Silence: Tool, Weapon, Gift, Myth?
On John Cage, Muzak, Noise, Torture, and More
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.
At every moment we are bombarded by sound waves, light waves, gamma rays, x-rays, the solar wind. All around, through, and even inside of us is restless movement: the brain muses, nerve cells flare, hair grows, food becomes flesh, not to mention all that is going on at the subatomic level. Our senses can only register a narrow band of all this movement, but even what we can sense is far too much for us. To think, to function in the world, to survive, we have to ignore most of what we can see and hear. We need silence.
We need peace of mind to concentrate, which is not possible without silence. Music and poetry—without silence—impossible. Without silence, our dreams—sleeping or waking—are not possible. Without dreams, there can be nothing to imagine, nothing to hope for, no future. Even love is not possible without meaningful silences, and I would go so far as to say that, without silence, there is no freedom.
The composer John Cage was in search of silence when he entered an anechoic chamber at Harvard University in 1951. A soundproof room about the size of an airplane hangar, an anechoic chamber is designed so that no sound or any other type of wave can enter, and inside there are no echoes of any kind, no reflections of sound or radio waves. These chambers are commonly used by the Air Force and military contractors to test electronic equipment in quarantine from any interfering or contaminating waves.
I literally expected to hear nothing, Cage said. Yet having stood inside the chamber for a moment, the closest to noiselessness that any human being can get, he heard two sounds, one high pitched and one low. When he asked a technician what these sounds were, Cage was told the high sound was the sound of his functioning nervous system and the low sound was the sound of his blood circulating. Cage was both startled and impressed by the experience. Try as we may to make a silence, he said, we cannot (Solomon, 3).
Being a composer, Cage had a powerful interest in what silence was or was not, and he went on to muse about it for the rest of his life, even writing a book titled Silence, in 1961. Since there could be no such thing as the absence of sound for a living, breathing human being with a pulse, what then could silence be? It was a matter of intent, Cage decided: The essential meaning of silence is the giving up of intention. Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind. A turning around (3).
Cage then set out to capture silence in his famous composition Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds, or Four Thirty-Three, as he liked to call it. The idea for the length of the composition came from the average duration of a piece of canned music (a term used to describe Muzak in the 1960s). Cage even had the notion of sending a tape to the Muzak Company of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Zen Buddhism had been an influence on Cage for years, and other ideas and influences came along as the years went by, among them a conversation that had a tremendous impact on the way Cage thought about music: Cage asked an Indian student who was studying with him what the purpose of music was, and she replied that the purpose of music, according to her (Indian) teacher, was to quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences (5). Cage was carrying these influences along with him when he saw Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, whose example helped give him the courage to follow through on 4’33”. If Rauschenberg could paint nearly blank canvases that captured the play of degrees of ambient light and shadow within a frame, Cage could frame silence within a musical score (4).
The composition was finally “performed” by pianist David Tudor in a concert for the Benefit Artists Welfare Fund (a sophisticated audience that was familiar with and supported contemporary art), in Woodstock, New York. The concert hall was open to the forest in back, allowing outside sounds to enter the space. The piece was in three movements: in each, Tudor, sitting with a stopwatch, opened the lid above the piano keys at the beginning and closed it at the end. Among the coughing and sneezing and the puzzled, then angry mumbles of the audience were other chance sounds: in the first movement, 30″, the wind could be heard in the treetops outside; in the second, 2’33”, rain pattered on the roof; in the third, 1’40”, people made sounds of outrage and harsh whispers as they reacted to the piece or walked out. Predictably, some wanted to run Cage and Tudor out of town.
The audience came to the concert with the intent of listening to music, to intended sounds, not sounds generated by chance. The composer had the intent of letting chance (unintended) sounds occur within the timeframe of 4’33”. The most beautiful music is the music of what happens, the Irish say. The music of what happens is what the audience heard and did not like (1–2).
