Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Virtue of Silence

Rolling Black-outs: the virtue of silence
The Japan Times, April 23, 3011

Entrance to Flying Dragon Shrine on Shiraishi Island

By Amy Chavez

The rolling blackouts in Tokyo meant interruptions in watching TV, running computers, stereos and electric heaters, not to mention recharging cell phones and electronics.

While some have suggested the rolling blackouts will merely reconfirm the need for nuclear power in this country with so few natural resources, I wonder if the blackouts could create a backlash.

You see, the blackouts have given us the chance to reconsider the role of silence in our lives. In an article by James Fallows on new media in the April issue of The Atlantic, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Fallows, "If young people are awake, they are connected. When they're walking, when they're in a car, if they wake up at night, when they're in class."

I'm glad to know that at 48, I am still considered young. But I wonder if the younger people actively seek quiet moments to keep a work-life balance. This craving for silence is one factor that drives people to go sailing, surfing, hiking, camping, mountain climbing or to do other individual sports. Silence is a tool we use to cope with life.

A competitor is silent at the beginning of a race so she can concentrate. A moment of silence is called for to remember the victims of disasters. We pray to God in silence. And most of us need silence to sleep well.

The silence between songs on a music player provides closure for one song before starting another. Writers and poets insert ratios of silence, called pauses, into their works via commas, dashes, ellipses or full stops. Lots can happen during a pause (consider the pregnant pause).

Silence is one of the lifestyle options I took when I moved to Shiraishi Island (population 631) in Japan's Seto Inland Sea. I wanted to live in a place where I could concentrate for long periods of time but still be connected to everyone and everything. Because of this decision, I've had time to consider the virtue of silence.

When I want an hour devoid of cell phones, e-mail or Internet, I take a walk up to the Flying Dragon Shinto shrine on the island. One who takes a vow of silence can hear many things.

I'm not talking about the sound of your own footsteps or that of the wind in the bamboo — most people can hear those things. Only the perceptive can note how the wind carries the laughter of two women chatting in their veggie gardens, or distinguish that the sound of a water drop is actually a frog surfacing from an abandoned well.

On my way up to the shrine, I walk past the port, where fishing boats are tied up while their captains sleep peacefully in their houses after a full night at sea. White herons stand on one leg in the shallow waters waiting for a meal to swim past, while a hawk is on lookout from the top of the mast of a yacht.

Stray cats stretch out on the sun-soaked road, sleeping with one eye open. Weeds grow freely along the road, knowing no one will cut them down as long as they have blossoms. Gods peek out from stone statues all along the path. Someone has planted ostentatious red tulips in front of their house.

I haven't heard a human-made noise yet.

When you hear a noise on the island, it's because something has happened. Something has been put in motion: Someone starts walking, someone initiates a greeting or someone starts a boat to go out fishing.

This is in contrast to city noises, many of which are ongoing and confirm that everything is still happening: ceaseless neon lights, cars on the road or the background humming of vending machines.

As I get closer to the shrine, I begin to hear some human sounds as the road-turned-walking path wends through the old Japanese country houses. I hear the scraping of a hoe in sandy dirt as an old woman removes weeds from around her walkway. When I pass a garden, a man impatiently pulls out daikon radishes, their roots snapping under the stress. Laundry flaps on a clothes line and dried leaves scoot across the path.

When I reached the Flying Dragon shrine, it was so quiet, I could almost hear the lion statues' silent roars as I passed under the torii gate. In the shrine grounds, the last flecks of pink fluttered down from the cherry trees. With the o-hanami parties finished, no one is around to hear their last petals fall to the ground.

Environment and sensitivity to noise is well documented. Buddhist priests after doing the Gumonji meditation for 100 days are said to have such keen senses that they can hear the sound of burning incense. I believe it. But it is the previous intense environment that allows them to have such perception. Who knows, in another 100 days, they might be able to hear fruit rotting.

Us mortals, however, must strive for something in between. By welcoming the occasional periods of silence that the rolling blackouts offer us, we can heighten our senses enough to be able to hear what our real energy needs are. When you can once again hear your cat purr, you just may decide to keep it that way.

When the loudest thing on my entire walk is bright red tulips, I understand the virtue of silence and I wonder if I need nuclear energy at all.

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