“Even brief silence, it seems, can inject us with a fertile unknown: a space in which to focus and absorb experience—a reminder that the person we are with may yet surprise us; a reflection that some things we cannot put into words are yet resoundingly real;. a reawakening to our dependency on something greater than ourselves.”
I recently discovered ‘In Pursuit of Silence’ (directed by Patrick Shen, 2015) at the Design Film Festival. The documentary was inspiring; a well-paced meditation on silence and the different ways people are seeking it around the world (and both local screenings were sold out!).
This turned me on to a book of the same name, but by a different person, George Prochnik (he makes a brief appearance in the documentary). I thought it was apt that I read parts of it in Singapore, on the plane, in Bangkok, then in Khao Yai, Bangkok, then I finished it just as the plane began its descent in Singapore. These various places had contrasting levels of noise/silence.
Some takeaways that were worth sharing:
Silence inspires us
“…silence enhances our powers of attention, subtracting auditory distractions that dissipate our mental energy. Neuroscientists at Stanford University have demonstrated that when we listen to music it is the silent intervals in what we hear that trigger the most intense, positive brain activity. In part, this reflects the way our brains are always searching for closure. When we confront silence, the mind reaches outward.”
On why you should meditate
“…fMRI studies (imaging studies that can track blood flow through the brain) of people involved in vipassana and similar practices consistently show that meditation enhances the ability to make discriminations between important and unimportant stimuli. This translates into a reduction of overall brain activity.”
This means that experienced meditators can quickly go from low brain activity to high, concentrated activity. They’re “less likely to amplify neural responses willy-nilly in a purposeless static when some chance stimulus calls out”.
“Lushtak, my meditation-teacher friend, described silent meditation as an effort to ‘unplug from the mental story’ we are constantly telling ourselves, in order to be completely attentive to the wonder of the ever-unfolding present moment.“
The day London fell silent
The first widely observed national moment of silence appears to have been one commemorating Armistice Day in England. Trains stopped, factories shut down, telephones were disconnected. These two minutes of silence were so powerful that the BBC began broadcasting it in 1929.
“‘Its impressiveness is intensified by the fact that the silence is not a dead silence, for Big Ben strikes the hour, and then the bickering of sparrows, the crisp rustle of falling leaves, the creasing of pigeon wings as they take flight, uneasy at this strange hush, contrast with the traffic din of London some minutes before.’ The BBC’s role, he concluded, was to allow the silence to be heard for what it really was, ‘a solvent which destroys personality and gives us leave to be great and universal.'”
Sensory deprivation makes an appearance
“…about forty minutes into the float, I heard a strange raspy noise of water in plumbing. I thought someone must have turned on the tank’s filtration device and was annoyed by the disturbance. The noise cut off, then came on again. The second time around, I realised that it was the sound of my own saliva. I wasn’t hearing it through my ears but sensing the vibration of that liquid as it trickled down my throat, resonating along a channel of bone and soft tissue.”
“Floating in the tank, I began to understand what it would be like to hear the world through my whole body.”
We need to start early
Prochnik spoke to young students about their experiences of silence. Out of ten students, “nine described situations in which they’d been unable or unwilling to speak because of overpowering anguish.”
This means that from young, many of us associate silence with negative feelings or situations. So we constantly try to fill the ’emptiness’, and by the time we’ve grown up, it feels awkward to sit in silence. These days, there’s growing awareness about the benefits of mindful meditation and the like. I believe that everyone has the capacity to enjoy silence, but in different ways, and perhaps it has to be introduced at the right time.
Watch the trailer for ‘In Pursuit of Silence’ below:
The first visual is from The Barter Art Project, and the rest are from our float journal.