A FEW YEARS ago at dawn one Summer morning, a friend and I pedalled our bikes up Australia’s highest mountain. This is possible on account of the fact that Australia is the world’s oldest continent and Mount Kosciuszko (7,310 feet or 2,228 metres tall and named by Polish explorer Strzelecki in 1840) has been weathered over millennia into a place much more rounded than its younger, steeper and craggier equivalents elsewhere in the world. And there’s a thin dirt road that takes you nearly to the top.
But that’s by the by.
The thing is that when we got there not only were we alone at the highest point on the world’s biggest island but up there it was absolutely, utterly, wonderfully silent.
No wind and no wind through leaves (there’s no bushes or trees up there), no chirruping insects or croaking frogs, no twittering birds or mooing cows, no distant bark of a dog on the breeze, no traffic, no lawnmowers, no voices. Nothing — just glorious silence.
Absolute silence is a thing most of us rarely get to experience — and I don’t think I had done so until this truly extraordinary moment — and when you do it can be utterly profound.
I was struck with the realisation that silence – if you stop and take it in — can feel full rather than empty; pregnant with possibility rather than absent of meaning.
And we rush to fill that silence in so many ways.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room by himself” — Blaise Pascal
The French mathematician and philosopher’s words are a wonderful homily on the virtues of a little introspection and meditation and it’s also a reminder that silence, and inner silence, are things that we could do with a little more of.
But silence is so much more than just the absence of sound.
These days silence is too often misunderstood and under-appreciated commodity (mainly because it’s sometimes pretty difficult to find). And it’s also a misunderstood virtue particularly in the way we communicate. Most of us believe that talking is our primary means of expression, but we forget that the silences in between the words have a lot to say too.
In Japan, on the other hand, one of the hardest things to learn about the language (I’m told) is the appropriate use of silence.
In some cultures silence is normal and in others it signifies anguish. In some situations silence can reveal your thoughts, in others it can hide them.
Cultures that are more individualist by nature tend to value words more than the gaps inbetween them. Cultures that are more collectivist and have a sense of the group as important tend to place more emphasis on the non-verbal too.
To be silent, at certain times, in some cultures is to be polite. To be silent in an individualist culture can often be considered aloof. In some cultures silence can be a normal part of social situation; in others it’s restricted to libraries, churches, the movies (at least it used to be) and the golf course as one of your friends tees off.
Silence can be respectful, silence can be rude, silence can be complex, silence can be powerful.
I’ve been a journalist all of my working life and one of the first things you discover is to harness that power.
Every journo knows that if you let a silence linger a little longer than is usually socially acceptable, your interview subject will nearly always rush into it with the most interesting and revealing things. It’s as if we’re afraid of silence. Better to reveal inner thoughts than be confronted with the sheer rawness of the silence.
When you first start learning to meditate — when you first start sitting quietly in a room by yourself — what you discover is that the thoughts in your head are very loud and demanding. You learn that silence has lot more to do with mere sounds. You learn that it’s not only sounds that are loud, but also our thinking about them.
You begin to discover that silence isn’t so much to do with the sound “out there” — outside our own consciousness – but that it’s more about our relationship with all the “noise” in our awareness.
Silence is ever present, even when it’s noisy. It’s the space from where our communication with each other happens. It’s vast and it’s majestic and it’s not so simple to describe. It’s also something we don’t experience too often in our loud and frantic world. But when we do, like on an empty and breezeless mountaintop at dawn, it’s a mind-stopping reminder that it’s from this vibrant and potential-laden silence that everything unfolds.
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A version of this post, by the same author, first appeared on whatmeditationreallyis.com