Is silence, then, a decision not to listen to intended sounds: music, voices, sound effects, or any human generated sound to which we listen for a purpose, even if that purpose is enjoyment? Does listening to random sounds we do not intend to hear—the drone of an airplane engine, a dripping faucet, the roar of a bus pulling away from a stop—constitute the experience of silence? Or does silence end the moment sounds actually impose themselves on our consciousness? If silence is the giving up of intention, it can’t be in listening to what we chance to hear, because listening implies intent.
Cage thought that the quiet mind, that state of being which is the closest we can get to silence, had to dispense with likes and dislikes; that to inhabit this state of mind, we cannot listen to what we want to hear and filter out what we don’t (5–6). We must, instead, listen to every sound that chance brings to us, be it birdsong, foghorn, gunfire, or the cracking of whips. Ideally, to the quiet mind, each sound we chance to hear becomes music, the continuous music of the restless universe of which we are a part. Silence is that openness of mind, a blank slate ready for whatever comes next, like a set of wind chimes lulled in perfect stillness until the next breeze. And yet, how impossible to maintain this state of mind in practice—to hear the song of the wood thrush and the scream of a frightened child with the same degree of composure and openness. For a composer, this kind of openness makes good sense; the inspiration for a new musical score cannot be limited just to the melodies, songs, concertos, operas, or symphonies that already exist. Certainly, the chance sounds we hear all around us have always inspired musicians and composers. If they did not, could there be such a thing as music? Yet silence cannot be heard even by the quiet mind. When the audience listened to 4’33”, they did not hear silence any more than Cage did in the anechoic chamber; they experienced Cage’s silence. 4’33” is itself Cage’s turning away from intended sound.
Yet as subtle and intriguing as Cage’s thoughts are, they do not exhaust silence of meaning. When the rest of us use the word, we often mean some quite different and contradictory things. We rarely want to hear every sound that bangs or bungles along. When we say that we desire silence, what we often want is the cessation of sounds we don’t want to hear, so we can hear those we do want or intend to hear—we want the avalanche of coughing, sneezing, and mumbling to be gone before the first note is struck. Or we want silence when we are listening very hard through interfering noise for a sound that is faint or not there at all, like a castaway on a desert island, trying to hear the drone of an aircraft engine over the crash of surf. If there is no drone, our castaway might say that he heard nothing but a very loud silence. We want silence so that we can hear.
But hear what? To hear what we intend to hear—which might be nothing at all.
* * * *
I live on a major north-south artery that runs from the suburbs into the heart of downtown Baltimore. Nearby are also a hospital and a firehouse; a half block away are a couple of bars, busy until two in the morning. After living in the wall of a canyon of city row houses for nearly fifteen years, I can still be jangled out of my wits by a blast of harmonizing sirens from both fire engine and ambulance. In the summertime when the windows are open, it’s hoots of echoing laughter, shrieks of drunken exuberance, shattering glass, ragged, angry fuck yous. The steady stomp of bass, the blare of car radios dopplering by. It’s the garbage trucks opening their hydraulic jaws in a yawn, jackhammers at dawn. It’s the students next door singing “Tiny Dancer” at four in the morning. Not hard to see why I so often long for a silence in which I do not hear the random sounds around me, not even a breath or a heartbeat. In this sense, choosing silence is a decision to turn away not just from intended sounds, or to turn from one sound toward another, but to turn away from sound altogether; it is a decision not to listen.
If silence is an abstraction, a decision, and has nothing directly to do with sound but with listening or not listening—what is noise? Any signal that does not convey useful information, says the Columbia Encyclopedia (1,956). (This definition seems to have more to do with machines than with human beings. One might muse, too, on the fact that anechoic chambers were built to create silence for machines and not for us.) Or, to define it further, noise is sound to which we do not intend to listen but nonetheless hear.
One thing is certain, though: while one can’t actually hear silence, one can certainly hear noise. The problem with noise is one can’t not hear it. One curmudgeon who was not shy about his dislike of noise was the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who wrote an essay titled “On Noise”—The superabundant display of vitality, which takes the form of knocking, hammering, and tumbling things about, has proved a daily torment to me all my life long. The thing that Schopenhauer had against noise was that it jolted him out of his concentration:
If you cut up a large diamond into little bits, it will entirely lose the value it had as a whole; and an army divided up into small bodies of soldiers, loses all its strength. So a great intellect sinks to the level of an ordinary one, as soon as it is interrupted and disturbed, its attention distracted and drawn off from the matter at hand; for its superiority depends upon its power of concentration—of bringing all its strength to bear upon one theme, in the same way as a concave mirror collects into one point all the rays of light that strike upon it. Noisy interruption is a hindrance to concentration. That is why distinguished minds have always shown such an extreme dislike to disturbance in any form, as something that breaks in upon and distracts their thoughts.
Of all the annoying sounds Schopenhauer mentions—hammering, babies crying, dogs barking—the sound that annoys him most is the cracking of whips: No one with anything like an idea in his head can avoid a feeling of actual pain at the sudden sharp crack, which paralyzes the brain, rends the thread of reflection, and murders thought (1).
One might be tempted to laugh. But noise is not only a hindrance to concentration, noise pollution can be seriously damaging to our health, both physically and mentally:
Subjected to 45 decibels of noise, the average person cannot sleep. At 120 decibels, the ear registers pain; hearing damage begins at a much lower level, about 85 decibels. Federal estimates indicate that some 80 million (or more than one in three) Americans are continually harassed by noise pollution, 40 million to a degree endangering health, with 16 million already suffering noise-induced hearing loss. There is evidence that many young Americans’ hearing sensitivity is decreasing year by year because of exposure to excessive noise. Apart from hearing loss, such noise can cause lack of sleep, irritability, heartburn, indigestion, ulcers, high blood pressure, and possibly heart disease. One burst of noise, as from a passing truck, is known to alter endocrine, neurological, and cardiovascular functions in many individuals; prolonged or frequent exposure to such noise tends to make the physiological disturbances chronic. In addition, noise-induced stress creates severe tension in daily living and contributes to mental illness (“Noise Pollution,” 1,957).
We know well that loud and constant noise can be used to wear down the will to resist as it is used by the armed forces, the FBI, and the police when they blast the most edgy rock, heavy metal, or rap day and night during siege situations, as in Waco, Texas, and in Fallujah, Iraq, and to break prisoners at Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere. During the siege of Fallujah, for instance, the Marines jacked up AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” and other rock music from a gigantic speaker hoping to unnerve the insurgents. They ended the concert with some Jimi Hendrix and then sounds like babies crying, men screaming, a symphony of cats and barking dogs and piercing screeches (Keyser 1–3). A prisoner who had been confined in a CIA jail in Afghanistan said that during the unrelenting blast of one musical assault men wound up screaming and smashing their heads against walls, unable to endure more (“Blaring Music,” 1). And so the same music that is listened to for pleasure by some, even very loudly, can be used to harass others to the point where their very sanity is under assault and they can’t turn away. We have denied them the capacity to choose silence.
Noise is, after all, composed of waves moving through earth, air, or water. At the right number of decibels, noise can damage the lungs and internal organs. It can kill. What is the concussion from the blast of an artillery shell or a bomb but intense waves of sound? It is not always the shrapnel that kills, but sometimes vibrations from the blast itself. Other very loud noises beyond 200 decibels, what we call shock waves, can also injure and kill, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, or the impact of a large meteorite. Sonic weapons can emit a blast of sound that can incapacitate a crowd and maybe, one day soon, sound will be used to kill an enemy (Adams, 2).
Noise, though, is not necessarily the opposite of silence, nor is sound always its enemy. Sometimes it is sound itself that makes silence possible. The sigh of the wind in tall pines, the trickling of water over stone, the distant tumble of surf behind a wall of dunes, what we call “white noise,” filters out distracting sounds and then fades into the background itself. The mind quiets and can concentrate its forces on a task, or float off in a daydream like a balloon on a gust of air.
In the age of the mufflerless Harley and the incessant car alarm, it’s not surprising that several industries have invented products to satisfy our desire for peace and quiet, if not for silence itself. Recordings of sound environments like distant waterfalls, the plashing of rain, the trilling of birdcalls, and other naturally comforting sounds have been available for decades. One can also buy a white noise machine, which cancels out incoming noise by emitting sounds of the same frequency and thus produces quiet. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a complete color-coded spectrum of sound—from blue up through green, orange, red, and violet, coded by density. Pink noise is supposed to be especially soothing, causing the listener to emit alpha waves, an indicator of a deeply calm state of mind. Black noise is the lowest density of sound, closest to soundlessness (Geere, 1–2). And then somewhere on that spectrum of sound, a form of white noise, is that much-maligned invention known as Muzak.
Muzak’s original designers wanted the audience to hear the Muzak—but not to listen to it. The word Muzak, which is a combination of the words music and Kodak, was invented by the founder of the Muzak Corporation, a former two-star general named George Squirer, shortly after the end of World War I.
One of the first places Muzak was used was in elevators. Evidently, in the 1920s, the early days of the elevator, people were reluctant to be locked into a windowless closet that lifted them stories above the ground on a few strands of unseen cable. Elevator music was meant to entice them in and to calm their fears (Owen, 68). General Squirer also hit upon the idea of selling background music that Muzak claimed could create a calming ambiance and thus increase the concentration and productivity of workers. From the early days of Muzak up through the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and into the 80s, the formula for Muzak was to level out and tranquilize any high ecstasies and low melancholies and to eliminate any lyrics in order to help keep the music entirely subliminal. Like all white noise, it soon became part of the background of sound. In factories and in other types of regimented work environments, the Muzak “songs” were played in a carefully calculated order of fifteen-minute cycles of slightly increasing intensity in order to give the workers a series of boosts throughout their workday, and some workers, not to mention management, became addicted to the tranquilizing, artificial ambiance of Muzak. The Muzak Corporation understood quite well what the competition was: a member of its marketing department once claimed, Our biggest competitor is silence (68–71).
When I was a graduate student, in the early 1980s, I was the head of a student organization that had invited the poet William Stafford to come to the university to do a poetry reading. The audience was somewhat noisily filing in to the large, square, institutionally low-ceilinged room in the student center, and the craggy-faced Stafford was just about to come to the podium to begin reading his poems when we heard it—Muzak, piped in from dozens of disk-shaped speakers in the soundproofed ceiling: A Thousand and One Strings performing “Eleanor Rigby,” “Mrs. Robinson,” or some version of “Shimmy, Shimmy Coco Bop,” I can’t quite remember. Stafford looked at me. What could I do? Completely mortified, I set off frantically in search of the source of the Muzak. As it turned out, there was a locked box behind the information counter in the building—a metal box with a padlock on it—and inside the switch that controlled the audio system.
Someone on the security staff must have been afraid that a random vandal might turn the Muzak off. No one had the key at the information desk. I had to call the building supervisor, and when I told him I wanted to turn off the Muzak, he said, You can’t do that. What are the people who work in this building going to do? I had visions of the employees rising from their desks in collective panic, shouting to each other in terror, the silence a pure agony as they scrambled over their desks to leap out of the windows. Finally, the head of student activities got the keys from a janitor, unlocked the box, flipped the switch, and off—thank God—went the Muzak.
Yet, if we are willing to submit to it, Muzak has some value. Regular calming of subliminal sound might be better for concentration than something closer to absolute quiet, a quiet that is more vulnerable to being shattered by the faintest of random noises. In other words, listening to Muzak at the factory or the office might be more conducive to concentration than sitting on the steps of a cabin in the Monongahela Wilderness, where a sudden chainsaw, hovering chopper, or an ornery screech owl could be a distraction. The regular calming sounds of white noise and Muzak might actually bring us closer to silence than the randomness of a vulnerable peace and quiet. Regular calming background sounds make it easier to turn away from what is going on outside ourselves and to turn towards the silence within. But wait—isn’t silence something we choose? To what degree do the factory workers choose silence as they turn away from the Muzak and towards concentrating on a task? To what extent is this state of mind imposed upon them?
