I was reading the chapter on silence in Christina Baldwin’s book ‘Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as Spiritual Practise’, and it immediately rang bells for me. I have a particular reason for this. Let me explain:
One of the symptoms of the chronic illness with which I live, ME/CFS, is sensitivity to noise. Some days are better than others, but there are everyday sounds in modern life that can create physical agony for me. And no, I’m not kidding. I mean, I get actual pain. A cold electric current feeling up and down my spine and a nauseating icy pain in the back of my skull. Unpleasant to say the least.
For the first three years of my illness, I couldn’t listen to any music with a beat at all. Every thud of bass was like a knitting needle jabbed into my neck. No pop radio, no rock, no hand jiving in the car to the Stone Roses or the Pet Shop Boys. No Elvis. No Beatles. Nothing.
I couldn’t listen to anything much. Mozart and Bach worked, a little Handel mixed in. Beethoven proved too noisy, as did anything after him, although I did find I could handle some Vaughan Williams. Opera was right out, so goodbye to my favourite tenor, Placido Domingo. I just couldn’t bear to listen to him anymore.
Most of the time, though, any kind of noise was painful.
So for three years I avoided places where the music was piped, and had to ask friends who listened to music perpetually to turn down their stereos, which was mortifying because they just didn’t understand.
I adjusted to a world without music.
I learnt a different way of listening.
I listened to the birds, the ones that make pretty sounds, and the ones that don’t. I learnt I could set my watch by the rooks in the tree opposite the house. (They all get together and start shouting at one another at 3.30pm, no matter what time of year it is.) They’re funny, like one of those noisy markets where everyone is shouting about their wares. I’m rather fond of rooks now.
I learnt to hear the vegetation around me too, the creaking trees and rustling shrubs, the fresh new spring leaves and the rattle of the dried autumn ones.
And the animals. The scuttle of mice in the undergrowth, the mewling squeaks the rabbits make, the scrabble of the squirrels on the roof tiles. The buzz of the mason bees under the window in the summer, the drone and thump of the hornets throwing themselves against the window, attracted by the light, in autumn.
I came to realise how much noise pollution we endure, day after day, the constant onslaught of a life lived with continual racket, the radio, the TV, the iPod, the piped music, the slot machines, even the roar of conversation echoing in the cavernous, sound-reflecting spaces of shopping malls. And how much we use recorded sound to blot out our minds, to stop us thinking too much.
The Christian mystics said that prayer is talking to God, but it isn’t much use if you don’t listen for when He speaks back. To hear the Divine, we have to be in silence. This is just as important when the voice that speaks inside us is the big, blousy, shriek as when it is the almost inaudible whisper. The practise of creativity demands that we listen. Sometimes, we have to listen hard, and without distractions.
When did you last spend time in silence? Do you make space for a little quiet time daily? Do you relish that moment when the kids are in bed, and you can sit down at the kitchen table with a glass of wine, take a deep breath, and just listen to the noises the house makes around you as it settles for the night? Or do you fill every waking hour with a constant cacophony to drown out the voices inside your head that are telling you the life you are living is not fulfilling you?
Out of the quiet comes not only spiritual fulfilment, spoken of in all religions, but human creativity. Out of silence come the stories we tell, the fantasies and day dreams that grow into novels, plays, paintings, films, concertos and ballets.
When we cultivate stillness, when we listen, we give our brains space to breathe. And yes, sometimes we then have to face up to the uncomfortable truths of our lives. But often, we have the opportunity to tap into wells of creative inspiration previously unknown to us. Our Muse’s voice can be heard.
You don’t have to take a vow of silence to benefit from stillness, and I’m not saying you should give up the joy of music. (I’m back on it now, and believe me, its one of my greatest inspirations.)
Listen to yourself.
What I am suggesting is that you take time daily to be in stillness. To listen to the sounds of the world around you instead of filling the void with canned synthetic noise. To listen to yourself. It may only be ten minutes, or the time you spend in the bathroom every morning, or half an hour before bed without the telly on. You don’t have to meditate, although that is good too. No, this is a different idea, a way of being quiet with ourselves, a way of listening for the inspiration to come. I know you lead a busy life, no doubt, and that quiet in a city is hard to find. But I assure you, it is there. You can find it. And when you do, immerse yourself in its balm, as often as you can, and allow it to feed your creative life.