one hour of usable material, good enough for an album or a film soundtrack or a museum installation. Now, because of global warming, resource extraction, and human noise, among many other factors, it can take up to 1,000 hours or more to capture the same thing. Fully 50 percent of my archive comes from habitats so radically altered that they’re either altogether silent or can no longer be heard in any of their original form.”
Balancing Silence & Sound
Much like humans' influence on climate since the Industrial Revolution, our relationship with sound is also about balance. The scale to which human activity has expanded in the past century, and in particular the past few decades, is such that the balance of human and nonhuman sounds has become quickly and radically tipped to one side.
In a 2010 interview in The Sun, Hempton explains while human sounds have been part of the acoustic landscape since there have been humans, we’re often oblivious to how our actions sound.
“Imagine we’ve gathered to hear a symphony, and a handful of people are running vacuum cleaners or perhaps playing their own instruments without any regard for the orchestra,” he says. “That’s how human sounds often come across in a wilderness environment…. Too often the sounds people make are just waste products of their activity, discarded like trash with no regard for the environment.”
Hempton reminds us, sounding as much like a spiritual teacher as an ecologist, “Silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything.”
Being in natural silence, where you can hear the birds and other animals, the trees, the wind, and the water, makes it easier to recognize the inherent connection between those things and our interconnected relationship to all of it.
Adyashanti suggests you "imagine trusting silence more than any thought you can come up with." Embracing the greatest and smallest parts of existence, ourselves included, requires opening not just our hearts, but our ears, too.
© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies