What if there’s no such thing as silence, only our tuning into the world the way God has created it to speak to us?
I recently listened to an interview with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton in which he made the fascinating observation that silence is our most endangered species. He’s world famous and respected for what he does and many see him as a pioneer in something they call silence activism. For decades he’s traveled throughout the world recording rainforests, wild parks, and the worlds presumably most silent national treasures, making sonic treasure boxes of God’s good earth for generations to come.
And now he’s saying there’s almost nowhere left on earth untainted by the noise of human culture.
That’s fascinating to me. I’ve been a musician by trade for almost a decade now and much longer than that by passion and hobby. I’m responsible for my share of that noise and I’m proud of it. The sound that human beings have created over millennia has helped give language to souls all over the world and the beauty of it all never seems to end.
But at the same time it feels like we’re becoming more and more addicted to noise.
Huge population growth has certainly driven that and of course, the industrial and technological revolutions can’t have helped much as accessibility and the proliferation of content and devices has transformed our lives. But I think there’s a problem in the West much deeper than that; an inability to sit with ourselves and a painful disconnection from the world around us that’s driving our anxiety and social disconnection through the clouds.
Noise Robs Us Of Ourselves
It’s almost impossible to escape noise in the city. It’s in every store, in every car and now in almost every earhole. Walking down Auckland Central’s Queen Street is like a sci-fi movie with everyone’s ears full of cordless white dongles. We appear to live in tiny villages of ‘one’ that up and walk around the place entirely captivated by a song or podcast that no-one else around us can join in on.
So it’s no surprise that our daily world is filled with noise, and ever increasingly our souls and minds too.
The problem with always having noise around us is that we’re constantly giving our mind external information to process. When misused, the words of podcasts, songs and conversations rob us of our attention to the inner life which is far more complex than a few minutes of space before bed can handle. If all we ever do is let other things and people start the conversation of our thoughts all the time, we’ll only ever be told what to think rather than having the chance to actually think ourselves.
If noise could be described as a thief of our inner life, then it may not only be silence becoming endangered, but the richness of our self-awareness too.
It takes time to understand the nuance of one’s self. Few people I know truly understand what’s driving them on the inside. Looking in is like space exploration with every memory or emotion pulling us in like gravity to a new system we didn’t even know existed. It’s not a one afternoon over a cup of coffee type exploration. It’s a constant return and stillness that grows over time.
Which is actually really exciting! But if the only time we’re ever quiet enough to explore the universe within is when we turn the lights out at night we’re more likely to discover a black hole than a supernova.
Which is perhaps why we’re experiencing record increases in depression and anxiety in our culture.
Silence Is The Language of God
By that I don’t mean nothingness. For many of us we’re way beyond the ability to find nothingness. I don’t even know where I’d go to find some degree of actual silence.
But it doesn’t feel like God made the world that way anyway. Because whenever I stop and listen there is always some form of life singing or groaning be it the wildlife in my vicinity or the crashing of waves at a nearby beach. And that’s not even taking into account the constant impressions and whispers of the Spirit within me.
Silence draws us into the sounds of God, because when we hear the waves crashing they teach us something about his nature. They’re his soundtrack. When we notice the wildlife around us we become aware in a new way of God’s creativity and when the tree’s whisper their wind-swept melodies we’re transported to another planet where God speaks in sound instead of words and dialect.
If silence is the act of noticing the natural noise that God made in the way he created it to be discovered, then coming to a silent life is more about easing back off noise than it is about eliminating it all together.
Not just that, if I can’t spend enough time noiseless and with myself how could I tell the difference between God’s voice and my own anyway?
Noticing As Communion
Returning to Gordon Hempton, I wonder if our occasional or persistent sense of disconnection from God actually stems from the numbness that comes from not noticing. Not noticing the sound track of creation that God promised to speak through. Not noticing how our inner world is a complex symphony of emotion, thought and consciousness that also teaches us something of him. Not noticing that the reason we can’t hear God is because we’re too busy not listening in the first place and possibly because we don’t even know ourselves yet.
And before you start accusing me of naval gazing, all this would have been extremely natural for us only centuries ago when we had to walk everywhere, wash and dry our own dishes and laundry, and send an actual human messenger to communicate with distant loved ones.
All these slowing and “silent” practices would have built a natural self awareness as we had more time to notice and process ourselves and the world we were experiencing.
They would have given us the opportunity to bring more of ourselves to communion with God. Because we would have been so much more aware of the condition of our heart, the needs and longings of our community, and the wonder of the world he made.
But if that kind of life those centuries ago could be likened to snail mail, the world of noise and distraction we live in currently is like Fibre on drugs.
The Art of Silent-Noticing
So maybe prayer could be about bringing silence back from the brink of extinction. Be it ten minutes a day or hours by choosing to make silence as regular a part of our culture as podcasts, music and coffee.
I’m not talking about blocking out the world entirely because it, and culture, are exciting and God given too.
I’m talking about noticing as a form of silence. Walking down the road with ears empty and a mind aware of the people, the noises and the smells we encounter. Aware of them in a way that God may be speaking through them, showing you something special about himself in the ordinary places you are.
Maybe as we’re aware of it all we’ll begin to see new parts of God and discover an effortless communion with him in the process.
I used to think silence was a long walk on an isolated beach in the middle of the night. Now I tend to think of it as a lifestyle. A million tiny decisions to decant my mind, soul and ears from an overcrowded attention economy.
Silence, to me, has become an inner condition and a disposition toward experiencing life as it is. Learning God’s voice in the world he made and enjoying the bustle of humanity in whom he placed his imprint of creativity to share.
Maybe this week if you get the chance don’t reach for your phone, car stereo or podcast when you get uncomfortably bored. Take a moment to listen within and without, and to allow the Spirit to speak to you in the places you already live.