September 23, 2019

The other day I wrote about noise. But in addition to the roar of the ever-louder city, the sound of silence has been growing stronger for me too. No, not the Simon and Garfunkel song, but rather that high-pitched humming in one’s ears as one sits silently.

In true silence, I hear something: a ringing, sometimes monotonous, but at others almost musical. Now, for instance, it sounds like a very high-pitched twinkling, faint and somewhat pleasant, which I can hear because I’m wearing hearing protectors that render the world completely silent. There’s a discussion on whether this is tinnitus, whether there is anyone who doesn’t have it, whether the deaf can hear it. Interestingly, it seems to increase even further when I’m fasting.

Ajahn Sumedho, a Western Buddhist responsible for bringing certain aspects of Theravada to the West, wrote a book called The Sound of Silence (free PDF). I picked this book up at Cittaviveka (a monastery in West Sussex) a few years ago, and still it sits on my shelf. From the little I’ve read, he prescribes meditating on the exact sound I’ve described.

I wonder whether tinnitus isn’t the mere fact of hearing this sound, but rather becoming troubled by it. Then again, for me, the sound is quite faint and I can only hear it in silence, in the same circumstances that allow me to hear my heart. If it were constant and disruptive, during conversation for example, that would be quite different.

Still, I wonder if the eeriness of the sound, which I remember from childhood, isn’t what George Eliot had in mind when she wrote in Middlemarch:

That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

The fear is not of true tragedy, but of the vastness of perception, its infinite depth and detail. “Well wadded with stupidity” describes being on auto-pilot, the salience filter of the default-mode network, the layering of dull concepts onto the terrifying strength of sensate reality. As one ages, and papers one’s world over with more and more abstract thinking, it takes stronger stimulus to pierce the veil of conceptuality.

Or maybe I just have tinnitus.

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.