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In Praise of Silence

by | Apr 2, 2019

In general, technology is a good thing. However, it has not only accelerated the pace of our lives, but made our lives noisier and destroyed their “peaceful rhythms.” Noise is a form of violence done to us. Unfortunately, we have become so accustomed to it, it barely registers, like the car alarm that goes off and refuses to stop.

Sound systems have become part of our shared landscape, as evidenced by the ambient noise in supermarkets, shopping malls, ballparks, elevators, coffee shops and restaurants. At wedding receptions, DJs play music so loud, guests can’t hear each other talk. Same with restaurants. And movie theaters turn up the sound so loud, it can be heard in adjacent theaters. Air shows. The Indy 500. Rock concerts.

It has become difficult to be alone, and quiet. Has silence become a void that we feel must be filled? Are we addicted to sensory overstimulation?

Do we fear silence?

In cartoonist Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes series, the boy and his tiger friend are walking outside and Hobbes remarks, “When you’re confronted with the stillness of nature, you can even hear yourself think.” Calvin says, “This is making me nervous. Let’s go in.”

According to medical and psychological studies, this constant noise around us has led to hypertension, hearing loss, stress and anxiety. As a result, we seek diversions. More things to do. More noise. iPods. iPads. Video games. Televisions. Cell phones. Emails. Texting. Not surprisingly, the number of antidepressants and sleeping pills prescribed has increased.

As early as 1948, the Swiss philosopher Max Picard wrote, “Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence.” And Picasso said, “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.” And Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu wrote, “Men do not mirror themselves in running water-they mirror themselves in still water. Only what is still can still the stillness of other things.”

All this from a rewarding book by writer Anne D. LeClaire entitled, “Listening below the noise.”

It is the “water of stillness” we need to cultivate creativity. Historically, writers, artists, scientists and philosophers have written of this need. Creativity always begins in a void. The empty canvas. The blank piece of paper. From the emptiness comes art, music, poetry, literature. Out of nothing we discover possibilities and create something.

Ms. LeClaire invites us to try to imagine any art form without silence. Without silence, however it is imposed, art becomes chaotic, a confusing thing without order or meaning. In silence, ideas are more accessible and flow more easily. Connections are made. Fleeting thoughts take form.

Musicians are particularly articulate on the importance of silence.

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists,” said musician Artur Schnabel.  “But the pauses between the notes – ahhh, that is where art resides.”

A team of scientists from Stanford and McGill universities studied brain images of eighteen volunteers who listened to a series of movements in symphonies, each punctuated by frequent pauses. They found that one to two second breaks between music triggered a flurry of mental activity in the brain, suggesting that important work is being done in the space of silence.

Neuroscientist Vinod Menon says, “A pause is not a time when nothing happens.”

Imagination requires a quiet place to live. We need to be alone and quiet for our subconscious to spin its creations. Stillness focuses the brain.

Rene Marois, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, conducted research designed to measure how much efficiency is lost when subjects tried to handle more than one task at a time. What did he learn? A core limitation of the human brain is an ability to concentrate on two things at the same time. In our times of “multitasking,” this is easy to forget.

Ms. LeClaire says, “Today, our imaginations are under siege from a constant barrage of noise and busyness. Our culture regards solitude and silence as something to be avoided.”

There is a high cost to be paid for this. We have lost the path to the place deep within where dreams, stories and visions appear. In silence we discover the power of imagination and creativity. Creative impulses surface and are allowed room to breathe. In silence we uncover the playgrounds of imagination.

Perhaps, most beautiful, is this example from writer Kathleen Morris in her book, “Amazing Grace.” She came up with an exercise about noise and silence for elementary school children. She told them that when she raised her hand, they could make all the noise they wanted, and when she lowered her hand, they were to be silent. Then she asked them to write about both experiences.

She found that few of the students wrote with originality about noise. In fact, most comments were cliches. Conversely, a wealth of originality surfaced on the subject of silence. Those comments had depth and maturity. “Silence is me sleeping, waiting to get up.” “Silence is a tree spreading its branches to the sun.”  “Silence is spiders spinning their webs.”

“Silence reminds me to take my soul with me wherever I go.”

But is silence the bane of the would-be go-getters ambition? Is it simply an excuse to do nothing?

Perhaps Ms. LeClaire provides us with an elegant answer. She was taking an advanced class in yoga and having a difficult time holding a difficult variation of Trikonasana, the triangle pose. She thought that practice was supposed to improve ability and was discouraged when that did not seem to be the case. She consulted her instructor, who gave her the following words.

“Sometimes we have a period that looks like a setback, but in reality that time is a place of preparation. A resting place. A gathering of energy. Like an archer pulling back the bowstring so the arrow can shoot forward.”

Provided by MDB Communications, a Capitol Communicator sponsor.



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