… the highest and most decisive experience of all, … is to be alone with his own self, or whatever else one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation.
My decision to go to Mallorca was not because I wanted to follow the sun, neither was it because I wanted to cycle. My decision to work abroad for two months was informed by a desire to be alone.
As Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” He may have also said that, “Hell is the place we go to when we lose ourselves.”
Instead of Hell, I chose Mallorca.
Don’t misunderstand me, please. Mallorca is a wonderful place. It’s just that it was my choice of wilderness. I needed to find myself and it was going to be no mean task. Being on an island was just fine. Okay, I didn’t have to do deals with lions or fight off the advances of an overly-amorous Satan (I think), but I did have to be on my own; when I wasn’t teaching. This became more intense once I had moved into an apartment overlooking the bay of Palma.
What I was being asked to endure was the imposition of isolation. Having been with my wife for over twenty-five years, I had grown accustomed to the ritual of casual talk. We would talk in the mornings as we woke up to sample the first mug of tea. I could always tell if my wife’s cloud had been hanging over her during the night because most of it would have remained for the dawning of the new day. To add to that, there was the other talk from our daughters. The house was filled with chatter and sometimes there was nowhere to find silence.
I have grown into silence. For someone who couldn’t stop talking when he was younger, this is quite a turnaround. Once, a teacher actually made me stand in the corner of a classroom with sellotape around my mouth. I was ten years old then. My parents had a similar reaction to my constant blabber, or showing off, and I would be warned not to do so in public, at weddings, family get-togethers, or anywhere where I could be an embarrassment. Unfortunately, my wayward tongue continued into my latter years, moving from being strangely amusing to being oddly tragic. It was then the turn of my wife to warn me not to mention the Holocaust or the Spanish Inquisition (the things I chose to talk about at parties). Perhaps, the chatter masked my lack of belief in myself.
“So, what does silence look like?” My counsellor could have asked.
This could have been the picture of it, even though it’s a little cliched.
When I look into this, I hear the sea. I hear the emptiness of the world. And I hear me at rest. I used to get up in the middle of the night just to sit on my balcony and listen to the ‘wombing’ of the sea as it moved within the bay. An occasional aircraft would approach, headed for the airport nearby, but that was alright. For some reason, it was part of the exquisite silence. I would sit for an hour or so just letting the night suffuse me. I can now feel the deep exhaling of my breath, a satisfied breeze that confirmed the moment, a connoisseur’s appreciation of the basic quality of life. And I wanted to share it with my wife.
I discovered the silent joy of gardening: cells divide, sap flows, bacteria multiply, energy runs thrilling through the earth, but without a murmur. Gardening gave me a way to work with silence; not “in silence” but “with silence” – it was a silent creativity. Another of the things I started to do during this time was what Buddhists normally call “meditation” or, in Christian terms, “contemplative prayer”. It began to supersede deipnosophy as my favourite hobby.
The most important thing that happened was that I got interested in silence itself. All our contemporary thinking about silence sees it as an absence or a lack of speech or sound – a totally negative condition. But I was not experiencing it like that. Instead I increasingly identified an interior dimension to silence, a sort of stillness of heart and mind which is not a void but a rich space.
Sara Maitland The Guardian 2008
I had not articulated it in such excellent ways, but the silence that I was going through was positive, creative, but negative all at once. Silence became a companion and, although I tried to distance myself from it with my skill of striking up conversations with complete strangers, normally with a beer and talking football, I liked it; and loathed it in roughly equal measures.
I wasn’t a true hermit. I”d talk on the phone to my wife, my daughters, some old friends, and my mother. The conversations I had were usually of the functional type, the ones that are similar to the performance of bodily functions. Not that I was talking crap, it was just that it was talking because I could. Actually, I started talking to myself about this stage. What was the problem with that? I had been a teacher for so long that I ought to have been accustomed to talking to myself. I wasn’t doing the embarrassing-full-blown rhetoric that could occasionally be found on the bus or in late-night underground carriages, it was just a nod of the head, a quick sharing of thoughts. The full-length mirror must have thought me mad.
In the contemporary western world it is difficult to be silent for long – people phone, they come to visit, to canvass your vote, the postman needs a signature, Jehovah’s Witnesses knock politely, someone has to read the meter, you run out of milk and have to go and buy some more, and the woman in the village shop starts to chat. In fact, it is impossible. Moreover, there are what Byrd calls “urgencies” – the economic urgency of making a living, and the emotional urgency of love and friendship.
Sara Maitland. Richard Byrd was an Artic explorer.
Many people who have gone through such noise-deprivation have reported hearing voices. Yup! So did I. My late father’s voice was a flatmate. I remember almost watching him cross the living-room floor one Sunday and look out at the sea beyond the balcony before nodding and telling me that, “It’s a nice place you have here, Matt.” At this point, I truly appreciated the silence, loneliness, or ‘awayness’. It was a door into the place that exists when all the noise has been driven away. It was a way of cutting through the crap and nonsense that we accept as our lives, and allowing something else to grow.
It was during this time that I opened the door to myself.