Unable to take the sheer noisiness of big-city life anymore, I left for a town of 500 people in a corner of Alaska.
Sleepless at 1:30, I get up, wrap myself up in a gray blanket, and stand outside. The temperature hovers in the single digits, and the night itself seems brittle enough to break with a tapping fingernail.
At the end of the valley, the aurora borealis glides across the sky like Cyd Charisse, all twirl and beauty. A blue tentacle of pure light reaches out, wavers green and red, then comes straight over the house, stretching for the ocean a few blocks away.
Holding very still, I listen, hard.
Some people say they have heard the northern lights, a crackling like sheets fresh from the dryer and full of static.
I don’t hear anything.
And that makes me wonder: what else am I not hearing?
“Tell me you’ve found a truly quiet place, and my first thought would be: do you have a hearing impairment that I don’t know about?” says the Emmy Award-winning natural sound recording artist Gordon Hempton.
It’s true, we are surrounded always by noise. Forget the big stuff—passing traffic, overamplified stereos, factories. Think of the ever-present 60-cycle hum of electricity, the constant vibration of microwaves, even the pounding of our own hearts.
Sit in meditation, sink into the sound of the breath. How long before it’s too loud to listen to anymore?
For the past year and a half, feeling bludgeoned by sound, I’ve been trying to understand the whole idea of quiet. What can it mean to us, how can it transform us? Is there even any of it left?
Unable to take the sheer noisiness of big-city life anymore, I left for a town of 500 people in a corner of Alaska. Wore earplugs. Spoke to no one. Hid in the house to keep away even from the whisper of a lone car driving through snow in the early twilight.
At the same time, I noticed the danger signs in myself: using an iPod during camping trips instead of listening to the call of the long-tailed jaeger and the wind in the grass, using a fan for white noise to protect the sleep that had become all too rare and fragile.
Although I thought what I was doing was listening for things missing from the landscape, listening for home, listening for sounds that made sense, the truth was, somewhere along the line in my search for quiet, I had forgotten how to listen altogether.
We hold out the idea of quiet as a state of perfection—”peace and quiet”—but true silence is impossible, lost in the creepy sound of blood rushing through our own veins. A glance around the meditation hall, the church, an office, reveals how few people can sit quietly without stress. Quiet is an unnatural state for us.
“There is no escape from the world of sound, and in the past, that hasn’t been a problem,” Hempton tells me. “Our ancestors’ world consisted of the sounds of nature. These sounds conveyed information that included changing weather patterns, the approach of a distant herd, indicators of prosperity like the sounds of songbirds and insects—all that would allow us to know that there is food, there is survival in this direction, whereas if we went in another direction, we might perish.”
Abbot John Daido Loori, founder of the Zen Mountain Monastery in the Catskills, tells me, “Virtually every creature on the face of the earth knows how to shut up and be still, but somehow we seem to have lost the ability to do this. Most people may not seem to want to do it simply because they’re not even aware of the possibility of doing it. It’s not something we’re taught.”
So can we do it? Can we learn to listen as if we’re animals once again? Take it all in and still be still? Surely for our own sake, never mind others’, we must.
“You and I have eyelids,” Hempton says, “but humans have not evolved earlids.”
Sounds arise, fall away, as transient as the breath itself. From where I sit, writing this on my back porch, I hear the scratch of my pen on the paper, the neighbor’s radio, the creak of my oak chair when I lean back. The jet buzz of a rufous hummingbird punctuating the chirp of at least three other kinds of birds I can’t name.
I feel stupid for having no words to describe their sounds, no language that can even meet theirs with understanding.
I hear the low hum of the cruise ships that feed our summer economy half a mile away, generators, dinner bells. I hear the bursting roar of a helicopter taking tourists up to the ice fields, breaking the clouds. I hear buses rumble past a block away.
I cannot hear the slightest trace of the butterfly that flits its pale wings over the vast expanse of my unmowed lawn. Not the slightest trace.
What else am I missing?
The butterfly reminds me to be hopeful, and I remember, as I always do whenever I come across something of extreme beauty, a line in Psalm 27: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
A friend tells me the only sound she needs is the laughter of her children. To me, moving water soothes like the smell of fresh bread. I used to have a canary that never made any sound at all, unless I played Rickie Lee Jones albums, and then the bird sang so loudly, I was afraid it might hurt itself.
What about the “bad” sounds? I don’t need this constant ringing in my ears, the people hammering across the street, the trucks rumbling by.
But the train whistle each morning, a sound that combines brute mechanics with the poetry of wanderlust, I like: it’s not the sound, it’s the association. This judgment is a teacher.
It forces me to ask: how do I arrive at the place the abbot talks about “where the mind is free of tension, aware, but not processing information”?
Hempton has some advice for me. First, he says, “unlearn what you think listening means. Listening is a natural process and all vertebrate species do it to survive. But for most of us, our poor listening habits begin with school. We trained our attention to screen out that which we are told is unimportant—ventilation noise, outside distractions, friends sitting behind us—and focus our attention on that which is most important, the teacher.”
