What do you do when life forces you to silence yourself? PETER SILBERMAN, frontman of acclaimed indie outfit THE ANTLERS, found himself confronted with this unusual situation a few years back. Hyperacusis and tinnitus forced him to distance himself from everyday’s noises but also the music. The result is his upcoming solo debut Impermanence, out now via Transgressive. For NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION the songwriter reflects on those troubled times, how he embraced silence and why we all should do exactly that from time to time.
There are so many mundane silence-eaters that to notice them all is to overwork your senses. Air conditioners hum and rattle. Cars’ tires whoosh along pavement as they approach and pass. Slow-sounding planes flange across the sky, disguising incredible speed. These things are so ignorable and ordinary we rarely realize they cost us something basic and beatific. To truly dig silence, consider its equivalent along a sibling mode of perception. Your eyes’ built-in
mechanism to shut out incoming info can create a blackout at your convenience. You can pull down the shades and block harm from shining in. But as acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton points out, there are no earlids. The few biological defenses we have against hostile sound include cupping or plugging our ears. At best, either method muffles and some sound bleeds in.
I had a strange incident with my hearing a few years back, during which neither of these did the trick. Every dull sound roared, and a ringing placeholder imitated damaged frequencies. These conditions are called hyperacusis and tinnitus, respectively. Through that period, I meditated by listening for silence. For about a month it was nonexistent. But it evolved to become more like a low cloud cover, thinner in some areas, with hints of sky behind it. In some sessions, the clouds fell to fog, and I could part it by waving my metaphysical hands.
The fog dispersed over the following years, and silence provided a container to pour myself into. It responded like a mirror, painfully accurate and free of distortion.
But the more I practiced quieting my mind, the more I found thoughts rushing in to fill the newly emptied space. Further practice produced a wider room for thoughts to spill into. In my best meditations, the room was a foyer, ushering noise out the door. Craving solitude and a relationship with the natural world, I resided in the woods for awhile. Embracing quiet heightened my awareness out there. I hoped to pick up on communication within species, and tried to develop more of an intuitive familiarity with the fabric of the environment. Recognizing next-to-nothing in the way of birdcalls and whatnot, I relied on the logic and mood of the forest.
‘Love is felt in silence, but too often ruined by words’
I picked up on inconsequential things- a distant falling tree signaled chipmunks to scatter. Deer fled in advance of me snapping branches beneath my feet. An eerie hush fell as a storm approached. It was my motionless silence that kept a sizable black bear from spotting me a mere dozen feet ahead. It was some distant sound, barely audible to me, that had him dash back into the deeper forest and leave me there. I haven’t experienced true silence in years, but relative inner-quiet is the state I eagerly seek out and gratefully abide in when I can. Silence can be a willful creation of peaceful space, cleansing an area of audible strife. This has revealed itself as my goal for the moment, to superimpose my closest approximation of silence over the noisy world around me.
I think the ability to be quiet with someone is a unique compatibility. It transcends the awkwardness of not-speaking to share something comfortable and vivid.
Love is felt in silence, but too often ruined by words. And when words fail, I try to remember the difference between complacent silence and defiant silence. The former is passive, resigned to let things be. Misused, it erodes communication. But defiant silence is a protest, a boycott. It’s an active refusal to play a game on anyone’s terms but yours truly’s. It’s an alternative to mirroring anger, to instead fight belligerence with dead fucking silence. Facing rampant aggression, a considerate pause can be a disarming defense.
Carl Sagan talked about The Pale Blue Dot, the apparent serenity of the planet viewed from a galactic distance. Silence is the soundtrack of that cosmic vantage point. From that perspective, suffering is inaudible. Silence bookends our lifespan. It’s the void from which we emerge, and the same void to which we return. Yet despite its seeming nothingness, it’s a presence, an elegant deity, the body and being of a vital element. Prayer is so often performed within the safety of sacred walls, muting the chaos of the world outside and offering divine protection by noise-cancellation, by bottling the goddess.
It never resonated with me when I was younger, but I see now that I was too focused on the words.
I should have been paying attention to the silence.