Monday, December 25, 2017

"Sounds Within Near Silence" (171224-AM)

A melancholy, gray, drizzly morning.  After some weeks of avoiding silence by always having a radio on, or music playing, I left the radio off and wordlessly (internally and externally) looked around at my surroundings and out the window at the cold, winter outdoors.
As I walked over the tatami mats I became aware of the faint sound made by them, and other faint sounds, and the title of that old Simon and Garfunkel song "The Sound of Silence" came to mind, and immediately I thought "Wait - that's not what this is... this is... 'sounds within silence;... but it's not silence if there are sounds, so... 'sounds within near silence'"............
Tokyo is not exactly a very quiet city, although I was told by a couple of visiting friends from Portugal (some years back) that they were surprised by how quiet Tokyo was.  I was genuinely surprised to hear that, and said "What do you mean?!" to which they explained that in Portugal, people honk their car horns a lot, and yell at friends across the street, etc.  "Ah... in that sense, yes, Tokyo is quiet, it's true..." I replied.  ...........

Staring at my computer screen, I find myself at a fork in the road regarding Tokyo and noise.  On the one hand, there is much I could say about how the attitudes to certain kinds of noise have changed over the decades here.  For example, I thought of what my Portuguese friends had said when I read an old guide book from the 1950s that commented on how noisy the streets of Tokyo were - with people constantly honking their car horns!  And on the other hand, I started writing this specifically to address the way the mind uses, perceives, and makes noise.
Regarding Tokyo, let me just quickly comment on how people here generally seem able to put up with any amount of noise out in public - most notably from incredibly loud train and train station announcements (which are often almost painfully loud), and yet tend to be hypersensitive about noise around their residences.  It seems like a contradiction, but I suppose the hypersensitivity to noise near where people live may be brought on by being noise-stressed when out in public, so when they get home, they don't want any outside noises intruding into their quiet space at home.

Anyway, back to noise within the brain.

Language is a wonderful thing - but it has caused us... (most of us?, all of us?, some of us?) to retrograde in some respects.  Before I learned a second language, I thought that thinking was basically having an internal voice talking, but I've come to realize (belatedly...) that words are not thoughts - they are just tools that (rather clumsily) attempt to convey thoughts.  As I leaned a second language (Japanese), this realization began to come into focus.  It was a fluid process, but three milestones come to mind:

M1 - For objects, I went from looking at - say - a tree, and simultaneously thinking an (internally) audible "tree" to there being a lag while I decided on which word tool to use "tree" or "木", and the realization began to form that thinking was something apart from words - something that comes before words.
M2 - In studying Japanese, I sometimes did a language exchange with people, where we'd go to a coffee shop (a type of coffee shop almost extinct now after the invasion of the Big Chain Stores) and agree on a time - typically one hour each, where I'd teach them English for one hour and they'd teach me Japanese for one hour.  In the beginning, it was definitely a better deal for the Japanese speaker, as even in the Japanese time, they had to explain things to me in English, so they were learning some English even then.  As I became more proficient in speaking Japanese, it started to be a better deal for me, as I was explaining things in Japanese during the English time.
   So - how to make it a fair exchange....  I came up with a simple system.  We'd decide on a time - three minutes seemed to work best - and we'd talk in one language, then the other, and back again - sometimes for hours.  Doing this absolutely fairly required a little willpower, and a certain kind of timer (standard on Casio digital watches at the time, but gone missing on modern models... I think, at least I couldn't find it on the newer models I tried), where the watch's timer auto-reset and commenced a new countdown even as it was beeping.  So it would start with 3:00, and then 2:29-2:28-2:27... 0:05-0:04-0:03-0:02-0:01-0:00 - where it would beep - and (with no pause) continue 0:00-2:59-2:58, etc.  Since the next countdown started exactly at the end of the previous countdown, each time block of three minutes was exactly three minutes.
   The rules (which is where the willpower comes in) were simple, but very important.  Actually... it's not even the plural "rules", but rather one simple, but Very Important rule - which was that during English Time, only English could be used, and during Japanese Time, only Japanese could be used.  During English, absolutely no Japanese, and during Japanese, absolutely no English.  An obvious issue with that system was what happens when you're in the middle of a sentence and the three-minutes-over! alarm goes off?  If you are speaking in Japanese when the "English Time!" alarm sounds and - even for a few seconds - you continue speaking in Japanese (to finish your sentence) the system is broken.  The answer?  Simple!  You change languages mid-sentence!  I suppose this sounds like it would be difficult, but actually, this immediate changeover requirement paradoxically kept us motivated to continue and made the exercise fun.  It was kind of like an ongoing challenge - "How smoothly can I go from one language to another even in mid-sentence..." which gave the exercise an energizing tension and pressure to perform well.
   Let me see if I can get a good example of a mid-sentence changeover on the screen/page here....:
   "I went to Shinjuku yesterday to buy a new camera-" [beep-beep!] "買おうと思ったけど、買いたいモデルは、ちょっと値段が高かった", etc.
  I did this fairly extensively with a few different people and one evening - after carrying on a conversation in this way for about three hours non-stop, I was saying something when I suddenly realized (momentarily) that I didn't even remember which language I was using!  I was using the correct language, but after three hours of speaking/listening to exactly half one language and half another, the feeling of using a specific language had mostly vanished and speaking was just speaking - in whichever language.
M-3 - Fast forward to a difficult moment in my life when a lot of complicated things were going on.  One night I went to a secluded spot (not an easy thing to do in Tokyo, by the way!) and tried to calm the raging storm of thoughts I was having.  I was going in circles, getting even more frustrated, when it occurred to me that the sloppiness of vocabulary within language was getting in the way of pure thought, so I made an effort to turn off the words.  I managed to, but it was kind of hard and I could only... just barely... do it by utilizing pictures.  I imagined one person after another of the various people in my life by seeing their faces as though looking at a photograph of them (or maybe a video clip where they were just standing either looking at me or off in another direction - without talking), and conceptually taking in the essence of each individual.  With the sophistry of the words out of the way, a calm came over me as I saw all of us as players standing on the stage of life - trying to make sense of things and getting on with our lives.  It was a picture of everyone on an adventure - as though moving through a mysterious forest... with no guarantees of anything working out, but nothing for it but to move ahead, doing the best each of us could.
   The conclusion?  "Life's an adventure. Get on with it. Just do your best."
And I suppose this morning was a kind of realization of Milestone-4?  Wordlessly taking in my surroundings without having had to turn the words off in the first place.  I suppose if someone goes without using words for too long, it becomes difficult to start using them again, but this is just the calm of consecutive days off during the holiday season and I'll be back into the fray of frequent talking (and other forms of word use) in January 2018.  "2018"... the number looks strange sitting there on the screen staring back at me.  Back to an old conclusion I suppose:  "Life's an adventure. Get on with it. Just do your best."

Lyle H Saxon
Tokyo - December 2017

No comments: