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Silence: A user’s guide

Maggie Ross

Ancient writers and modern neuro-psychologists concur that to function fully we need access both to everyday consciousness and 'deep mind'. Maggie Ross believes this balance requires a silence that is rare - but not yet extinct - in modern life.


The driver stopped his battered car in front of the ornate 19th-century stone building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Before I could drag my bags out of the vestibule into the icy north wind, he was there, gently lifting them across the dirty snow. He held the car door for me as if his aging sedan were a long black limousine, and I, a Park Avenue grande dame.

We seated ourselves. He asked me if I would like to have the radio on. I declined, but encouraged him to use it if it facilitated our drive to Newark. 'It is so hard to find silence in this city,' he replied, and we drove in peace under an intense blue winter sky across the George Washington Bridge into the squalor of New Jersey. To share silence with this unknown, courteous man seemed almost subversive.

We traversed a concrete overpass, whose pylons were sunk into the mud of a ruined estuary, and continued along the desolate turnpike, then veered off at the exit that led to the bleak concrete expanse of airport. The protected space we had made for ourselves inside the car was continually assaulted by the wrecked landscape passing by its windows, the ugliness that is visual noise, the destructiveness that is the consequence of noise and the heedlessness of noise that had irreversibly paved and poisoned the environment, that blighted the lives of people who were forced to live and work in it, an apocalypse far beyond the reach of any semblance of restoration. I might have despaired but for the depth of the unexpected and welcoming silence I encountered that day with that thoughtful stranger.



The choice for silence or noise, for carefulness or carelessness, is ours in every moment. To choose silence as the mind's default in an accelerating consumer culture - a culture that sustains itself by dehumanising people through the unrelenting pressure of clamour, confusion, and commodification - is indeed a subversive act.

For the reality is that our lives hang in the balance: between speech and silence, action and reflection, distraction and attention, extinction and survival. We bear responsibility for maintaining this balance, just as our choices for or against silence can affect the choices of everyone around us, choices that have both material and psycho-spiritual consequences. We seem to have forgotten this responsibility, for in the present time we are disconnected from the wellspring of silence and stillness that is necessary for human beings to thrive. If there is to be a viable ecology, if we are to remain human, if our lives are to have any meaning, if we are to continue as a viable species, it is essential that we restore the flow that enables our everyday lives to be informed by the riches found in silence.



Life hangs in the balance. This thought may provoke profound insecurity, yet the first step toward restoring the circulation between silence and speech is to make ourselves at home within the liminal spaciousness of our own minds, in the equipoise of attentive receptivity that opens the flow between these two aspects of knowing, that frees us from the strictures of time and the persecution of our own thoughts. To inhabit this balance, to have the wellspring of silence inhabit us, is the source of true happiness; there is security only in the apparent insecurity of this spacious silence. This descriptor paradox is but one of many associated with silence, for it is often through entering the gates of paradox that hidden passages to the deep mind become unblocked, enabling us to wait receptively, without striving, without expectation for this or that-the first step in restoring the natural flow between the direct knowledge of our core silence, and our always-interpreting self-conscious rationality.

The world is out of joint not only because, from a cultural point of view, our bodies have been cut off from our minds - just one of many consequences of our having lost our relationship with the natural world - but also because our minds, overloaded with extraneous information, and stressed by the frenetic speed required merely to stay alive in our artificial world, have lost their relationship with the original silence from which, and within which, we evolved; silence that is essential to language, insight, poetry, and music. This loss of communion has gradually eroded our humanity, for what makes us human is not language, tool use, artifice, or self-consciousness - current research is showing us that many animals have these gifts as well - but rather the ability of the human mind to come full circle and forget itself in silence.



For millennia our survival in the natural world depended on the flow between deep silence and our developing self-consciousness. In our technological age, this flow has been choked off, and in consequence our survival is under threat. Few of us who live in the industrialized societies of the West today have contact with anything that is not a product of our own making. Inner city children, taken to the country, are frightened of chickens, cows, and grass. We harbour within ourselves a secret home- sickness, yet we seem unable to follow our longing except by creating yet more artifice, which only drives us farther away withits projections of nostalgia and romanticism, of sentimentality and violence, of the glorification of the ugly.

Yet beneath the crackling static and numbness generated by the phantasms of the age, the greater, hidden part of our mind, the source of authentic life, is still intact - at least for now. Our fascination with wildlife films provides but one example: we are riveted by the beauty and strangeness of animals interacting with their environment and with one another. Their survival depends on intra- and inter-species communication to be sure, but even more on their attentiveness to the silence, listening with every fibre of their being. We are enthralled not only by their uniqueness and their beauty but also by the realization at some deep level that we are beholding our own lost nature. 'To become receptive to the natural world is to come home.'1 Silence is our natural habitat, and the work of silence is, as it were, a process of returning to the wild.



