The day’s first sound was its most abrasive, the bell’s vibrations heavy in the pre-dawn mountain thick. The tolling came closer, so close it was no longer possible to assimilate it into dream, and faded, leaving the air behind it changed. The subsequent lull was slowly filled with the shuffling of blankets against bundled bodies, clumsy footsteps making their way to the light switch by the cabin door, the swishes of clothing being doffed and donned, the key in the latch.
Morningdrunk and swaying, we plodded mutely through the dark to the communal tent up the hill. The sounds as we found our places among the mats and cushions and wheedled our limbs into becoming lotuses were incidental, unintentional. The first message-laden noise following the wake-up bell was the chime that signaled the start of the day’s first seated meditation.
We were here in these isolated campgrounds in the Aegean Mountains for the culminating retreat of our yoga teacher training program. We had left behind our urban frenzy and traveled here in the hopes of deepening the quality of our meditation and perhaps even tasting another sort of life—a life of introspection, and simultaneously a life of relinquishing our inner worlds. To accomplish this, we were waking up at 4:25 each morning and following a daily schedule that dictated six hours of seated meditation, several hours of yoga practice, hours of breathing exercises, and some walking and eating meditations thrown in for good measure.
Despite the busyness of it all, though, these physical activities—the things that we would say we were doing if someone were to ask—were defined in large part by what it was we weren’t doing: speaking.
Silence was the thing of it. The crux. The vehicle. And not silence as in soundlessness—outside some anechoic chamber deep in the bowels of NASA, such a thing isn’t even achievable, and is supposedly so distressing to those who experience it that they can’t spend longer than a few minutes inside. And, if we’re to defer to John Cage on this topic, even within an anechoic chamber the so-called silence is broken by the detectable frequencies of our blood flowing and our nerves firing off signals; where there is life, there is sound. The type of silence I’m talking about, worldly silence, isn’t about not hearing; on the contrary, it’s about listening.
Sound remains; what’s left behind is the voice. What’s left behind is verbalism, language. What’s left behind are the sweet and not-so-sweet nothings of cohabitation, the can-you-pass-the-salts, the pleases without thought to the other person’s pleasure, the sparring, the automatic and constant gauging of the limits of common ground. What’s left behind is the voice, and with that gone, the ego suddenly fades three shades.
Silence is radical. When sustained, it has an effect on your perception comparable to that of any number of chemicals with which you might seek change. Your vision transforms, to start with; you suddenly find yourself absorbing what’s on the periphery, massive amounts of once-invisible data assailing your pupils. When you’re not preparing your next remark, your hearing capacity expands, too: the changing rhythms of the wind; the muted thud of a teardrop hitting the wooden floor; your neighbor’s beating heart. And taste, and smell, they’re amplified and shifted, as well—a cup of tea sipped without the surrounding dialogue (Earl Grey. You don’t? How about English Breakfast, then? No, no sugar, thanks. Watching my weight. Do you have one of those carrying trays? Wow, that sure is hot.) is a more intricate cup of tea. Silence gives you the opportunity to know any number of an object’s facets that typically disappear behind the verbal screens we erect constantly, unthinkingly, between our selves and our environments. And surely the power of wordless touch is one each of us knows; I need not expand on that.
Ironically, the clearest proof of the potency of silence may well be our deliberate avoidance of it. What silence we do experience is slated. It is anticipatory. It is the pause in the song before the beat drops. It is the single minute we communally reserve to acknowledge a tragedy. It is the moment after a champagne glass is tapped with a piece of silverware, the moment before a speech we all know is coming finally comes. It is—among the still-civilized—the bit of space left between hearing the news and offering our condolences.
Given the choice, we pack any ambient silence full of intentional noise. This is so uniformly the case that perhaps it shouldn’t even be characterized as a choice; perhaps it’s more of a compulsion. You’re talking or I’m talking or YouTube’s talking or we’ve got the TV on in the background or we’ve both got earbuds in our ears or the club is so loud we forget about our anxieties regarding awkward silences (the second and only other type of silence we have, after scripted).
For some of us, on some days, it’s not just collective silence that has us groping for some (any) sort of aural buffer between ourselves and our environments; even the typically more tolerable silence of solitude offers its risks—or would, in any case, but for the easy availability of our computers and smartphones and endlessly patient animal confidants. Even corporations have caught on to our anxieties about quiet and have manufactured their products to provide unnecessary sounds that customers take comfort in: the slight hiss when neither party is talking on the telephone that tells us we’re still connected; the artificially loud revving of an electric car’s engine, without which testers admitted to thinking the car seemed powerless. Sound is our security blanket.
One of the most valuable insights I’ve gained through yoga and meditation is that I’ve lived most of my life estranged from myself as a whole, compartmentalizing aspects of my existence into heart/mind/instinct/left foot/daydreams/love handles. Thus segmented, “I” was (am) never fully “me,” and I never had (have) to come to terms with the actual density and simultaneous emptiness of being alive as a human being on planet earth. Because that’s a pretty big task, and a pretty scary one, and it seems to me like we’ve collectively designed a global system that prevents most of us from accomplishing it even if we had the will to.
Silence, by clarifying our senses, invites us to witness ourselves as we are. This is terrifying. Communal silence goes a step further, inviting us to witness ourselves as we are under the gaze of others. This is simply intolerable.
Unless forced, how many of us would opt for such a thing? And among those few brave people who’d agree to give it a go—and I probably wouldn’t be among them—how many would capitulate as soon as their community protested and tried to provoke speech? It seems no accident that we correlate vows of silence with sainthood; even before the digital age, even before overpopulation and cities of multiple millions of denizens, such a feat required a superhuman strength, a spiritual calling.
Once forced, though, once you’re in it, not speaking (and to the extent possible, not being spoken to) offers an incredible relief. On the heels of anxiety comes a sense of letting go. When we’re not being called upon—by ourselves, virtually always—to justify, clarify, quantify, add caveats and ask forgiveness, we are suddenly freed from the tyranny of verbalism. We no longer have to busy our jaws with all the insignificant things we feel we have to say to keep the conversation going, to keep things civil, to allow us and our interlocutor to float along in the current of superficial banter so we never have to sink anywhere deeper, darker. We no longer have to explain. We start exuding less and absorbing more. We learn.
It’s not an exercise that bears permanent fruit, of course, and it’s one that’s admittedly difficult to bring back from the mountains into the city. For my part, as soon as I had cell reception on the way back from the retreat, I was on the phone with a friend describing the amazing food I’d eaten, the frigid river I’d swum in, the life-changing lessons I was convinced I’d learned. As I started trying to describe those realizations, though, I could feel the weight they held within me begin to dissolve. I simply couldn’t do them justice. I couldn’t share them without reducing them to petty truisms that surely had my friend rolling his eyes and smirking, as decent a guy as he is.
I believe in language, in words; they’re my medium, and sometimes I feel the power to wield them is about all I can claim in this life. And so to feel so acutely that for some things, words aren’t enough, words detract, words reduce—this was saddening and frightening and, above all, humbling.
I am not a saint or a yogi, and I have serious aspirations in neither direction. I am a writer. And so while I will probably not take a vow of silence or live my life in a monastery, while I will probably not make the type of dramatic, life-altering commitment necessary to approach the point at which paradoxes enlighten rather than confuse, I will hold on to what edifying truths I can incorporate into my life and aim for an existence of at least considered chaos.
And so, to that end, I will take this opportunity to shut up.
 To my highly unenlightened mind, for which paradoxes are still more often confusing than they are clarifying, this is rather like aiming to hold your breath and inhale at the same time.
 He really is a nice guy.