I remember hearing Simon and Garfunkel singing about ‘the sounds of silence’ back in the 1960s and thinking ‘what a strange line’! However, the contradiction was not to stop as, soon afterwards in 1967 – 50 years ago now, I found the value of ‘the sounds of silence’ in the midst of war.
To me, ‘the sounds of silence’ are where I discovered wholeness and healing and so when I hear of other veterans who have not yet heard ‘the sounds of silence’, I invite them to do so. I have also done this with troubled youth through to high flying executives and it works. Sadly, however, in a world full of noise, it is a very hard sell. I understand this because when I go into ‘the sounds of silence’, I do not straight away hear ‘the sounds’ but rather the noise of my inner self with all its desire for distractions and mulling over issues.
So, how did I find it in war and how do we extrapolate that to a peacetime environment?
Well, first things first; why do it in the first place?
Like most treasures in life, I tripped over ‘the sounds of silence’ by accident. I found myself as a 19 year old forward scout in the Australian SAS Regiment for nearly a year in Vietnam in 1967. There I went on patrol with four others deep in enemy territory and in total silence for a week or so at a time. It was a surreal world where we had to totally identify with our natural environment leaving no tracks, making no noise, not being seen (heavily camouflaged), and not alarming the wild life. Doing this, our enemy gave us the nickname ‘Phantoms of the Jungle’. The two main ingredients were silence and oneness with Nature.
Doing this, I mentally explored the wonders of Nature in the Jungle and I felt amazingly safe even when close to the enemy. I would get up in the morning and sniff the air with my mouth open like a dog to detect the smells of the enemy brushing their teeth or having a morning menthol cigarette which I could detect nearly 100 metres away in the still damp air. We would go through both unoccupied and occupied enemy camps un noticed and then be accepted by the wild life beyond. Once I remember seeing a tiger when I was preparing my evening meal and he just looked at my rations with an air of disgust and moved on! Life was simple but to get into that space was, paradoxically, something that required great bushcraft skill and self discipline. Sleeping was simple; find a good hide, identify a reasonably clear pace. Take off your pack, undo your belt and slip the pouches behind your head as a pillow and lie on the damp ground and, hugging your weapon, go to sleep. When it rained, put a plastic covered map over your ear and remember that it takes about 20 minutes to warm the water you are sleeping in and relax!
It was not all silent and ‘natural’. Human beings had to make a nuisance of themselves and so we did have many encounters that were far from peaceful. A young person complained to me once about being stressed because of cyber bullying and I told her that there is no stress in that unless you create it in your mind. Stress, I said, is landing in the jungle, being shot at, finding your radio does not work, and then being chased for two days with the enemy using tracker dogs until, after running up creeks and operating in heavy rain, the enemy loses your trail. That is stress!
As a young man, I learned to process that stress by immersing myself in the wonders of my natural environment and that led me to a deep spiritual space. When I studied Psychology in University years later I discovered the statistics around youth suicide and my wife and I concluded that it was a lack of exposure to Nature that contributed to this and the other escape behaviours in substance abuse etc.
The Book of Job is the oldest book of all in the Bible even though it appears among later books – the first of the poetical works. Without touting religion, it is interesting to contemplate that the human story is not that old and that Job spoke on the central issue for us all in what meaning lies in pain and loss. We hear that Job came from Uz and that the Chaldeans who stole his cattle came from Ur which were some of the earliest settlements (on or near the river Euphrates in what is now Iraq) in the World at the beginning of the agricultural age going back 10,000years or so. The names of these places reflect a primitive level of speech and yet, 4,000 years ago, Abraham left Ur and the whole Judaic tradition began.
In the Book of Job (12:7-9) it is written: ‘Even the birds and the animals have much they could teach you; ask the creatures of the earth and the sea for their wisdom. All of them know that the Lord’s hand made them’.
And so, the most ancient piece of wisdom from humans that we possess tells us, among other things, that the answers are in Nature. Yet, when my wife and I started Bush Venture in 1985 to develop and empower people through oneness with Nature we got some incredibly negative feedback from onlookers in welfare, education, and the church. We were told that taking people into Nature was brutal and inhumane! It became clear that our world is all obsessed with head trips and the cleverness of modern man! And yet look at the despair that this linear non holistic view produces
If you scale chronological history down to the span of one year, with the Big Bang on January 1, then our species doesn’t appear until 11:59 PM on December 31. That means our written Bible, religion, and then science appeared in the last nanosecond of December 31. Not to contemplate what made up the rest of the year and how it has evolved to what we have today is incredibly arrogant – it denies 99.9999% of our roots and meaning.
Taking people into the bush to enjoy the fulfilment has given me some privileged experiences where, without prior suggestion, many from ‘street kids’ to ‘high flying executives’, claimed to have had some sort of ‘mystical (not religious) experience’.
This is not a treatise on Theology or religion. However, not to mention the experience of many of my atheist and agnostic clients and to pretend that people have been able to solve the profound questions of their lives without the help of some ‘power of the Universe’ would be dishonest.
Putting one’s life out on the table in the presence of the Divine (however one wants to define that reality) within and without and dialoguing the process is a profoundly useful and helpful process.
It is in the quiet space of the sub and unconscious mind and in the sacred space of Nature that the Divine speaks – the real sounds of silence!
It is in this space that one can release pain, find real meaning, heal, have a giggle over human stupidity which we take far too seriously, and then come back home to be more loving, joyful, and compassionate.
I love ‘the sounds of silence’!