If we are to recover our balance - and our humanity - we need to unblock the flow of communication between the limited world of our self-consciousness that is linear, finite, two-dimensional, static, and dead, and our core silence - our deep mind - that is global, infinite, dynamic, and multi-dimensional. It is a mistake to say that the former is 'rational' and the latter 'irrational.' Too often the word rational is used when linear is meant. Both are rational ways of knowing, both are necessary; but the world of self-consciousness is rational only in the artifice of two dimensions, it can only reify; while the rationality of the deep mind is global, holistic, holographic, alive, and perceives directly.

If we are to be human, we need to seek and sustain a flow between these two aspects of knowing, between deep, multidimensional, interior silence, and the superficial linearity with which we negotiate what appears to be the exterior world, so that the two ways of knowing inform each other.

We need to acknowledge that it is not our discriminating and reflexive self-consciousness that makes us human, but rather the ability to move beyond this self-consciousness to engagement and beholding, the irruption of our core silence into everyday life. Robert Bringhurst notes, 'if you divide the world into them and us, and history into ours and theirs, or if you think of history as something only you and your affiliates can possess, then no matter what you know, no matter how noble your intentions, you have taken one step toward the destruction of the world.'2



Life really does hang in the balance in every moment. It hovers horizontally between the past, which cannot be changed, and the future, which is refulgent with potential but fraught with our projections. It is poised vertically between self-conscious rationality, which is the source of these projections, and deep silence, where we touch reality directly. We need to recover the ability to live at the intersection: in the present moment, energized by the upwelling from deep silence where, in Christian terms, our shared nature with God becomes manifest.

Neuro-psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist has addressed this issue extensively from the point of view of brainhemisphere research:

'I believe that over time there has been a relentless growth of self- consciousness, leading to increasing difficulties in cooperation [between the hemispheres] . . . Both hemispheres clearly play crucial roles in the experience of each human individual, and I believe both have contributed importantly to our culture. Each needs the other. Nonetheless, the relationship between the hemispheres does not appear to be symmetrical, in that the left hemisphere is ultimately dependent on, one might almost say parasitic on, the right, though it seems to have no awareness of this fact. Indeed it is filled with an alarming self-consciousness. The ensuing struggle is as uneven as the asymmetrical brain from which it takes its origin . . . . . . it is as if the left hemisphere, which creates a sort of self-reflexive virtual world, has blocked off the available exits, the ways out of the hall of mirrors, into a reality which the right hemisphere could enable us to understand. in the past, this tendency was counterbalanced by forces from the outside the enclosed system of the self-conscious mind; apart from the history incarnated in our culture, and the natural world itself, from both of which we are increasingly alienated, these were principally the embodied nature of our existence, the arts and religion.'3

In reality, as those who have observed their minds from ancient times have written, and as neuro- biological research has shown, the human mind has paradox and ineffability built into its operating system. It is those who deny that there is anything beyond linear rationality who are lying, for to promote the virtual over the actual is contrary to the very essence of empiricism.



Ancient, late antique, and medieval writers were obsessed with the mind; they described what they observed about the workings of their own minds under the guise of myth, philosophical language, and religious metaphor. If one knows how to decode these texts, there is a remarkable correspondence between their discoveries and those of contemporary neuro-psychologists. These authors tell us that if we choose to learn how to use silence, how to meet it on its own terms and engage it, we will discover that it provides us with the means to move from living less than half a life toward the possibility of living a whole life in freedom, even in the face of efforts by multinationals and false scientism to enslave us.

The ideology that confines thought to linear, self-conscious rationalism is fallacious, as the mathematician Kurt Gödel, echoing Socrates, demonstrated in the early twentieth century, when he published his famous proofs, showing that formal, closed systems, are both incomplete and inconsistent. Gödel noted that his proofs had implications for religion, but if he developed his thought in this direction, written evidence has not been preserved. Gödel lived in a time when religion had already lost most of its credibility; for more than four centuries it had been severed from its source in silence, thanks to pre-Reformation policies, such as those pursued by the inquisition; and, in academia, the divorce of so-called historical theology from praxis in the seventeenth century. But instead of formal logical philosophicalsystems, Gödel might as well have been talking about the sterile closed systems that characterize much of contemporary institutional religion, as well as academic theology.



The self-conscious mind, which corresponds to what McGilchrist says about the left hemisphere, is very limited in its capacity, and in the number of items it can hold in play in any moment; while, by contrast, the deep mind appears to have an almost infinite capacity. Yet most of us act, react, and rely on the distorted representations of the self-conscious mind when trying to evaluate the state of our relationships with people and the material world.

