Paul Andersen: Fair Game
October 10, 2010
And the vision that was planted in my brain/Still remains/Within the sound of silence
In “The Sounds of Silence,” Simon and Garfunkel sang about an alternative to a world increasingly ruled by noise, a world where silence is an echoing memory. When was the last time your ears rang from the absence of sound?
In the summer, I take visiting groups out on nature walks. Nature is a critical part of the Aspen experience, so I introduce visitors to nature as a tonic or antidote to the shrill, unceasing din of technological civilization. For many, witnessing nature in contrast to their frenetic daily lives is an eye-opening novelty, a glimpse of something foreign but strangely familiar.
Silence is part of the experience I share with them – the absence of mechanical, industrial, electronic sounds. Silence from the static of one’s own thoughts is much harder to tackle, but I try for that, too.
It starts with a walk down a trail, an easy saunter that cultivates sensory rather than cognitive awareness. I explain that Man, as a species, lived a thousand times longer in the natural world – the wilderness – than in so-called civilization. I remind them that until the last several hundred years, Man has moved only at a walking pace. Walking in wild nature, therefore, is what our sensory systems are best evolved to process most vividly.
Typically on these walks, an inward silence develops as the senses are allowed to awaken. This is a huge shift for many who have never consciously focused their senses on their surroundings, let alone on beautiful mountain settings that capture the whole person with sublime esthetic inputs. The more intense the sensory inputs, the greater the intensity of the moment. As a result, time stretches with the acuteness of the senses.
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Once we’re in the woods, I instruct my groups on 15-minute solos. I invite them to sit quietly and open themselves to an expansive relationship with all of existence. To most, these 15 minutes conjure a rare, meditative peace. Others are filled with fright and unease. Silence demands something more than they are willing to endure. They are no longer programmed for reflective silence. That software has been deleted. Without distractions, silence becomes a frightening void.
One recent group of international business consultants expressed a wide spectrum of experiences from their solos. Some said that the time flew by, that they wanted more. Some felt deep peace from watching a stream flow, from hearing the aspen leaves flutter in the breeze. These thoughts came only after they had stifled the work chatter that routinely infiltrates their brains. Others confessed that 15 minutes was a long, long time to endure their unfiltered thoughts. They felt out of place and anxious.
I asked each of them if they could commit 15 minutes a day for quiet contemplation, for seeking the “still, small voice” of their deepest thoughts. One man asked in total earnestness if he could do it in his car while stuck in traffic. That says something about our culture, when a car in a traffic jam affords the only glimpse of solitude we can find.
When Henry David Thoreau was asked if he got lonely at his Walden Pond hermitage, he replied, “Why should I feel lonely? Is not our planet in the Milky Way?” The heavens gave Thoreau transcendence as his humanness became another speck of billion-year-old carbon in the immensity of the universe.
Aligning with distant stars and galaxies requires a stretch of the mind, a reach of the imagination, but it offers a comforting sense of belonging to something far greater, far larger, than the world we pretend to know. If we can discover a sense of belonging to an all-inclusive community through the celestial grandeur shimmering from the blackness of space, then we can gain necessary perspective on the issues embroiling our lives today.
Perhaps our individual truth lies in the vastness of eternity or, as the song suggests, in the humble undercurrents of everyday life – if we only took the time to hear them: The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls/And tenement halls/And whispered in the sounds of silence.