Some people find the concept of Muzak disturbing because there is an involuntary element here which seems to violate freedom of will. If one succumbs to the Muzak, one becomes the tool of its perpetrators and is suddenly transformed into a kind of marvelous performing animal. If one struggles against being seduced by Muzak, it actually becomes not white noise, but the most irritating of noises (Day-Glo orange?), as one is forced to listen (and develop a first-class headache) in order to avoid its sublimation.
It’s troubling that subliminal sound is being used to influence us for purposes that are not always entirely our own. Workers may choose to go along with the subliminal music they know is being used to influence them—and many have said that they actually like Muzak—yet some of us find it annoying, not just for its terrible blandness but because we know that it deliberately aims to manipulate us. Muzak creates a silence that has been chosen for us, not one we have chosen for ourselves. Unless we want to cut and run or stick our fingers into our ears and hum, we must be influenced—and yet, paradoxically, Muzak might also provide the non-listener with a wall of sound behind which peace of mind and solitude are possible.
* * * *
Silence may help concentration and provide freedom of mind for those who seek it, but it can be an agony of mind and spirit for those upon whom it is imposed for extended periods of time. Just as noise can intrude upon consciousness, be used to manipulate, or even become an instrument of torture, silence can be used as a weapon—to isolate, to punish, and to break the will. To be in solitary confinement is to be imprisoned in a silence. It is a form of sensory deprivation in which we remove someone from human contact, and in the most extreme cases, allow as little stimulation as possible for the eye and ear. We punish bad behavior by removing sources of stimulation inside the cell: the sound of a live human voice, the TV, the CD player, the radio, magazines, books. We might even plunge our subjects into complete darkness, so they have no sense of the passing of day or night and lose any accurate notion of the progress of time. It takes great inner resources to survive the most extreme type of solitary confinement; often prisoners develop a routine of exercise and creative activity to stay healthy and sane. Those who adopt some physical and mental discipline and apply their minds to something manage to survive, but many succumb to madness. A little silence may be a good thing, but too much is at first uncomfortable, then painful, and finally unbearable.
In supermax prisons—maximum security prisons—the uncooperative and the highly dangerous are subjected to varying degrees of solitary confinement. According to Dr. Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who has studied the effects of solitary confinement extensively,
Supermax prisons house prisoners in virtual isolation and subject them to almost complete idleness for extremely long periods of time . . . prisoners often incur severe restrictions on the nature and amounts of personal property they may possess and on their access to the prison library, legal materials and canteen . . . computerized locking and tracking systems allow their movement to be regulated with a minimum of human interaction (or none at all) . . . Some supermax units conduct visits through video conferencing equipment rather than in person; there is no immediate face to face interaction (let alone physical contact) . . . (Haney, 126).
Prisoners may be confined and isolated for years as much to control and manage them as for punishment. What happens to a human being who is subjected to so long a silence? The symptoms of this kind of isolation are quite well known. Again, as Dr. Haney has observed,
There is not a single published study of solitary or supermax-like confinement in which nonvoluntary confinement lasting for longer than 10 days, where participants were unable to terminate their isolation at will, that failed to result in negative psychological effects. The damaging effects ranged in severity and included such clinically significant symptoms as hypertension, uncontrollable anger, hallucinations, emotional breakdowns, chronic depression, and suicidal thoughts and behavior (132).
Haney goes on to observe what happens to long-term supermax prisoners who in response to their confinement become unable to control their own behavior and are uncomfortable with even very small amounts of freedom. They experience:
. . . chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair . . . find it difficult to focus their attention . . . to concentrate, to organize activity. In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving . . . Because so much of our individual identity is socially constructed and maintained, the virtual complete loss of genuine forms of social contact and the absence of any routine and recurring opportunities to ground one’s thought and feelings in a recognizable human context leads to an undermining of a sense of self and a disconnection of experience from meaning. Supermax prisoners are literally at risk of losing their grasp on who they are (139).
