Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
5 Jul

Understanding the Meaning of Silence

A few months ago I wrote about the impact of noise – the constant din of traffic, flight patterns, crowds, etc. that we generally live with these days. Whether it’s an increased risk of cardiovascular disease or a decreased sense of mental well-being, we all pay a price for civilization’s soundtrack. I’ve been thinking a lot about the subject since that post and the thoughtful comments folks shared in response. (I have my contemplative moods like anyone else.) As is often the case with questions of health, the real issue isn’t just what to avoid (e.g. noise) but what to embrace in its stead. Loud and/or chronic noise is annoying, grating, even downright unhealthy. We agree we could all use less clamor in our lives, but is it as simple as turning down the volume in our society? Is silence just the absence of noise, or is there something deeper that defines silence – something we’d do well to understand, contemplate, or invite into our lives? When it comes to the real power of silence, does the peace stem simply from the quiet?

As intuitive as the benefit of silence seems, there’s little research about the impact of silence itself. Noise is bad, studies tell us. The absence of it is better. We got that part.

Ultimately, however, silence is less a set of conditions than an experience. The question then remains: what fills in the picture here – the differentiation of a quiet environment from the experience of silence? Beyond that obvious sense of quiet, silence has been associated with everything from “simplicity” to “great stillness” to an emptying of worldly desire. As author George Prochnik explains in his book In Pursuit of Silence, “The loudest argument for quiet may be a reflection on what otherwise remains in danger of going unheard.” What is it that we’re listening for? What are we hoping to apprehend or appreciate when we peel away the layers of noise from our lives? For each of us, perhaps, a different answer may come to mind.

Since that last post I’ve picked up a few books – some the products of my own explorations and some referrals from a number of you all: Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence and Gordon Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence, to name two of them. Gordon Hempton, for his part, sets out on a cross-country quest to witness the state of silence across parks, cities, and rural lands of the U.S. Just as he offers us the small, personal details of his adventure, he also unearths often obscure but significant policies that have influenced the American soundscape. During his travels, he actually records (and graphs for readers) the “Sonic EKG of America” that includes everything from birdsong in rural Montana to sounds of the ceremonial protocol at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Sara Maitland, on the other hand, takes on a more emotionally focused journey to live a life infused with silence. She travels and moves to different settings in search of the environments and experts that can help her understand the possibilities inherent in cultivating silence in her life. Yet, she struggles with her purpose or intention in seeking silence. Is it about letting go of the identity and desires of this life, as some experts and meditation teachers tell her, or is it about creating mental space to hone her creative energies for her writing, a hope she hangs onto with conviction? At the end of her quest, she remains somewhat frustrated with the lack of a resolution but resigns herself partially to the contradiction.

Although the wanderer in me enjoyed Hempton’s travel accounts of his cross country search, I identified most with Maitland’s insights about silence: that silence “has no narrative” and “intensifies sensation,” “blurs the sense of time,” that the minimizing of possessions in itself reduces a kind of metaphorical noise in our lives, among many others. However, her most salient point for me, I’d say, was her connection of silence with the pre-linguistic, pre-logical “seedbed of self.”

From my own perspective, understanding silence (among other things) has increasingly been an attempt toward grounding these last few years, a burrowing deep into what I’ve come to identify as a Primal, elemental level of consciousness – or unconsciousness – as certain thinkers have described it. Silence isn’t just an effort toward relaxation or an escape from modern layers of busyness but a reconnection in some regard with what is most natural, most essential to our still-present Primal selves. It’s reconnecting with what the body and brain expect. It’s taking on what Jung called the “frustration of instinct” in modern life.

Silence, of course, never had full claim on our days. Beyond the natural sounds of the wild environment around us, our ancestors embraced noise as much as they lingered in relative quiet. Sure, trying to spend time in more natural soundscapes is a major overlay of this endeavor, but there’s more to it than just time in the woods.

Jung notes we naturally seek out noise because it suggests human company – the comfort and safety of the group, without which we wouldn’t have lasted. Nonetheless, we lived more fully in our senses in those times. Our lives depended upon our adaptively full, innate attention to our environment.

Robert Wolff in his book called Original Wisdom, writes about the “overload” of our modern environments. He offers, “I am certain I am not the only one who has to turn off some senses in a supermarket or in a train station or in an airport. …One learns – has to learn – to shut off some senses, to protect oneself from all that noise.” Sound familiar to anyone? But our efforts to cover the noise or use other sounds to induce relaxation can backfire. In research comparing the physiological responses to soothing music and silence, for instance, silence still wins on the relaxation front. (So much for that Yanni CD.)

For me, striving toward silence has been two things. It’s been about spending as much time as possible in environments that don’t necessitate a deadening of the senses. Yet, it’s also largely been an attempt to shut off the mental chatter, to forget putting words to anything altogether for a few minutes. Truth be told, I have a hard time banishing all thought and releasing all perception. Better for me, I’ve found, to not shut out the scenery but slip into it, to more fully attend to and apprehend what’s around me (the simpler and more natural the surroundings the better) without words but with the senses. In this regard, silence for me has become less an introversion or escape than an individually measured, deliberate approaching of where I’m at. More than experience, the most life-giving silence is experience with.

