listening to silence


POSTCARD#370: Bangkok: When I woke up, the rain was gone, it had passed through in the night, leaving everyone deafened by the sound of it on roof tiles, sloped glass roof windows and battered concrete pathways. Seen from the 2nd floor, it looked like the trees had sunk deeper into the landscape because of the sustained torrent falling from the sky. And now the sun has its position above the clouds again, a sharpness of heat in the shrinking shadows, and bit by bit, all evidence of rain dried up, puddles diminish until there’s only a wetness, a moisture, then that dries up too. A cool breeze enters through the open doors and windows of our house and passing through downstairs rooms and corridors leading to other rooms and through the open doors and windows of the neighbors’ houses, where I can hear voices I don’t normally hear.

A curious and unusual silence in the background and the intervals between sounds. It’s because nobody has the air conditioning running, even the ceiling fans and standing fans are switched off. All the doors and windows are wide open for the coolness passing along the walls, and in and out of the corners and spaces we inhabit. I feel a shared awareness with our neighbors because of the stay-at-home order for our long months indoors, and this meandering cool breeze circulating through our connected passageways carries these household sounds in the silence I feel compelled to listen to.

Sit up in bed, raise the body for a moment, push two pillows under me and sit down again on top. The pillows sink into the soft mattress, raising the body slightly above bed level. My weight holds it all in place, folded legs and knees supported with the bed cover pushed underneath, keeps the posture stable. Back straight, shoulders at ease, and body still, I can focus on the inbreath then the long outbreath – the long inbreath and long outbreath and so on.

Bathed in the zizzle of silence in my own ears, I search through tiny noises near and far away. Partial words in a language I don’t know well, dishes clink, forks and spoons gently crash. A shout, the bark of a dog, a child cries and a bird sings in a two-tone melodic bird-sized gasp of air. A bicycle bell rings, a street trader’s call, a car horn beeps, and it goes on. Auditory events jump out from a clamor of sounds, in perceived grabs of recognition. I suspect it’s not the ‘actual’ sound I’m listening to, it’s the ear consciousness function that selects each unit of sound according to how it is identified or perceived. Unknown partial sounds are replaced by known sounds, or ear consciousness triggers a process wherein the object is located according to the ‘closest match’ that can be found in the memory’s filing system.

It’s the listening process itself that chooses the sounds I want to hear, and the whole procedure is seemingly directed towards a ‘self’ that classifies all this as ‘mine’ and ‘me’ of course. Thus a ‘self’ slips into view, flimsy, insubstantial ghostlike being, a temporary presence appearing in an agreed-upon reality. It doesn’t stay long, lets go of any claims to this and that and disappears in the silence.

In the normal way, attention shifts from one thing to another. Surprising events grab the attention: other chains of thought wait to be finished as soon as there is a gap. So there is never any peace. This is efficient in using all available processing capacity, but what does it feel like to be … in such a system? I suppose it feels like most of us do feel – pretty confusing. The only thing that gives it any stability is the constant presence of a stable self model. No wonder we cling to it.’ Dr. Susan Blackmore [link to: Science tackles the self ]


Photo: buddhaweekly.com

3 thoughts on “listening to silence

    • Thanks Ellen for these words. Inspiring for me as I struggle to get the whole thing moving again after crashing a number of times over the last couple of years. Brevity, minimalism – it starts out as a much larger piece and I start removing chunks of it and chipping away at it like a sculptor hacks away at the block with no real plan in mind, until a form emerges from the inert stone. Then it finds its own meaning and (hopefully) stops when it is complete.

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