Some prisoners become incapable of social interaction and retreat into themselves and create their own reality . . . instead. Others experience uncontrollable and sudden outbursts of rage. Others channel their anger into frustrating and thwarting their captors in any way possible, and dream of revenge (140).
In long-term solitary confinement, we, as a society, have collectively turned away, creating both a silence and an extreme loneliness for another human being to inhabit. Those who survive do so because they have a measure of internal discipline with which to focus the mind and turn the imagination to a task, whether it is the composing of sermons, a novel, or a manifesto, or planning a revolution or some bitter plot of revenge. Those who don’t survive are torn apart, as the mind, like a body suddenly subjected to weightlessness, simply floats in the surrounding emptiness and loses control of its ability to organize and understand experience.
* * * *
If a long silence is imposed on us by others, it seems we must either turn towards it—embrace it—or be destroyed. But when silence is a choice we have made, when we can control its nature and duration, as in an isolation tank, it can be exhilarating. In the warm, dark, womblike tank, all one hears is one’s own breathing and the occasional sound of running water. Once the hatch is closed, one sits in complete darkness, with most of the body warmly immersed and a breathing mask over the face. There is a feeling of safety, the mind can become free of its daily litany of troubles, and we are able to wander in the depths of the psyche and meditate in a vast calm.
John C. Lilly, the inventor of the isolation tank, whose life was one of the inspirations for the Paddy Chayefsky’s film Altered States, initially used his isolation tank in sensory deprivation experiments but eventually found it useful as an aid in meditation, and in inducing a kind of visionary-hallucinatory experience, which he eventually augmented with LSD. Lilly had the nerve to ask if there was, in fact, anything on the other side of silence:
We have been seeking answers to the question of what happens to the brain and its contained mind in the relative absence of physical stimulation . . . Freed of normal efferent and afferent activities, does the activity of the brain soon become that of coma or sleep, or is there some inherent mechanism which keeps it going . . . (“The Isolation Tank Experiment”, 1)?
According to Lilly, the isolation tank was one of the most monotonous environments he had ever experienced. Some subjects could stand the isolation tank for only an hour or two. Unable to focus, they became bored or agitated. Others managed to remain calmly in the tank for many hours in a state of deep meditation and even began to experience waking dreams and hallucinations. Immediately after their experiences in the isolation tank, Lilly had his experimental subjects write down their perceptions in a log. From studying these log entries, Lilly discerned that their sessions broke down into seven stages, depending on how long they were able to remain in the tank.
At first the subjects were preoccupied with perceptions of their surroundings or with their everyday problems. Then after the first hour or so, they began to relax (stages 1–3). But during the second hour, subjects began to feel the urge to move or to feel some sensation, what Lilly calls stimulus-action hunger, and were driven to make a swimming motion or to touch their own bodies in order to feel something. At this point (stage 4), if the subjects could not get past this tension, they often became frustrated and left the tank. But even if subjects remained in the tank, the smallest sensual distractions such as the body’s floating in water, or the feel of the air mask on the face often became the mind’s entire focus. At stage 6, subjects began to experience a more dreamlike state, which included daydreams and emotionally charged fantasies that some subjects suppressed and others relaxed and enjoyed. Finally, at stage 7, according to Lilly’s own experience, if all the various tensions were withstood:
One may experience the furthest stage which we have yet explored: projection of visual imagery. I have seen this once, after a two and one half hour period. The black curtain in front of the eyes . . . gradually opens out into a three-dimensional dark, empty space in front of the body . . . Gradually, forms of the type sometimes seen in hypnogogic states appear. In this case they were small, strangely shared [shaped] objects with selfluminous borders. A tunnel whose inside ‘space’ seemed to be emitting a blue light then appeared straight ahead. About this time this experiment was terminated by a leakage of water into the mask through a faulty connector (“The Isolation Tank Experiment,” 1–2).
