My guru believed a student should be able to meditate in the marketplace, or on a busy street corner—you should not require silence to meditate. But it helps. Still, I got so I could meditate surrounded by noise, and the truth is we rarely encounter true silence—there is always a distant siren, a dripping faucet, wind outside. The closest I have come to real silence has been in caves, but even there I could hear not just my own breathing, but the breathing of the people around me. The trick, with meditating, is to find a place of stillness inside oneself: to turn away, for a time, from the distractions of the world.
I am a writer, and I can revise my manuscripts in a hubbub of laughter and talking; I can do research in noisy places; I can read surrounded by bedlam—but, as with meditation, it helps if it's quiet. I find it difficult to create anything new, the first draft of a poem or a paragraph, for instance, surrounded by sound. In his preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth talks about writing poetry after recollecting powerful emotion in tranquility. The trick to writing poetry, it seems, is to turn to stillness.
Elijah had to flee for his life from Israel, and he ended up on Mt. Sinai, seeking direction from God. "A great and strong wind rent the mountain, and brake in pieces the rocks . . . but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice" (I Kings 19:11-13, KJV). The voice asked him: "What doest thou here, Elijah?" Elijah heard that small voice only after distraction had passed and a stillness had come.
I have experience of voices in stillness. If there had been distracting noise around me, I would not have heard them.
A year ago, I was home from the hospital, and on a long road of recovery from nocardiosis, a rare opportunistic infection (I am in my twenty-sixth year living with AIDS). It was a winter's night, December, and the house was still. My father has been gone twelve years, and Mother nearly three. Suddenly, I heard my father say a few words, not to me. It was as if I had overheard him speaking to someone else. I looked through the house, but no one was there. An hour later, I clearly heard him speak my name. The next night, the house again still as it usually is, I heard my mother speak my name, her voice full of concern.
I was sick then. If what I heard was only a trick of my mind, hearing my parent's voices again was a sweet trick. I hope, of course, that it was more than that. I listen in stillnesses for voices. I will always make space for silence.
I created "Enceladus Thriven," the image above, on my computer in 2007. It features the Fern, one of the named structures in Mandelbrot fractals. The title is inspired by theories that life may have evolved in oceans under the frozen surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.