All I wanted to know was what he did when the TV was no longer working.
The question was answered with a long description of how his morning’s work had been disrupted; his visit to the TV repair people had been a headache; the repairman had promised to come hours earlier but hadn’t; he and his wife had both waited impatiently… Whenever there was a gap in his little tirade, I repeated my question: “But what do you do at home, Sheik, when the TV isn’t working?”
Then I got a long description of what he does when the TV is working; how all his neighbours have their own favourites in drama or movies or the news; followed by a list of his personal essential sports programs; how he likes cricket more than anything and was currently missing a live game between India and Pakistan because the TV had broken down…
At last, as his auto-rickshaw reached my housing society and he was about to drop me off, I repeated my question and this time I got some kind of answer…
“What do I do? My wife looks at me like this,” (a long face with glaring eyes follows) “and watches the late arrival of the repair man. She then tries to get him to hurry up by telling him what not to touch….”
I see I am not going to get the answer I am looking for… “But what does your family do, Sheik, when you have no TV screen to stare at? Do you play games? Do you cook interesting food? Do you dance and sing?”
Now there’s a chuckle. “I never dance and sing,” he tells me proudly. “When there’s no TV, I must wait.”
The waiting game
When there’s no TV, he must wait. That was all, during the entire eight-minute journey, that I had been able to extract from my friendly local rickshaw driver apart from a piece of bonus news that he has four sons, all of whom live nearby, and the oldest of whom is 40. (I was suitably diverted by this nugget, as I did not expect a man who doesn’t look much beyond 40 himself to have a 40-year-old son.)
So he tells me… He waits.
What happens to us when, without distraction, we wait?
Sitting silently saying nothing
A young friend who is frustrated because her would-be boyfriend goes silent as they’re sipping their frappuccinos, tells me that as he never talks to her, she ends up doing all the talking.
“I feel I tell him too much about myself.”
“Why don’t you stop talking, then?” I ask her.
“But how can I stop talking when he doesn’t say anything?”
Might she wait? “Nobody likes a vacuum,” I say. “How about you ask him a question and then say nothing?”
To talk or not to talk?
This very exercise had happened to me the day before with a much more mature friend. In the service of an interview, I had posed a personal question whose answer I knew would be hard to articulate. Rather than help her along with a few interjections, a few possible leads, as I had had to resort to with Sheik, I said nothing and waited. I did not want her answer to be contaminated by what my own mind might come up with. When I went quiet, I could see she was struggling while trying hard to find the words. But I knew, with enough time, enough of a gap, enough of a wait, the words would come.
So I watched. And, with friendly anticipation, I let the silence fill the space between us. Sure enough, after a few seconds, she began again. And when she stopped again, I waited again while she pondered. And while she was clearly hoping to be interrupted by my idea of a possible answer, I said nothing. I waited. And again she began…
When nothing is said
Getting the other person to talk requires not talking ourselves. This is because very few people can bear much of a gap of noiselessness between two socialising human beings. As my young friend had put it: “How can I stop talking when he doesn’t say anything?”
The implication being: What will happen when there is silence?
What will happen when the TV goes AWOL; when the broadband connection dies; when the screen of our mobile phone goes blank and we are left holding a heavy, vacant piece of hardware that’s as dumb as a chunk of uncut quarry rock?
And all goes dark
Many, many years ago, when I was living in Manhattan, the entire US North-East’s power grid collapsed and all the lights went out. Losing all power and lighting in a city such as New York was a wonderful, fantastical experience in itself. But what was even more interesting was what happened nine months later: There was a huge surge in the birth of New York City’s babies! Out went the lights, off went the TV, and couples suddenly found each other in the dark with nothing to do and got involved in what was probably a rare feat of city-wide lovemaking. (One person suggested that the only reason more babies were born nine months later was that no one could find the condoms!)
In the gap of silence, we find each other at our essence. And those of us that can, have sex. It may even be that misplaced thoughts of sex is what makes so many of us need to talk so much. Traditional psychoanalysis seemed to think so.
The psychoanalytic couch
Psychoanalysis has a curiously disconcerting practice in which the analyst sits opposite the client, and says just about f-all. (It was the awkwardness of this silent face-to-face relating that led Freud to put people in the less embarrassing position on the couch where they could not see him.)
The sum of it is that the combination of silence and someone else’s presence in one bundle can be an extremely potent force. In the case of analysis, you are not just paying for their undistracted attention, their non-interference and their – hopefully – understanding insights, you are paying for that powerful experience rarely permitted elsewhere.
But this powerful emotional force is not everyone’s cup of tea.
If sitting in front of a dead TV creates one kind of fearful silence, sitting across from a silent friend creates a much deeper kind.
In the therapeutic version, what is designed to emerge when we fill that scary space, are all kinds of thoughts and memories we might otherwise suppress. Where before they would have been stuffed under the distraction of the TV or computer screen, or the superficial toing and froing of light conversation, they now rise freely to the surface, available for self examination.
Meditation and distressing thoughts
People have said that sitting in meditation makes them think about all kinds of dreadful things. It is not meditation that makes them think dreadful things. It is that the ordinary ‘dreadful things’ that run amok unchecked in our subconscious every hour of our lives, suddenly, in the vacuum created by the silence of self-examination, have a field day. They were there all along but now we can see and hear them.
Horror of horrors! Did I really have that thought about wielding an axe at my dad? Did I really just have an image of that guy’s naked thigh?
When we sit in meditation, all these things running across the screen of our minds fight for attention and disturb our sense of wellbeing. Suddenly we are shocked to find that we are not as high-minded as we had always assumed.
As a meditator, our job is just to let those thoughts – both those we label bad and those we label good – come and go without interference. Ultimately the thoughts step back, thin out and disperse of their own accord, and we realise they have nothing to do with who we really are.
And that’s when we just enjoy the gaps.