My perspective and Primal take conjures silence not as audible absence, finally, but as a route to sensory fullness. It marks a starting or reset point from which I can reintegrate my senses and recalibrate the pull and distortion of constant rational assessment (e.g. the day’s planning, decisions, and judgments). It’s silence, finally, less as remote sanctuary and more as innate Primal retreat.

Thanks for reading today. Let me know your thoughts on how you think of and find silence in your day. Have a great week, everybody!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. A few years ago I took a road trip with my husband and three other adults. The two other women in the group asked what music I liked in the car, and I said honestly, without thinking about it, “None.”

    They were so shocked and offended, but of course they didn’t say anything. They both brought iPods and sulked because I didn’t want to listen to the The Lion King all the way across Texas… (and complained to the leader of our little expedition about how I was no fun and ruining the trip–passive aggressive little harpies.)

    But at least I got blessed quiet for the ride.

    taihuibabe wrote on July 5th, 2011
  2. Since having a child a couple years ago, I like to get up earlier than everyone else in the house, sit in the quiet house, drink my cup of coffee, and just…Be. That is the only time during my day that I am alone, my Me time, my Silent time – and it is a time I treasure. This was a most excellent post today.

    Dawn wrote on July 5th, 2011
  3. Ralph Waldo Emerson was quoted as saying, “Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods.” I find that having a time of quietude is a favorite and essential part of my day. In fact it:
    :: reduces stress levels
    :: offers a way to be grateful for things that are obscured by the noise of daily living
    :: allows more and better sleep with less incidence of sleep related disorders
    :: generally fills me with a sense of well-being and contentment
    :: reduces headaches, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, muscle tension and back pain, and
    :: allows me to have higher levels of concentration and therefore productivity

    I’ve heard it described as observing the space in a room instead of the objects in it. A silent mind, freed from the onslaught of thoughts and thought patterns, is both a goal and an important step in spiritual development. Such “inner silence” is not about the absence of sound; instead, it is understood to bring one in contact with the divine, the ultimate reality, or one’s own true self, one’s divine nature.

    The best times of the day for me are either early morning or late at night, especially if you are outdoors at the beach or next to lake or a river. I find that the noise of water is very soothing if you focus in on it, instead of trying to block it out.

    So in short that silence is the secret to sanity.

    FitChutney wrote on July 6th, 2011
  4. There’s a lot of chatter here for a post on silence…. 😉

    More seriously, I think the idea of silence as “being here” is a good one. Silence isn’t just a quest for time for me free from the noise of other people; it’s a way to be more present for others when the situation warrants. It’s selective, knowing when to listen, when to speak, and when to shut up. That’s much harder than saying (or listening to) nothing.

    Ravensong wrote on July 6th, 2011
  5. Inner body awareness calms down my noisy thoughts most of the time.

    Jesse wrote on July 6th, 2011
  6. Growing up, whenever we woke up or walked into the house, first thing someone would do would be turn on the tv. It never mattered that no one was in the room to watch it.

    I spent a lot of time alone outside reading. Looking back, I think it was a way to find quiet.

    We once took my grandmother to a waterpark. Know what she complained about? The NOISE was making her tired. She lived in New York! I never understood how noise could make her tired and stressed. I do now.

    I now turn the tv on only to watch a movie every once in awhile. I don’t listen to the radio in the car. I prefer the silence. Too much outer noise exhausts me. It creates a stressful distraction to the life around me.

    So many think I am odd for this. Thanks for posting this.its nice to know I’m not alone in my desire for silence or ‘natural’ noise.

    christal mcmillion wrote on July 6th, 2011
    • “Too much outer noise exhausts me.”

      Same here, I don’t have the car stereo on either. So annoying!
      I also always thought I’m odd for this or was labelled ‘anti-social’, when in fact all I want is silence.
      People talk too much these days. Standing in the store or looking into cars driving by just about everybody has a cell phone glued to their ear…yack yack yack yack yack.

      What is there to yack about in a store? “Hi Liz, I’m in the store right now omagosh I’m so excited, I’m in the store, omg…”
      “Omagawd you won’t believe what I’m doing right now. I’m driving down the road with my cell phone on my ear…omagawd, quick where’s the lube?…”


      Primal Palate wrote on July 6th, 2011
  7. Another view point, I, because of work, am hearing impared. When the time came and I had to accept hearing aids, I walked out of the office and could not believe the level of noise that I had the pleasure of not hearing for years. It honestly made my eyes squint. Traffic, airplanes, birds, dogs, and people talking on their cell phones loud enough they did not need the phone the person could hear them wherever they were! That night I realized that Georgia has crickets and tree frogs. now taking the aids out and going to bed is a trip back to my happy place.