Pay attention, we’re told, but that means not paying attention at all. Musician Pauline Oliveros, who developed a philosophy of “deep listening,” says, “The hardest thing about learning to listen fully is learning to value sounds that have been devalued as noise.”
My dog is half-deaf, and it takes a lot to get her attention. I’m amazed at what other dogs hear: the rustle of a squirrel a hundred yards off, a cabinet opening where there just might be a food treat, the lowest whistle that encourages them to come.
But we, of course, are deafer than my dog, blocking out all but the tiniest fraction of the world.
Once the ears are open, Hempton says, the second step is to simply let go. This is the scary part, because if you succeed, he says, “you become vulnerable to change; you no longer will ignore certain events.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about courage, and maybe the bravest thing of all is to own up to what we hear and know. Hempton says “let go,” and isn’t that exactly the same advice thousands of years of teachers have said? Let go of who you think you are, of what you’ve always thought you’ve known, and simply allow the information to arise and dissolve in the courage to face reality.
“True practice is not safe; it’s anything but safe,” writes Charlotte Joko, who teaches at the Zen Center in San Diego. “But we don’t like that, so we obsess with our feverish efforts to achieve our version of the personal dream.”
Surely lack of courage is why my head is such a noisy place—I should have done this, I should have said that, what if she had ... I play endless movies in my mind, missing the sounds of leaves rubbing one against the other, birds in flight, missing—missing life while I do, while I fail to let go.
This search for quiet, Loori tells me, is simply a need to “put your mind where you want it, when you want it there, for as long as you want it there, to be present.”
That moment won’t last; the next sound will arise, and fall away. The Buddha himself said, “For the follower of the Buddha, the idea of impermanence is unsurpassed.”
Yes, exactly, Hempton tells me, getting to step three. “Sound is a temporal event, it has a duration, it changes and combines with other sounds and is modified as it takes a path from the source to listener’s position.”
I play bass, the instrument that holds bands together but is at the bottom of every mix, almost inaudible. I’ll be dazzled by a beautiful riff on, say, a Bill Evans CD, point it out to someone, but they hear nothing. The notes rise, decay, fall away, leaving only a feeling.
And we’re already somewhere else, listening to something else, caught up in the more dominant sounds. “I think the noisiness of modern humans is many-fold more intense than our primitive ancestors, essentially because of the vast amount of information and communication that takes place these days,” Loori tells me. That just means that with so much coming in, we don’t give each sound the time it deserves. We treat sound as a snapshot, something that can be captured in a fraction of a second, whereas “listening,” Hempton says, takes much longer, maybe minutes, sometimes hours.
If I sit here long enough, will I hear a sound that suddenly makes it all make sense, the tracer bullet of enlightenment hitting me right in the third eye?
Or will I simply hear butterfly wings?
Zen Master Dongshen wrote, “How extraordinary! How extraordinary! The insentient express the Way! How mysterious! If you listen with the ears, it is incomprehensible. If you hear sounds with the eyes, it is truly knowable.”
Last summer, I left the woman I loved—not knowing it was for the last time—and went north, canoeing through Alaska’s Brooks Range. The river unspooled beneath my paddle, and from the banks, bears, caribou, and musk oxen watched the boat whisper by.
One night, a wolf’s lone howl created a sky over the tent, bounced off the mountains that glowed a slight brown in the midnight sun. There is no lonelier sound, nothing braver than a cry to be heard, broadcast like a muezzin’s prayers from the highest tower.
Listening to that wolf, to the wind in low brush, to the whisper of the river (the Han, who traveled through this region for thousands of years, called the sound of a silty river against a moving boat “the voices of the ancestors”), I thought about my constant departures, all this travel. Each place has its own sounds: the grind of sand under my feet in the ruins of Petra, the clatter of trays of fresh bread in Paris, the tonic A of a Japanese temple bell, a first toast with someone in Ireland.
Unfamiliar music, no matter how beautiful.
And yet ...
The structures of our ears do two things: first, through minute vibrations in the tiny bones of the hammer, anvil, stirrup, and the membrane of the eardrum itself, we hear; but also, through the fluid-filled canals of the inner ear, we balance.
Motion-sickness happens when the ears can’t find a level; that’s when we’re truly lost, not even sure of the ground we stand on, and we cast frantically for what we want, instead of what is.
We fail to face ourselves and our lives and look, instead, for the familiar.
“Go on until you reach the point where everything dissolves in the nature of reality,” recommends Patrul Rinpoche.
And so, even as I’ve been missing that most comforting sound in the world, that of the person I love breathing quietly in her sleep next to me—an absence that has left me as adrift as a sailor clinging to nothing but a broken oar in a sea of 50-foot waves—the kwok of a raven outside restores my balance, reminds me where I am right now, tells me I am here, in the only place I can be. I listen, trying to learn this place, trying to learn my place in this place, to find my balance.