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!