    Ken C wrote on July 6th, 2011
  8. Exactly why I practice Zazen daily.

    George Mounce wrote on July 6th, 2011
  9. Great post. I physically crave quiet often….It really calms my nerves. Sometimes when my house is full of noise (kids, tv, appliances) I find myself literally shaking. I do feel that primaly we are wired to be calmed by the quiet noises of nature (birds, breeze through the trees, raindrops, ocean waves) and it something that we humans do not get enough of today.

    Gina Penna wrote on July 6th, 2011
  10. I am a quiet addict. There is nothing more refreshing in the world… than a crisp morning… and nothing… not a peep. Granted there’s nothing louder in the world than silence at the wrong moments as well….funny how that plays out.

    Jeanna wrote on July 6th, 2011
  11. Giving yourself quiet time is essential to knowing how you feel, checking in on yourself. It is also essential to thinking, imagining, brainstorming. Try driving with the radio off, or eating lunch by yourself. When I first tried it I had recurring thoughts or song lyrics playing in my head, but my husband wisely advised me that those were my thoughts at that time, and no less valid. If you can stay with it, a little bit each day, the inner chatter gets more simple and more refined. Great topic!

    Julie John wrote on July 6th, 2011
  12. I like this. We really should think twice about that Yanni tape. The loud noises for sure, but it’s that canned music that really offends me. In the shops, the markets, the airports, in medical offices. Music is powerful; it is even manipulative. If I really listened to it, I would identify with the traumas of young love all the blessed day. Perhaps there’s a connection between love songs and increased consumerism. What do you think?
    “Connect, Only connect.” That’s Forster. But everyone is watching screens and listening with earphones. This is what is called “being connected.”

    kapo wrote on July 6th, 2011
  13. Noticing how much noise appliances make, particularly refrigerators.

    shannon wrote on July 6th, 2011
  14. I absolutely love silence. I find noise to be extremely annoying. I don’t go out to clubs or hang out with people for the reasons that others prefer noise or talk of some sort, at all times. Even when my mom comes to visit, I have to explain to her that I need my time alone in silence ( because she talks so much that I just have to tune her out ). All my friends always ask me don’t you get bored being alone in your house all the time, but I never get bored, I love it. I love my peace and quiet, it helps me to stay aware and in the present moment. I noticed if I don’t do my daily dose of silence for at least 20 or 30 minutes, things shift in my head.

    Tatianna wrote on July 6th, 2011
  15. I teach 8th grade, and the only time we get silence is during testing! When it’s nice out, I take my lunch (only 20 minutes!) and sit outside, get my D and some quiet too. The rest of the teachers think I’m weird, but whatever. I am lucky enough to keep my horse near a state park, so when I really need some peace I’ll ride her to the park. We both just take deep breaths, and really observe the beauty around us. Wonderful in any season, and so relaxing.

    Laura wrote on July 7th, 2011
  16. Speaking of soothing music, how does metal do in that case? I listen to death metal on a large pair of noise canceling headphones to drown out the 3-4 various phone calls other people around me seem to be on whilst at work.

    I do find it relaxing, believe it or not. Then again, I’ve been known to fall asleep while listening to Slayer.

    Some music does tend to make me more alert, but more in the sense of being able to concentrate on my work rather than in terms of excitation. Hearing other people talk in the background steals my focus, and I’m no longer in a state of flow.

    raydawg wrote on July 7th, 2011
  17. thanks

    stargame95 wrote on July 23rd, 2011
  18. Silence came unexpectedly while walking in the desert very near to the tourested sites in Arches National Park in Utah. 10 minutes from the parking lot and complete and utter silence except for the jets at 40,000 feet which were strangly audible. I was profoundly moved and have never experienced such a thing since.

    Barry wrote on July 26th, 2011
  19. I Love silence…it’s in our self… only can feel it, when we have stress of living & finding reason why we are here, what are we doing, why we need to go across all this dificullty,,,, That’s where silence come in to when u search for the reason of living…

    satthiapriyah wrote on November 22nd, 2011
  20. I live in town, work in a retail store on a busy road and do most of the family shopping. Also have an autistic 8 year old son, who I love dearly but he does love to chatter incessantly. Silence is indeed golden :)

    Bill wrote on April 1st, 2012
  21. Absolutely agree with your article and I love the part where you state about ‘being in the experience with.’ I’ve been studying alot about silence recently. We often take silence as something ‘to just fill a gap of space’ or ‘a period of nonspeaking.’ However, silence, to me, is more than that. It’s an effort to give space to the inexpressible, allowing the unheard to be heard. It is not about the structured performativity of it but rather, like you said, “being in the experience with something.” Silence allows us to perform meditative thinking which lets us see how things that don’t go together go together. It gives us a form of awareness and provides us with the ability to cultivate our inner life. Most importantly, silence allows us to connect with one another through recreating space and time as a depth that may become inhabitable by every language.

    Liying wrote on October 20th, 2012

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