My friend Al Cabal commented “Silence is vital” in reaction to the piece below. Which got me thinking, what is silence, exactly? A ridiculous question, admittedly.
I think the most silent place I’ve been was our house in Ballyknock. It was in the middle of farmland and at night it got darker and quieter than anyplace I’d ever stayed. In the city there’s only relative silence – lack of sound – for short bursts, as it were. But there in the midlands, silence would blanket the land. Occasionally a bird or animal would rustle, and the ghosts would go about their business up in the attic. But the silence was more than a few minutes deep.
Of course, being a person, perhaps there is no real silence. There’s always the movement of the body, the breath, and more than that the voice in the head, the voice of I-ness, speaking to consciousness. Breath control practitioners have long explored how to use the breath to go deeper inside, toward what might be called supreme silence. In “Light on Life,” B.K.S. Iyengar relates that when all the breath is expelled and there is no movement in the body, one aligns with the universal soul. “By withdrawing the mind from our senses of perception and organs of action, retention of breath brings consciousness to rest on the lap of the soul. Retention after inhalation is the fulfillment of the individual’s potential for divinity. This ‘cup that is full ‘ rises to merge with universal energy. Exhalation and retention empty the cup of personal potential for divinity in an act of surrender to the cosmic force. This noble act of self-abnegation merges the yogi’s identity totally with his divine origin.”
Silence is a kind of emptiness, being empty of sound. Of course there is no silence without sound, nor emptiness without fullness. I imagine (since I have not experienced) that to penetrate through these dualities would bring us to that state of superconsciousness which some call God, or divinity.
My karate sensei talked recently about emptiness, and karate literally means “empty hand,” which has both mundane and esoteric meaning. Acting from emptiness means acting without stress, and letting the cosmic energy take over, which would be quite an asset in any sort of altercation. Gichin Funakoshi, whom some regard as the modern day founder of karate, wrote, “As a mirror’s polished surface reflects whatever stands before it, and a quiet valley carries even small sounds, so must the student of karate render his mind empty of selfishness and wickedness in an effort to react appropriately to anything he might encounter. This is the meaning of kara, or ‘empty,’ of karate.”
Perhaps this is another argument for lack of music in a yoga class and why Al says silence is vital there, to help us empty ourselves of self. One might note further that “vital” essentially means “living”: “late 14c., ‘of or manifesting life,’ from L. vitalis ‘of or belonging to life,’ from vita ‘life.’”