Silence as a practice

George Prochnik, the author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, says silence is a diminishing national resource. We assert that we despise noise, and yet we generate so much of it. While getting gas for my car this morning, the young man next to me had his car stereo cranked up and his driver’s side door open so he could bathe himself (and everyone else) in the beat. I’m agog at those I encounter on my drive to work who are listening to the headbanging kind of music that makes me want to veer off of a cliff. How can people begin the morning with that? To me, it’s like inviting chaos to the start of the day.

We complain of noise pollution but crank up our lawnmowers on Saturday mornings. We stand outside at our cars chattering in the middle of the night when sound carries so fluidly, unaware of those we are keeping awake. To be honest, I’m guilty of leaving a television on in the kitchen simply for the grounding voices seem to provide. I love a nice, loud Zumba class at my local ballroom studio, where the sound system puts us into step even when most of us are world-class klutzes. The truth is noise is a stimulant. It pumps us up. It signals to us there is some kind of life going on around us—not always the kind we want, but noise means people are present, and we crave connection. Noise is addictive. How often have you heard someone say of a place, “It was too quiet.” What do they mean? What do you mean when you say it?

“Instead of being against noise,” says George Prochnik, “I think we need to begin making a case for silence.” Silence is not the complete absence of sound. There’s noise everywhere—even if it’s only the beat of our own hearts. Silence is that pulling down of the distraction and decibel level to a quiet state of mind where we can truly hear ourselves think. Here’s what I know: some people can’t stand their own thoughts. They have no place to take them. There’s been no development of an inner life.

Nourish an inner life. Embrace silence.