Friday, March 23, 2012

Knowing Silence

The study of how we know (epistemology) has been a fashionable area of scholarship for centuries, but it is a sign not of progress but rather of how much we have lost. Understanding the fundamentals of how the mind works—not only that there is a different way of knowing than that of self-consciousness; but also how self-consciousness can deceive, that deep listening is essential—emerges organically where people are integrated into a landscape. Similar understanding in a lesser mode can emerge for those who are urbanised but nonetheless take the time and make the effort to observe their own minds.

Studies of Inuktitut language and the closely related Greenlandic dialect of the northernmost-dwelling peoples on earth show this integration; the distinctions between body and soul, matter and spirit, simply do not exist. Gretel Ehrlich notes that ‘The first word I learned in Greenland was Sila. It means simultaneously, weather, the power of nature, and consciousness. For humans and animals that have co-evolved with ice and cold, there is no perceivable boundary between a "knowing" sentient being and the strong forces of weather.’ For such a culture, the notion of studying the mind as a discrete and 'objective' entity in a laboratory, divorced from its natural context, would be considered laughable, crazy.

'Place-names,' she continues [In the Empire of Ice],' describe precisely the internal, deep links among earth, ice, water, animal, wind, snow, and spirit, and cautionary tales that come from that commingling. … Deep ecology in the Arctic means that the sound of the walruses' clicks and whistles, humming whales, and the ululating songs of bearded seals rise through the kayak paddle. One's whole body becomes a listening post, receiving messages from under the ice. . . . Animal and human minds are inextricably linked, and the ecological imagination arises from the forehead of each morning, shaped by cold and pushed into being by weather….

'Animal and human natures overlapped, [she observes in This Cold Heaven] intertwined, and were considered to be one an the same, as were animate and inanimate objects. A man could become an iceberg; a shaman could live as a bear, suckle two cubs, then return to being a shaman again. The outward forms differed, but not the essential nature. People and animals talked to each other, shared a common language, and changed skins on a whim….'

This awareness has a profound effect on the way people comport themselves for the sake of the community, for the community is only as strong as the solitudes that make it up. For the Inuit, lying and deceit are the same as murder:

'To obtain awareness was once thought by the Inuit to be an essential aspect of personhood. The confines of village life in early times meant that behavior had to be moderate. Even-temperedness, humor, and modesty were highly value; cautionary tales warned people about the harm anger and self-pity could cause...

'Seeing was the ultimate act of the angakoks (shamans). Whether it was seeing into the source of a famine or the source of an illness, they had to pierce all obstacles. In eastern Greenland and in Alaska, some shamans and their apprentices wore masks. Others hid their faces behind sealskins. In both cases, the idea was to banish the obstructions of ego, greed, contempt, or self-importance that might get in the way. The neutrality of the face-cover provided a passageway into another world.'

The contrast with the carefully fashioned plastic personalities with which today’s celebrity gurus peddle their conceits in order to dominate trusting, hurting, authentic seekers (and incidentally extract a lot of money) could not be more stark.

[From a draft of Chapter 3 of Silence: A User's Guide]

Anyone who has paddled a kayak will recognise the truth of what Ehrlich writes: when you sit in one of these seemingly frail craft—the more advanced ones are quite tippy so that you can carve a turn to ride a wave, or right yourself if you are flipped over—the lower part of your body is beneath the waterline. A kayak is like clothing or an extra skin: you wear it more than sit in it. And wearing it—paddling towards a vast horizon bordered by glacier-carved crags, or even on a forest lake—you wear the universe.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

re: "...the sound of the walruses' clicks and whistles, humming whales, and the ululating songs of bearded seals rise through the kayak paddle. One's whole body becomes a listening post, receiving messages from under the ice"

reminded me of the following facinating TED talk by the grammy-winning percussionist who has been deaf since age 12:
Evelyn Glennie shows how to listen

In this soaring demonstration, deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie illustrates how listening to music involves much more than simply letting sound waves hit your eardrums.

