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Wednesday, 10 November 2010 21:00

Book explores the value of silence

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The sound of silence.

Silence is a rare commodity in our world today. Of course, perfect silence doesn’t exist. The adventurer alone in some Arctic waste will hear the crunching of her footsteps on the ice and snow. The man placed in a sound-proof room will hear the mechanic vibrations of his flesh: breathing, perhaps a slight ringing in his ears, perhaps even, a la Edgar Allen Poe, the beating of his own heart. Nevertheless, nearly all of us inhabit a world today in which human noise is rarely absent, a place of radios and television, canned music and conversation, cell phones, iPods, sirens, traffic, and the ordinary orchestral din of human activity.

Every year an Asheville teacher, whose best friend is solitude and who has several times made silent monastic retreats, sets his middle-school students with the task of sitting for half an hour in silence and then writing an essay on the experience. The assignment rouses in the students dozens of questions. Can’t they at least listen to music? Are they permitted to walk around the house or stroll around the yard? Can they perform the task in 10-minute intervals? Can they exercise or read a book? When all these questions receive a negative, many of the students react as if their teacher had just condemned them to a cell on Devil’s Island and tossed away the key.

Like the students, most of us fear or avoid silence and its companion, solitude. To be alone in silence, mystics of most faiths maintain, is to be alone with God. For most of us — and this is the much more terrifying thought — to be alone in silence means being alone with ourselves.

In A Book of Silence (ISBN 978-1-58243-517-6, $25), Sara Maitland, English novelist and essayist, explores through her own experiences and those who have undergone prolonged and profound bouts of silence — solitary sea voyagers, anchorites, contemplatives in deserts and remote mountains — the meaning and necessity for silence.

Maitland, who grew up in a rambunctious family with five siblings, who married and bore children of her own, and who is an outspoken feminist, first became intrigued by silence when she moved to Warkton, a small Northamptonshire village. Her children grown and gone, and her husband having divorced her, Maitland found herself unexpectedly in her Warkton home. Here, she writes, “it is quite hard in retrospect to remember which came first — the freedom of solitude or the energy of silence.”

Emboldened by her experience in Warkton, and wanting to test greater silence and isolation, Maitland moved in 2000 to a house on a moor above Weardale, a town in County Durham. Here she continued to work on her writing, to take long walks across the moors, and to settle ever more deeply into the silence which she had sought. She embarked on a six weeks of silence on the remote island of Skye. Her retreat on Skye, though demandingly intense, marked a turning point for her, “a benchmark and a launch pad for much of my present life.” She returned to Weardale determined more than ever to explore the effects of silence on her mind and spirit.

As her love of silence deepened — readers immersed in A Book of Silence must frequently remind themselves, when Maitland fails to do so, that this is a woman who only a few years earlier treasured company and conversation — Maitland began reading about the experiences of others who had encountered deep silence. Her reflections on these women and men make up some of the most engaging parts of her book. Here we learn of a man who once spent a polar winter unable to leave his tent; we follow solitary sailors who set out to break oceanic speed records and either go mad or turn away from the prize because they have so fallen in love with the immensity and quietude of the sea; we meet religious mystics, both living and dead, who over the centuries turned to silence to hear the voice of God.

Long into her experiments with silence, Maitland realized the benefits bestowed by such deep taciturnity: a physical fitness gained by her long hikes; a greater ability to concentrate and think; a richer faith. Much to her dismay, however, she also found that her hours spent on writing had fallen off. After comparing the stillness sought by spiritual anchorites with that of the Romantic writers of the nineteenth century — Wordsworth or Coleridge, for example — she realized that each group had pursued silence for different reasons. Eremitic Christians or Buddhists sought by silence and solitude to erase their egos, the self that stood between them and spiritual transformation, while the Romantics looked to solitude to deepen their knowledge of that same self, and to isolate and protect it from the world. In this comparison and her conclusions, Maitland strikes out into new territory and offers readers interested in writing or spiritual development some fine insights into the benefits and dangers of solitude.

Maitland treats even book-lovers to the joys of silence. She writes that by silence “I felt less excited by plot, tension and pace, and more engaged with language and mood and place … I read with a sense of the mystery of what reading is and how deeply and silently it shaped our sense of self.”

The holidays with all their noise and frenzied tumult are upon us. Readers needing an escape from the festival rush and run could do far worse than curling up in some remote corner with A Book of Silence, a cup of coffee or hot chocolate at hand, still, solitary, utterly and delightfully immersed in silence.

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