A Failed Meditation on Silence.
Following a deafening trend among friends, I started a meditation practice. I decided to sit in silence, drink it in, and treat it as a friend.
As I began meditating in silence, my mind inevitably wandered. I tried again and again to come back to the present, to the silence. After greeting my usual litany of thoughts, I tried to let to go of thought, to go deeper. I ended up thinking about silence.
I thought about how silent it was sitting in my home. My thoughts drifted back to times when the power had gone off, when the lack of background noise was palpable. I remembered distinctly how the absence of the air conditioner or furnace, sounds which had accompanied most of my life, left me in awe. I thought I detected an even deeper silence, the absence of electricity, always humming away beneath my level of awareness.
It felt as though losing electricity created an opening in space-time.
As I tried to bring my thoughts back to the present, I indulged in reveries on silence. When my husband and I moved to the country in search of a simpler life, we decided not to install central heat or air in our old farmhouse. I even wanted try living off-grid, but he resisted. Whether or not to install a window unit air conditioner in our bedroom has long been a bone of contention because he has difficulty sleeping in the heat of summer.
Yet, the absence of an air conditioner did not guarantee silence. Instead, it created enough silence that I could hear the sounds of the night: grasshoppers, whippoorwills, rain on the metal roof. And contrary to popular belief, roosters crow all night, not just when the sun rises.
In the winter, we both enjoyed listening to the crackle of the wood stove. I kept an ear to it all night to listen for when it needed stoking or feeding, because if the fire were allowed to go out, getting out of bed could be almost unbearable.
In bringing myself back to the present, I thought (while trying not to think): Why did I find these sounds of ‘nature’, or even the expensive Norwegian wood stove, welcome and comforting, but other sounds unpleasant, even frightening?
No amount of noise will keep my husband awake, but the stifling heat of North Carolina summers has him up with the roosters. During an especially brutal summer, I relented and watched him install an overhead ceiling fan in our bedroom. Its slow tick with each rotation reminded me of a heartbeat, of the womb.
In subsequent sessions of not-thinking on silence, deeper memories surfaced of a time when my relationship with silence was more complicated. While attempting to remain in the present moment, I could not help but recall my childhood.
When I was growing up, my parents always had the television playing. They slept with it on in the bedroom, and there was one in my bedroom too. That’s just how it was. Eventually, I could not sleep without the background noise of the TV. When I went away to college, I had trouble sleeping in my dorm room (despite the antics in the bunk above me). My parents gave me a tiny TV that I could leave on a low volume right by my bed.
Years later, I finally jettisoned the nighttime TV. But for many more years, I continued leaving the TV on if I was home all day. I found that having this background soundtrack to life could be helpful in relieving feelings of loneliness, but it could also be insidious.
I curated this TV soundtrack so that I would never hear the news or anything that might encroach on my peace. There would still be the random commercial, perhaps a preview of daily horrors, that would catch me unawares and leave me shaking.
Although I had started to make friends with silence by sleeping with it, sometimes after a nightmare or anxiety attack, I would sneak The Little Mermaid into the DVD player and let it lull me back to sleep with Under the Sea.
As I again brought my thoughts back to the present, and listened closely to the silence, I recalled the sounds of HGTV. When my husband insisted on keeping the TV, I had insisted that it remain on HGTV. While I was going about my day, an endless stream of House Hunters played in the background. These were the sounds of the homey comfort I craved, with no scary commercial interruptions.
After a few years of this, I started to notice the conformity that filtered through the programming. I became irritated half-listening to yet another young couple purchasing a $500,000 starter bungalow, or middle-age retirees purchasing a $1.3 million island. This background noise caused me to start seeing our 1920s farmhouse with new eyes; it shifted from shabby chic to decrepit dump.
Once this programming took hold of me, our farm no longer represented a way to maintain a simple life, a humane scale of existence and an escape from wage slavery. Did I actually want granite countertops and stainless steel appliances after all?
Envy had started to chip away at my carefully constructed sense of well-being. My chosen laugh track became a laugh-at-me track.
In trying to find my way back to the present, I remembered when I finally confronted my addiction to HGTV. I realized that it should not control my value system. I had intentionally chosen my home and lifestyle to get away from what I believed to be a materialist society that would have me chained to a desk in debtor’s prison.
Unwittingly, I had also chosen a soundtrack that infiltrated my subconscious and impeded the enjoyment of my home and the financial freedom it afforded. However, in the present, honest place of silence, I knew that even long after I turned off HGTV, I could not silence the words echoing in my memory when I thought of that place — words I would never say aloud.
I started to wonder if the silence I had longed for was not the equivalent of the Off button on the remote control, but merely a different station. Either way, it was an important button because it could shift my narrative and even my entire consciousness. But for every soundtrack I unearthed, I found yet another, earlier track.
Last year, we moved even farther into the country, and the sounds are completely different. While meditating in my new space, I remembered how at first I had railed against the popcorn ceilings in our new home. I perceived them to be outdated and aesthetically offensive. An HGTV decorator would immediately have ripped out both the ceiling and the laminate floors.
But in my attempt to reject trends in design (and in the interest of time and money), we left them. As it turns out, the acoustics of textured ceilings dramatically change the soundscape of a home.
As I tried to return again to the present, I rested in gratitude for the newfound quiet. I didn’t perceive any low-grade humming generated by electricity. I didn’t notice any noise from the appliances most of the time. Even with six dogs, the UPS man can come and go and leave a package on the porch without me even knowing. The only thing I heard as I was meditating was the sound of the cat purring next to me.
In my meditation practice, I truly did not want to think any more about silence, but to simply, finally, enjoy it. As I was trying to relax into silence, I heard the familiar sounds of the wind rustling in the pines, and the persistent rat-at-tat of the woodpecker in the Black Walnut tree outside the window. My alliance with silence is still uneasy. It is only welcome at times of my choosing. Ideally, it is also not silent.
Jere Alexander is an a/r/tographer, working at the intersections of art, research, and teaching. Also a former lawyer, she now practices hooping and homesteading on a small farm in rural North Carolina with her husband and critter family. Learn more of her story at her website.