The Sound of Silence

Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Centre North Wales

Image above: Peace and tranquility at The Hermitage of the Awakened Heart Buddhist Retreat Centre in North Wales.

What does silence sound like? I live in a city so peace and quiet can be hard to come by. I’ve been thinking recently about sound, from the ‘ordinary’ sounds that surround us on a daily basis, as well as reading about primordial sound (e.g. Om and mantras) as well as the benefits and science behind sound therapy, for instance sound waves of Tibetan singing bowls have been proven to change brainwaves and alter your mood.

I was thinking how silence is relative, as most of us can never really know true silence, ‘the complete absence of sound’ and that’s not actually what we usually want, complete silence. Only people who’ve been in an anechoic chamber know that, and have experienced the absence of all external sound. In those experiments people tend to only last minutes, the most is under 50 minutes and people have even been known to hallucinate when left with only the sound of themselves!

The owner of a famous anechoic chamber in a lab in Minnesota, says that in the absence of sound ‘people become the sound’ which is very interesting from a Buddhist point of view. I wonder how long an experienced Buddhist practitioner would last in the chamber?

At the recent teaching I attended by Awakened Heart Sangha teacher Pema, she took us through the prayer to Guru Rinpoche, for her teaching on Body, Speech and Mind – the Three Mysteries.

In the second verse of the prayer it says:

All these sounds that appear for ears that hear
Taken as agreeable or not
Let them rest in the realm of sound and emptiness
Past all thought, beyond imagination
Sounds are empty, unarisen and unceasing
These are what make up the Victor’s teaching
To the teachings of the Victor, sound and emptiness
To Orgyen Pema Jungnay [Guru Rinpoche], I supplicate.

That line ‘sounds are empty, unarisen and unceasing’ is really interesting to ponder! Pema explained that this means that sounds have no substance, as they can’t be found to start or end. Time is our construct so the duration of sound is only relative, we use time to make sense of sound. Our world exists in space and time, but when we investigate that fully we find that there is no definable dimension and no duration. Crikey!

That’s naturally all very hard to fully understand, but that’s also the point too! It’s ungraspable and unknowable in the usual way we seek to know things. I can take some comfort in my inability to understand it, as if I thought I did and held onto that view as right, I’d still be very wrong!

I can enjoy contemplating the unknowable aspect of it in my meditation practice, asking myself questions around the mystery of it all.

Usually I appreciate ordinary silence as the absence of unwanted noise but it’s the general background noise seemingly keeps us sane! The sounds of silence that invokes a sense of peace to me, is the absence of anything that can jar or disturb the peace, such as neighbours shouting or the sound of cars or loud motorbikes zooming past the windows.

When you can really hear the birds singing and nothing much else is the sort of sounds of silence I can find myself longing for, although I also love to practice meditation with a singing bowl and ‘follow the sound’, or with a mantra, and play with ‘becoming’ the sound of the mantra.

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Living in a fairly noisy environment, it’s really important for me to get out to quieter places as often as possible and experience ‘my kind’ of silence. At The Hermitage of The Awakened Heart, the Tibetan Buddhist retreat centre and hub of AHS activity, it’s perfectly situated inland away from main road, up from the Criccieth coast and into the countryside. It’s nestled near Snowdonia with a view of Snowdon, and often birdsong is the only back drop, or a the soothing tinkle of the most pleasing wind chimes I’ve ever heard! I’m lucky enough to be going there for a week soon and I’m looking forward to soaking up all that restorative silence while I’m there.

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