If we cling to this delusion, we shut out the counterpoise of silence that is our true human context, not only in the deep mind, but also as the loss of flow from deep mind affects our way of being in the world. It is by working with this silence that communication and exchange between the deep mind and the self-conscious mind can be restored, opening us to direct perception, which in turn leads to more profound, contextualized, polyvalent interpretations. But the self-conscious mind wants to hide this fact from us: through its twisted ideology and strategies it tries to delude us that silence is to be avoided at any cost, even if that cost is the loss of our humanity; at some level it seems to be afraid that we might realize that the would-be emperor has no clothes on. To choose to live the fullness of our humanity is costly; but so is learning to swim or any new skill. In the cacophonous world we inhabit these days, the self-conscious mind would have us believe that it is much easier to yield to the noise and drown.



This temptation to surrender and drown, to yield to the 'whatever' attitude, is the wrong sort of letting- go. Instead of setting us free, it opens us to exploitation by a consumer culture. It demands that we disbelieve any information that cannot be proven in the laboratory, stated in linear terms (preferably in buzz words or slogans), or sliced and diced into bits and bytes. It preaches scientism, a utilitarian, mechanistic, materialistic gospel of repetition, which is a distortion of true empirical knowledge. It locates the centre from which we draw energy in the hamster cage of self-consciousness, a closed system infiltrated and compromised by those who control the media: hype is might.

Under the guise of empiricism, a consumer culture creates the illusion that the skewed and limited perceptions and subjective interpretations of our self-consciousness that we call experience are the only reality. We search for ever more thrilling experiences. This search becomes the sole focus of our lives: experience becomes an idol, a god. If we buy into this illusion, the market can influence both what happens to us and how we interpret these events. The exaltation and absolutizing of experience forces us to relate to everyone and everything as objects to be manipulated and exploited, distorting them to serve our prejudices and reinforce our consumer-oriented feedback loops.



Marketing exploits the self-conscious mind's inflation to compound this confusion. It pretends to offer freedom, but in fact takes it away; it pretends to create choice, but narrows vision; it pretends to enlarge potential, while slamming the door; it pretends to offer the opportunity to become a bigger and better person, while reducing human beings to obese, uncritical, and robotic infants.

The advent of the computer has further degraded the art of relationships. The companionable silences that once deepened the friendships of those physically present to one another have become almost inconceivable. The noun friend has become a verb to friend; the so-called friends that are counted on social networks are no longer persons but consumables, notches on the belt of popularity. Radios, TVs, iPods, tablets, mobile phones, in-store broadcasts in diabolical concert with the unrelenting environmental assaults from machine noise and background micro-radiation, not to mention increasingly complex bureaucracy, keep difficult questions, painful insight, and genuine emotion at bay. They make ambiguity intolerable; they permeate our lives with horror vacui.



In the seventeenth century, the mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62) suggested that 'man's unhappiness arises from one thing alone: that he cannot remain quietly in his room.'4 His remark is symbolic of the fear of engaging the space of limitless interior silence, fear that by his day had taken hold of institutional Christianity.

Pascal's remark speaks by implication of restoring communion with, and re-centring in, the deep mind within us, the process I call the work of silence. It is the choice to turn away from noise toward an unfiltered reality, to receive its gifts of fulfilment and joy. The purpose of the work of silence is to re-establish the flow between self-consciousness, which discriminates, dominates, and distorts our lives, and the clarity and wisdom of the deep mind, which is not directly accessible, but whose activities we can influence.

The term work may be slightly misleading, for the only effort involved - and in today's world, to refocus and relax into letting go paradoxically can require a great deal of effort - is to choose to be still, to allow the noise to fall away, to be receptive, and, as Suso notes, to ungrasp so that we may be 'grasped' by illumination.5

This simple work restores balance to our lives; it bestows equilibrium and equanimity. Because the fundamental operations of the human mind are universal and have not changed in recorded history, and in spite of centuries of religious and secular propaganda to the contrary, silence is open to everyone, literate or illiterate, king or slave, secular or religious, saint or sinner. It is never too late to seek silence, and one of the most important insights that comes from working with silence is that nothing in our lives is wasted.


Silence: A User's Guide by Maggie Ross is available now from DLT.

Maggie Ross is an Anglican Solitary. She lives in Oxford.



1 Nicholsen, Shierry Weber: The Love of Nature and the End of the World: The unspoken dimensions of environmental concern (Cambridge: MIT, 2002), p 25

2 Bringhurst, Robert: The Tree of Meaning (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2007), p194

3 McGilchrist, Iain: The Master and His Emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) p6.

4 The title essay in Travels in Hyperreality by Umberto eco, is the ultimate guide to horror vacui.

5 'If any man cannot grasp this matter, let him be idle and the matter will grasp him.' Henry Suso (1300-1366), The Exemplar, quoted in Shaw, Paradox, 1