Certainly, it must have taken either a very calm disposition or a great deal of discipline for anyone to reach stage 7 in Lilly’s experiments, and one must wonder if the silence that Lilly and some of his subjects experienced (without the use of LSD) was any different from other states of deep meditation. Is the isolation tank actually necessary to reach such a state of focused inwardness?
Those who meditate regularly would likely find the warm darkness and near absolute quiet of the isolation tank unnecessary. They simply meditate at home, as part of a group in a temple or church, in the open air of a park, or in a meeting room reserved specifically for such a purpose and might actually use sound generated by themselves alone or by the group to help them focus and concentrate. They might listen to the rhythm of their own breathing or the systole and diastole of the heartbeat. Some chant the “Om” or repeat a mantra in order to focus and discipline the mind and to filter out stray thoughts. Some may use music or the slow rhythmic pulse of a drum. Prayer is another method of meditation that makes the quiet mind possible. Yet what is it that people find when they meditate: is there a there—there? Or is meditation self-deception?
Some skeptics consider meditation a waste of time, a kind of self-absorbed navel gazing. Yet curiously, the derogative phrase navel gazing originated with a practice of certain Byzantine monks who did, in fact, meditate while gazing at their navels as they contemplated the miracle of their own birth, of their physical and spiritual existence. Research shows that when people meditate, their brains emit alpha waves, the heart rate slows, they become relaxed and calm. Even some traditional doctors commonly prescribe meditation for chronic anxiety and heart trouble. Ultimately those who meditate the most deeply are said to produce theta waves.
Something is clearly going on here on a biological level. There is no doubt that meditation has physical health benefits, and—even as it is clear that the body and the mind are not separate things—meditation has established mental health benefits as well. If it is self-deception, it is self-deception that is physically and mentally beneficial. It is possible too that meditation provides discipline for the imagination, that it helps to focus thought. And, finally, it is possible that in the quiet mind the distinctions between inside and outside, sound and silence, fall away. At various meditation sites on the internet, many practitioners claim to have seen a blue or a white light, and they describe being in the presence of the white light as an experience of a powerful and deeply calming love. Some of those who have practiced meditation for many years with great dedication and discipline strive to be always in the presence of the white light as they go about their daily tasks of working and living on this material plane.
So while silence can most certainly be boring, unsettling, unbearable, it can just as certainly be an aid to concentration and thus free the imagination. It can quiet the mind and open it to divine influences. This seems to depend on whether we have chosen it or it has been forced upon us. It also depends on what we find on the other side of it: an expansion of self into imaginative space, freedom, and possibility; or a vast emptiness in which the self contracts in fear and despair. Maybe getting used to silence is like learning to swim. We know the water is deep, but we lose our fear of drowning as we get confidence in our ability to float on the back or the stomach, to glide through the water, to dive and resurface.
* * * *
The drone of the hive is loud these days, and many of us are so obsessed with or addicted to its static roar that I wonder what kind of internal lives we can have. Some people stare at the screens of their iPhones all day as if awaiting the next message from an oracle. Nearly everybody seems addicted to media to the extent that not only can we not be good, attentive company for ourselves, we cannot be in the physical company of anyone else without communicating to a third party at the same time. We either do not or cannot take time to pay attention solely to ourselves or to anyone else.
Recently, my wife and I had dinner at a Spanish restaurant on an exceptionally warm evening in January. As we enjoyed the sunset through the plate glass window in front of us, we noticed a middle aged woman in a black, professional looking pantsuit, sitting outside at a table on the narrow balcony. We thought at first that she might be waiting for someone as she talked very animatedly on the phone, drank a tall glass of red wine, and had a few small plates of tapas. But as our dinner proceeded through various rounds of tapas plates, glasses of wine, dessert, and coffee—on she sat, sipping glass after glass of red, so obviously enjoying herself as she talked and talked and the sun sank gloriously into the Chesapeake. Maybe she was speaking to someone who was having lunch in San Francisco or Seattle watching the same sun arc high over the blue of a different bay.
