Sound of one hand clapping: sound of silence


A female acquaintance, smart, attractive cosmopolitan (born in China, worked in New York for L’Oreal and then McKinsey in Singapore), once commented on seeing a couple sitting quietly eating their meal. Then single, she lamented “I wouldn’t want to be in a marriage like that. Same bed different dreams.”

Unconsciously, that comment became my “battle-cry” as I resolved not to allow that to happen to my marriage.  When my husband was home, I would try to make conversation. To no avail. His eyes glued on his handphone.  Rejected, I read books on “Men are from Mars, Women from Venus”, advised that when a man is in his cave, wait patiently until he decides to come out of his cave.  Don’t badger him until he’s ready.  I would wait, poke my head in the cave and call out “Are you ready?”

The silence frightened me. I’m not afraid to be alone. I’ve lived alone for a number of years. In my previous jobs, I travelled to international conferences. I’ve no problems taking 12hr flights from Asia to Europe. Once onboard Singapore Airlines, I fall asleep on economy class, and wake up for breakfast. [Flights to the US and Latin America were a problem, and I quit when I had to fly to Mexico and Chile four times a year.]

Silence = rejection. In the silence, I projected my fears. Fear of insignificance. Fear of my parents’ failed marriage. Fear of being unattractive.

So, I was at the library, picking out books on compassion and chanced upon  “The power of silence – the riches that lie within” by Graham Turner.

In Chinese philosophy, there are two opposing forces: yin and yang.  In the book of John 1:7, there is light and darkness. In fact, I don’t think its limited to philosophy and spirituality. Someone once said, no matter how you slice something, there’re two sides.

So in music, silence is critical. “It is the canvas on which the whole thing is painted” said Stephen Varcoe, a baritone. “Silence is a flower bed, an environment out of which beautiful things can grow. The flower bed in our age is full of weeds because of chatter that foes on all the time” said Mark Messenger head of strings at the Royal College of Music in London.

In psychotherapy, there are different “colors, tone, shade of silence” said Daniels. Profound traumas that have been locked away in silence remain unhealed.  Yet, under a skilled (or compassionate) psychotherapist, questioning and listening creates a safe environment.  Silence fosters a two-way connection between the left and right hemisphere. That can lead to all kinds of new insights – such as realising that a pattern of self-limiting or even destructive behaviour. This remains true for me. Just as I was sitting in bed, after a tiring day at the Gardens Festival, thoughts of the inappropriate comments I had made, flood my mind. If someone were to point it out to me, I would have become defensive, or feel victimised and bear a grudge. But in silence I get a chance to hear myself.

Hymie Wise quotes:

A wise old owl liv’d in an oak,

The more he saw, the less he spoke,

The less he spoke, the more he heard,

Why can’t we be like that old bird?


Owls from the Dragon Kiln in Singapore

In Chinese there’s a saying, that when your heart is still, naturally, you feel cool. Lotus comes out from the mud but is not stained by the mud.

This is not Buddhism but a Chinese philosophy. In the Bible, God says to David “Be still and know that I am God” Ps 46:10


A friend once emailed me this riddle:

A rich man needs ——-,a poor man has ——,if u eat ——- u will die.

This was one of the question for her nephew’s Primary 1 entrance exam into a school in Hong Kong. Every kid knows the answer. I’m glad I’m not vying for a place in that school.

A koan has no right answer.  The modern western view is that all questions have one right answer.  Outcome based. Bell-shaped, normal distribution. Evidence based.  Such a view is important and efficient. For the Asian, the process of arriving at the answer is also important.  Two sides.  “What is the sound of one hand clapping”.  A koan is not a meaningless statement. It is a mirror, reflecting your current state. A tool to grapple with and empty your thoughts during meditation. Answer frequently points to “non-attachment, nonduality” a sense that one is at peace. But the journey is a frustrating one during meditation.  As one turns to face oneself and hear your inner voice,  chatter, demons get uncorked and all kinds of fears released.  Reaching the stage of non-attachment. The Zen Master cannot tell you the right answer. Putting it into words, would seem like using a knife to help a butterfly break out of its cocoon. The struggle is a necessary process to strengthen the wings and force liquid out.  Everyone goes through their own struggle and journey. A Zen Master would know the right answer because of the connection at that space in time, when the two universes collide (as quantum physicists would phrase it.)  There’s no graduation ceremony or a pot of gold.

Unless you empty those thoughts and inner chatter, you will not be able to listen for new thoughts, new life, creativity and generosity that’s going to pour inside you.

For some, it is not to be the case. Meditation leads to arrogance. [Although in Chinese saying, “zou huo lu muo” that the practice of divine arts do lead some into another realm, and not always to enlightenment, as the ego becomes entangled, and one becomes arrogant.]

If I were to meet this bright female acquaintance again, I would ask her. “What was the sound of the silence of the couple?” Perhaps it was the sound of connection. Tang poet BaiJuyi has a saying in the poem “Journey of Pipa”, in a moment such as this, no words can express the beauty of the moment.

In the Bible And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. 1 Kings 19:12, So He said, “Go forth and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12After the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing.

“In silence there is eloquence.
Stop weaving and watch how the pattern improves.”

“You suppose you are the trouble
But you are the cure

You suppose that you are the lock on the door
But you are the key that opens it

It’s too bad that you want to be someone else
You don’t see your own face, your own beauty
Yet, no face is more beautiful than yours.”
“Only from the heart
Can you touch the sky.”
“People of the world don’t look at themselves,
and so they blame one another.”
“Your task is not to seek for love,
but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
― Rumi[By the way, in Japan, there’s a shop where you eat ramen in silence. No small talk.  Reverence and focus on the ramen. Friends have told me about their experience, but I could only find one blogger:] L kisses me twice, as I blogged, seeing me intent at work on my blog. The silence encouraged him to come forward, at his own time and space. He shares something about himself. More than if I had badgered him.

Note:”The Sound of Silence” is a song by the duo Simon & Garfunkel. Written in February 1964 by Paul Simon in the aftermath of the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy,[1] the song propelled the group to mainstream popularity.

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