Scottish percussionist and composer Evelyn Glennie lost nearly all of her hearing by age 12. Rather than isolating her, it has given her a unique connection to her music.

And I remember when I was 12 years old, and I started playing tympani and percussion, and my teacher said, "Well, how are we going to do this? You know, music is about listening." And I said, "Yes, I agree with that. So what's the problem?" And he said, "Well, how are you going to hear this? How are you going to hear that?" And I said, "Well, how do you hear it?" He said, "Well, I think I hear it through here." [pointing to his ears.] And I said, "Well, I think I do too -- but I also hear it through my hands, through my arms, cheekbones, my scalp, my tummy, my chest, my legs and so on."

And so we began our lessons every single time tuning drums -- in particular, the kettle drums, or tympani -- to such a narrow pitch interval, so something like ... that of a difference. Then gradually ... and gradually ... and it's amazing that when you do open your body up, and open your hand up to allow the vibration to come through, that in fact the tiny, tiny difference ... can be felt with just the tiniest part of your finger, there.

And so what we would do is that I would put my hands on the wall of the music room, and together we would "listen" to the sounds of the instruments, and really try to connect with those sounds far, far more broadly than simply depending on the ear. Because of course, the ear is, I mean, subject to all sorts of things. The room we happen to be in, the amplification, the quality of the instrument, the type of sticks ... etc., etc.


worth watching the entire ~30 min video, but the excerpt above is what triggered the link in my mind to the "listening with the whole body"


11:47 pm, March 23, 2012  
Anonymous dFish said...

sgl, thank you for this piece of profound information and the link. i will take my time viewing the TED lecture. Real listening as the road to being human. Authenticity.

8:41 am, March 24, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To sgl: brilliant. Thank you.

9:26 am, March 24, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

to sgl: In my new book I have a chapter on musical silence. I would very much like to quote your description of learning tympani, if you will permit.

Could you please send me a comment marked DO NOT POST with your email address and the permission? I'd be very grateful. Your email address will be entirely confidential. Many thanks. I will understand if you do not want to give permission.

7:04 pm, March 24, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Message for Dan: Yes, that is the proper use of 'behold'. Sorry I have to reply publicly but you didn't include your email! Thanks for writing.

9:26 pm, March 24, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

re: "[in a kayak] -- you wear the universe."

reminds me of a stanza of a poem by the Christian mystic Thomas Traeherne that I love:

You never enjoy the world aright,
til the sea itself floweth in your veins;
til you are clothed with the heavens
and crowned with the stars
and perceive yourself to be the sole heir
of the whole world

I originally saw the single stanza unattributed somewhere on a forum. Googling one time, I found a more complete poem at the beginning of the file:

which was attributed to Thomas Traeherne, but did not identify which of his works.

Best I can figure now, the above poem edited out a few lines from Thomas Traeherne's "Centuries of Meditations", first century, paragraphs 27-31. (personally, I prefer the whittled down version, as it's a bit more poetic.)

An intro plus all five centuries of Traeherne's "Century of Meditations" can be found at:

The page with the above stanza is in the first century, available at the link below, paragraphs 27-31:


5:23 am, March 25, 2012  
Anonymous dFish said...

"There are two famous silences in the history of classical music: those of Rossini and Sibelius. Rossini’s, which lasted nearly 40 years, was a worldly, cosmopolitan silence, much of it spent in Paris, during which time he co-invented tournedos Rossini. Sibelius’s, which lasted nearly 30 years, was more austere, self-punishing and site-specific; and whereas Rossini finally yielded again to music, writing the late works he referred to as “the sins of my old age”, Sibelius was implacable. He fell silent, and remained silent."

12:03 am, March 27, 2012  
Blogger cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown said...

Thanks for this post. And did you know that in Lakota there was no word for "sin" till one of the first missionaries had to teach the People what it was so they then could repent of it? Joel

7:25 am, April 28, 2012  

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