Wednesday, December 28, 2011

where have you experienced deep silence?

Not so long ago I led a session at a multifaith conference on 'Silence in Religious Traditions'. Participants shared their experences but I won't forget a comment made by a Swedish woman who said that her experience of deep silence came from being in the forest in the snow.

I too have experienced deep snow and there is no doubt that a landscape takes on a more silent quality as sound is muffled. Two years ago staying at Valamo monastery in eastern Finland it was such a joy to explore the birch forests. I almost expected to meet St Seraphim of Sarov in that setting and somehow solitude, the encounter with holy or sacred places where people practice the discipline of silence seems to deepen and focus the experience.

I am entering this new week with a greater sense of personal refreshment after leading a Mindfulness Meditation Day at the delightful setting of the Avocado farm at McLaren Vale. We spent the day in silence, without conversation, the only speaking at the feedback sessions after practicing a meditation and the experience was profound I think for most of us.

A day without speaking means that our energy is drawn to our immediate experience and into our sensory awareness. A community in silence must pay attention to every person but there is no requirement for small talk and conversation where we are constantly seeking to respond and adjust. Our silence at the retreat day brought extra respect into our interaction.

Can we remember an experience of profound and healing silence and in our imagination revisit that time and bring some of that memory to refresh us especially when surrounded by stressful soundscapes that we can't readily escape?

The Perfect Soundscape

Reader, come with me in your imagination and enter the Belair National Park early on a summer's day with a loved dog padding along by your side. The wind caresses the gum trees like the hiss of the sea, there is the grating call of the Wattle bird, the carolling of Magpies, the screech of Black Cockatoos, distant birdsong and maybe even the grunt of a Koala. For a human being this is the perfect soundscape and also restful for the whole person, being in nature, the subtle palate of colours and too early to require sun glasses. Vigilance it is true, is required for sleeping brown-snakes but all in all such a pleasure and a privilege to live nearby such a special place.

Why is it then when the soundscape is perfect - since in our ancestral memory birds singing suggest no predator is nearby, and the wind is not so strong that it upsets our equilibrium, - that other human beings walk with eyes to the ground or jogging with headphones or ear buds firmly attached. A friendly greeting receives no reciprocal smile and greeting because these people do not hear anything apart from their music.

Granted when sitting in an aircraft, or driving a car or in a noisy place like the gym I stuff in ear plugs to protect my hearing and to lessen tiredness from the low drone of engines, but in a natural place why do others shut out the natural world? This makes no sense although I imagine people listen to music they love but distraction by nature if one slows scans through sounds, feelings and visual clues, not to mention smells can be a life giving meditation that moves the being away from the internal noise. In fact the perfect soundscape is like a full sensual experience cleansing what William Blake called 'the doors of perception' from the pollution of noise and other over stimulation that is so dehumanising.

Shape Shifting

I shared the Selkie image with a colleague who lives in a hut in a remote part of Tasmania who told me that she was very taken with the legend. In general what lies behind stories of a secret identity can be seen as a kind of spiritual longing, a feeling of not being at home where we are in this world amid the everyday, weighed down with responsibilities and feeling caught in the identity trap of simply being a consumer, a statistic and a sense we are lost and searching for something more.

The husband/wife, male or female who hid the skin was motivated by love or fear, the inter mixture of possession and control. The true home of the Selkie was where the 'human' partner could not venture. So maybe the Selkie hints at a duality within the individual, lying to onself, denying part of ourselves or putting off what Bede Griffiths called the 'return to the centre' the journey that demands not less than everything. Maybe the whole concept of shape shifting, the interplay between dream world and waking world is also an interplay on the shifting grounds of our loving. The Selkie legends seem to have a strong erotic, fantasy element to them. No wonder the seal skin was locked away or hidden in the roof space.

Plotinus, the Sage might well have identified the Selkie legend with the cry of the soul to return home to the fullness since for him we have fallen from the One into the material world of time and space, of change and of memory but there is a desire with us for the Light of Wisdom. For the neo Platonists material was not evil but part of the emanation of the One but to believe that the material world is all that there is and to be immersed solely in this one dimension is to turn to darkness.

Tending the soul, sculpting our character through cultivating virtue and practicing spiritual and philosophical exercises means that we begin to see our bodies as being like homes we inhabit gratefully from our maker.  Just as we shape our dwellings to suit our taste and interests so the body is shaped by the soul. It might also be added that how we feel is often shaped by the built environment.

It follows then that we are spiritual amphibians (a term that comes from Don Cupitt criticising an overly literal Platonism). When we search for the skin we have lost or others have hidden we are being called by depth and by mystery. This is congruent to swimming in silence and experiencing sometimes that sense of losing any sense of skin as we seem to be simply one with the flow of moments within time and space and yet still deeper in stillness.  Since for Plotinus and for other mystics, silence is God's primordial language being a selkie is an entirely appropriate metaphor.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Silence is like free diving

I remember the joy and excitement of snorkeling as a teenager off the stony and steeply shelving East Beach at Selsey. It is a stormy coast and hosts a lifeboat which when summoned slides from its boathouse on the end of a jetty to rescue 'those in peril on the sea' on the often difficult waters that lead in to the ports of Portsmouth and Southampton past the Isle of Wight. I can visualise those grey skies and seas now and the bite of the pebbles on calloused teenage feet.

Launching from the groyne and staying down as long as possible until the air burns in the lungs it was often possible to surprise bass and other fish taking cover from the strong current and then chase them through the seaweed as seemingly effortlessly they sped away into the green murk churned by the waves and then blowing out the air from the snorkel and resting on the surface.

Free diving seems more risky, expelling the air from lungs and plunging as deep as one can to the verge of drowning. I have never done it. However I have tried the technique of breathing out all the air from the snorkel before diving to reduce buoyancy.  The thrill of this is that if anything goes wrong you have sunk yourself.

Swimming below water can be noisy but there is that silence that surrounds it, the silence of concentration and the feel of the water pressure on the body. With practice and young lungs it possible to swim for longer under water.

Silence is like this too as with attendance to the body and breath one sinks into a new realm and sometimes a wordless, attentive still inner silence can be entered into for long or short periods and in this time is often telescoped since sometimes time seems to stop still and sometimes one surfaces to discover hours of clock time have passed. Just as when one is under water, sound recedes or is changed and becomes less immediate and more remote.

Silence is like that elusive grey fish that swims away through the seaweed.  For a few moments I am a seal, a dolphin an adolescent young man. I am one with the water, a selkie in spirit.