broadsideblog

Silence Now Rarer Than Ever

In behavior, Health on May 2, 2010 at 11:43 am
Le Silence, painted plaster sculpture by Augus...

Image via Wikipedia

As I type this, at 11:30 on a sunny Sunday morning, I hear: my neighbor’s conversation (sigh), fully audible through our adjoining wall; traffic on the bridge a few miles away, birds in the treetops mere feet from our windows, the fridge humming, a few jets high overhead.

I live 25 miles north of New York City and revel in our (relative) silence. It is increasingly rare, as anyone living in or near a city knows. From a recent op-ed in The New York Times:

The scale of our noise problem isn’t in doubt. In recent years rigorous studies on the health consequences of noise have indicated that noise elevates heart rate, blood pressure, vasoconstriction and stress hormone levels, and increases risk for heart attacks. These reports prove that even when we’ve become mentally habituated to noise, the damage it does to our physiologies continues unchecked.

Studies done on sleeping subjects show that signs of stress surge in response to noise like air traffic even when people don’t wake. Moderate noise from white-noise machines, air-conditioners and background television, for example, can still undermine children’s language acquisition. Warnings about playing Walkmans and iPods too loudly have been around for years, but some experts now believe that even at reasonable volumes a direct sound-feed into the ears for hours on end may degrade our hearing.

Yet by focusing on the issue exclusively from a negative perspective, in a world awash with things to worry about, we may just be adding to the public’s sense of self-compassion fatigue. Rather than rant about noise, we need to create a passionate case for silence.

There are few things more healing — to some, unnerving — than deep, rich, unbroken silence. Journalists learn early to use it professionally: when conducting an interview, leave a gap in the conversation and many people, unaccustomed to it, will keep on talking to fill it, often with things they might not otherwise have said.

Those who meditate in Buddhism talk about taming, or trying to, their “monkey mind” — the thoughts and fears that too often bound around our brains like a crazed chimpanzee. For some people, the notion of sitting totally still and calm, eschewing every possible distraction and interruption, is terrifying. You’re….not needed! Not connected! Not productive.

Thank God.

We spent a week this January on an isolated and large (28,000 acres) ranch in New Mexico. The silence was so rich it echoed in my ears. I could hear myself digesting. I felt profoundly restored in a way almost nothing else had ever produced.

Here’s an interesting blog post, from Ireland, on seven benefits of silence.

What is the quietest place you have ever been? What effect did it — or does it now — have on you?

  1. Hiking almost anywhere in the Rockies. It is not silent all the time, for, depending on location, you might hear the white noise of wind passing through pine trees, or an occasional mountain stream. That said, if you get up above tree-line on a calm day, it is the most serene environment. In motion, all you can hear is your breathing and the rustle of your own clothing. At rest, well, I’m not sure you can hear anything but your own thoughts.

  2. The sound of wind sighing through pine needles is one of my favorites. That, and the delicious scent of dried pine needles, all memories form my years at summer camp.

    Thanks!

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