This kind of scenario is common now, but I don’t think I’m very far off when I say that before the turn of the century a lone woman watching the sun set while sipping a glass of red wine would have been lost in her own private moment. I don’t mean to imply that there is anything wrong with sharing a beautiful sunset with someone in conversation over the phone. But if it is always so easy to reach for the phone and distract ourselves at the first twinge of anxiety or aloneness, how can we learn to be good company for ourselves?
I remember a news report, not long ago, in which a man who had just climbed to the summit of Mt. Everest risked removing his oxygen mask to make two calls on his cell phone. A newly built cell tower in China made it possible, for the first time—there among the wind, ice, and rocks more than 29,000 feet above sea level—for a climber on the roof of the world to talk to reporters and then to his wife and family on the other side of the globe (“Success,” 1). On the street where I live, in my Baltimore neighborhood, a young man who was talking on his phone to his mother in Florida was robbed and stabbed to death. His mother heard it all, the voices and the crackle of commotion, but was not, at the time, entirely sure what she was hearing. She frantically called the police in Baltimore, who arrived to find the young man dead on the sidewalk. In the former case, as the mountaineer spoke to his family, there was—no doubt— triumph but also comfort and relief; in the latter case, only agony and horror. The point is that today it is possible to spend every moment of your waking life—from the triumphant to the terrible—talking on the phone with someone else.
This is also true of what used to be the most intimate and private moments. It seems to me we have turned our lives inside-out; so much of what used to be intensely private is now public. In today’s psychic economy, silence equals loneliness—and you never, ever, have to be alone. Quiet seems to be the last thing anyone wants, let alone silence or solitude. We find silences awkward, boring, uncomfortable. We don’t know what to do with them. With our phones pressed to our ears, we are running full speed away from ourselves. That intensely private space, that silence within us, has become an abyss.
I’m sure I’m not alone in my preference, at times, to be free from hearing any sound at all. I don’t want the intrusions of others into the moments I spend with myself: sitting up late reading, thinking, and writing; taking a walk; or just daydreaming as I drive home from the grocery. If I didn’t have time to myself, I would not know what I think or how I feel. I would not know myself. What I’m talking about here is freedom of mind, freedom to develop and follow my own train of thought, freedom to imagine. How easily destroyed these solitudes are by the ring tone of a cell phone, the blare of a siren, a fly on the wrist. Without freedom of mind, there is no freedom, for all others stem from this root.
But I do get bored and of course I don’t like it. What could be worse than a wide vacant hour, a wasted day, useless weeks, months, years yawning ahead with nothing to do or no desire to do anything? What is boredom? In part, it is the inability or the lack of desire to concentrate on a task. Nothing seems worth doing, and all our usual distractions fail to distract us from the increasing pain of the microseconds slowly scrolling by. The mind, like an empty stomach, can feel nothing but its own emptiness, its uselessness. An image that has stuck with me, and which feels like something out of a novel by Dostoevsky but might just as well be from my own imagination, is a scene in which two Russian soldiers are snowed in in a small cabin. First, predictably, they drink all the vodka. They play cards until they are sick of cards. They stare at each other across the table, their eyes locked for interminable minutes, hours. Suddenly, they bolt to their feet and draw their swords. . . . Boredom stares into its own drooling face and can see only itself.
Still, the most inspiring works of humanity in poetry and the arts, in philosophy, science, and religion—temples, cathedrals, treaties and treatises, symphonies, constitutions, space telescopes—are all products of quiet, of the kind of freedom that allows for sustained and deeply focused acts of the imagination. There are places one can only get to alone—by passing through to the other side of silence where nothing needs to be said. Nothing should be said. We may not be able to make a silence, but we can enter the one already within us.
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