Stages

Sound and Silence

Like every other folk singer, I’ve played some weird shows. Stuck in the corner of a restaurant’s empty back patio, playing for no one, while the crowd inside was watching football. Set up alongside a marathon route, playing for an endless stream of somewhat preoccupied and utterly indifferent runners. Performing on a cruise ship’s main stage with a pick-up band as the elegant room tossed and lurched in a violent storm. But of all the countless shows I’ve played, this was the oddest: a concert at a week-long silent retreat at the Chopra Center.

The Chopra Center for Wellness is one of the world’s premier mind-body healing and educational centers. Nestled on the grounds of the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, California, the Chopra Center offers a full menu of spiritual and physical healing programs as well as off-site retreats at Asilomar, Sedona, Costa Rica, and beyond. Built over 20 years ago on the groundbreaking work of Drs. Deepak Chopra and David Simon, the Chopra Center has cultivated a bevy of teachers and facilitators, and I am honored to call myself one of them. Since I’ve entered into partnership with the Center I’ve offered two events, with two more on the calendar for this summer and fall. Mostly they’re lectures or all-day retreats. But the one I did last month was different.

I arrived a few hours early on the afternoon of the concert. I set up and waited. I drank some herbal tea. A palpable quiet permeated the space. As the start time approached, in they came, alone, or in twos and threes. No one said a word. They were coming from massages, Ayurvedic treatments, or meditation sessions. Many were wearing robes. It was their first full day of silence. We greeted each other with eye contact, nods, and welcoming smiles. When everyone was seated, the retreat leader introduced me and I began.

As Trappist monk Father Thomas Keating said, “Silence is the language of God. All else is a bad translation.” And as any musician knows, music is the art of deciding exactly how to ruin the silence. Still, I was bound to do my best to provide a worthwhile soundscape for these silent retreatants to enjoy. I thought long and hard about the set list. I plotted every tempo flow, key change, and lyric theme. I kept it simple. I kept it clean. I kept it quiet, and I leaned on songs that had a restful glow at the center—nothing too fancy or busy. I played my most soulful and reflective originals, and a lot of great covers with the same broad, expansive, contemplative vibe.

After my first song they applauded. Okay good, so they were allowed to clap. That helped—a welcome dose of reciprocity. Then by the third song, something began to open up, like a rose blooming, revealing a hidden beauty and blush. They were leaning into me and I into them. We were holding each other up. To some extent that happens at every show, well, the good ones anyway. But this was different. This was more urgent, hungrier, more penetrating. It’s as if with their power of speech gone, their sense of hearing expanded. I’ve never felt the presence of an audience more deeply. I’ve never felt more heard. They hung on every note, every word. Both of us, on either side of the guitar, were daring vulnerability, and with vulnerability comes intimacy.

In some ways, this concert at the silent retreat was the natural culmination of the trajectory my musical career had taken for years. I’d played in loud rock and roll bands in college, my Les Paul like a lit fuse in my hands, the din of amps and drums ringing in my ears for days, (and robbing me of a good chunk of my hearing in middle age). Later, folk duos dominated, the tone of unadorned acoustic guitars proving richer and more enthralling than a rack of effects pedals through an amp on 11. Eventually, I left all that behind to focus on solo performance. Something about emptying out the sound and leaving more space called to me. I’ve noticed that about my songwriting too—my songs keep getting shorter and simpler. Every time I remove an element, the impact increases. Less really is more.

So, when I entered into partnership with the Chopra Center, I jumped at the chance to bring my guitar and perform. It wasn’t even my idea. I pitched myself as a lecturer, a teacher of Asian philosophy, and a meditation facilitator. But I guess they checked out my website and found out about my other life. I was surprised when they asked. And, of course, I said yes. It made perfect sense.

At this silent retreat, on each day one of the five senses was featured. The first day was sound—that’s where I fit in. The next day was visual—they were painting. The day after that was touch—they were crafting personal altars. And so on. I thought it was brilliant. And I was thrilled to be a small part of it.

The composer Claude Debussy once said, “Music is the silence between the notes.” The best musicians understand that they are always doing two things: playing music and playing silence. Without the gaps between the notes, music would just be one long, horrible wail. As jazz master Miles Davis put it, “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.” I’ve often noticed this as I’ve collaborated with countless musicians through the years, some truly great and others still learning. One of the quickest tells of who has experience and who doesn’t is how silent they are. The player who’s always noodling during rehearsal, or who overplays every song, filling every gap with noise, is the beginner who mistakenly believes that musicianship is synonymous with flash and flurry. The seasoned pro, on the other hand, is as silent as a mouse during rehearsal, and during the song, they disappear into the pocket so deeply that you don’t know where they end and the music begins. A poor musician plays their instrument. A great musician plays the song.

The same rule applies in public speaking, whether you’re a politician, a preacher, or a professor—all various forms of storyteller. And, as Ira Glass, host of Public Radio’s “This American Life” and master storyteller put it, “In radio you have two tools. Sound and silence.” The best speakers understand this. If you never stop and take a beat, and instead pummel your audience with a never-ending slurry of words, numbness sets in. Your speech, no matter how eloquent, loses its power. If you take a pause, on the other hand, and fill the room with sudden silence, the gravitational field shifts. Everyone in the room looks up and locks eyes with you. What you say next is offered up on a silver platter and savored.

In the right measure, silence and sound work beautifully together. Sound conveys from without while silence draws up from within the treasures of our own insights and awareness that otherwise lay dormant, submerged, and hidden. Sound gives us the gifts of others. Silence gives us the gift of ourselves.

Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, spiritual teacher, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.peterbolland.com

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