The Sound of Silence
I'll borrow that title ("stealing," it would be if I used it as the title of a song) because I use the expression in exactly the opposite meaning from Paul Simon's haunting song. Where he spoke of the non-meaningful expressions that so fill our lives, the lack of communication and intimacy that characterizes so much of what we say to each other, I'm thinking of the noise in my head that prevents me from experiencing real silence. Tinnitus is the name given to "ringing in the ears," whether chronic or acute. It can be traced to a number of causes, but in my case it's probably from bombarding my ears with loud sounds for most of my early life. I've accepted the reality that it's untreatable, and that I'll likely have it for the rest of my life. I first noticed it about twenty-five years ago, and for a time attributed its source to my computer monitor, which I had just begun to have in my life practically all day, every day, and it emitted a faint buzz. I no longer think it was the computer.
I tell people my tinnitus sounds "like a million crickets," but it's more complex than that. Most of the individual sounds are more like square waves, the distinctive sound made by electronic switches of various kinds. The wave shape, nearly vertically up and vertically down, joined by a steady voltage level, is rich in third-order harmonics. These sound more like very rapid clicking than anything with a discernable pitch. Also present are high-pitched sounds that do, indeed, sound like the chirps of crickets and other outdoor insects. They have a discernable pitch, somewhere in the neighborhood of 8000 Hertz (8000 cps). I "hear" different sounds in my left and right ears. A few dominate the chorus, but the number of individual sounds that bombard my senses seems to be in the hundreds or the thousands. And it's continual, if not constant. The mix changes, in that I can detect the cessation of some chirps and the beginnings of others. Altogether, the tinnitus never stops, except when I'm asleep and occasionally when I'm meditating. Most of the time, however, I don't hear it. I simply close it out of my consciousness—unless I'm in a very quiet environment. It would be nice to be able to hear real crickets for a change. (see note at end)
I've heard people talk about it being so quiet they could hear the blood coursing through their veins. I have to say that I can't do that. I've never, in twenty five years, been in that much quiet. And that's what this complaint is all about.
I also have some hearing loss, likely from the same causes in my past (gunfire, loud machinery, listening to classical and rock music through headphones—the usual suspects). And it's likely not a coincidence that my hearing loss is most pronounced at about 8000 Hertz. When I've listened to an audiologist's test tones, they disappear at just the point where my head itself begins to fill in the sound. I still love music. Even though I cannot hear much of anything above that 8000-per-second threshold, I get the benefit of sub-harmonics and difference tones of higher pitches. Most music is pretty rich in harmonics, sub-harmonics, difference tones and summation tones, and we respond as though we hear sounds that are actually outside of our range of hearing, both above and below.
Silence, too, is an important part of music. The spaces between notes can have as much emotional and intellectual impact as the notes and the combinations of notes themselves. In some cases to support rhythm, and in other cases to give the listener the space to supply the meaning, silence is as much an instrument of an orchestra as the violin or the tympani. It's the part I miss.
And then—I guess I'm like most people, who fill their auditory space with sound—mostly noise—simply to distract themselves from the still, small voice that waits patiently to tell them what's really going on. I've become so used to thinking all the time that stuff just flows into (and out of) my awareness uninvited. I anticipate what I think might happen or what I want to happen; I re-hash conversations I've already had, changing my own words so that the conversation goes more my way; I explain things to myself as though I'm a teacher and a willing student at the same time; I play music in my head. I never noticed it before I began meditating. Even on my cushion, it's hard to stop, like a few other people I know who have to talk, endlessly.
The still, small voice just sits there waiting through it all. It doesn't mind the tinnitus. It seems not even to mind the thinking, thinking, thinking. I picture it sitting like our dog Tasha, expectantly, good naturedly, tail wagging just a little, never taking her eyes off me. And, like Tasha, it knows a lot that I don't know. I keep telling myself that I want to know what it knows. If I don't listen it's because there's all this other stuff I have to pay attention to. I don't know why, but I can't not listen to the TV or the radio when it's on. All this stuff comes into my mind, like how green my lawn could be if I used whatsitsname, or how some ointment can really clean out my pores and make my skin young again, or what the latest poll tells us about what Americans think. Sometimes I wonder if I really want to know what that small voice knows. It needs some marketing help.
There are times—brief moments—after I've been sitting for a half-hour or so, when I realize that nothing's happening. Yes, I can hear a car go by on the street outside, and the dog lapping water from her bowl in the kitchen, but it's like it doesn't register, or something. I just hear it. I don't listen. Once or twice I've heard voices in the next room. I'm aware someone is talking, and I don't strain to understand the words, as I usually do when I'm reading and the TV is on. I don't block out the sound; I just don't listen. The "nothing happening" is happening in my head. Her ears perk up just a little, and her head tilts to one side, but her eyes never leave mine. It's as though silence has finally touched me. True silence. The silence of a deep pool, or a moonless, cloudless night sky in Alberta.
And then the tinnitus comes back, like when the refrigerator starts up in the kitchen, making me aware that it's been very quiet. Like lying on my back in a field under the stars, and suddenly being aware of . . .
(An added note: Actually, I recently discovered that I can hear crickets. Their sound is much lower in the spectrum than the 8000 Hz that my tinnitus masks. Wonder why it took me so long to find that out!)
Donald Skiff, December 13, 2000