At the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this month, I attended a screening of “In Pursuit of Silence”. This beautiful documentary explores our relationship with silence and the impact of sound on our lives, and inspired me to look closer at our experience of silence.
How noisy is your life?
How much space do you make for silence?
Do you even have a quiet moment?
Do you know your life depends on it?
When we talk about silence, what are we talking about?
Silence is defined as an absence of sound. The closest we can get to an absence of sound is in a room entirely insulated from sound (called an anechoic chamber). What does an anechoic chamber sound like?
Surprisingly, what you experience when you step into an anechoic chamber is not an absence of sound. You hear your body. Not just the familiar sounds (like a gurgling stomach) but your nervous system and circulatory system. You are noise. The experience of silence doesn’t exist.
What we mean by silence is a balance of quiet and sound that maximizes our awareness of our environment.
Our modern lifestyle, however, bombards us with a cacophony of noise and all that noise is unhealthy. It’s not just that loud noise can damage your hearing. The World Health Organization considers noise to be a critical public health issue.
Noise triggers the fight-or-flight response and floods our bodies with stress hormones. The brain is constantly at work reacting to, blocking and filtering noise. Chronic noise exposure is linked to sleep disturbance, high blood pressure and heart attacks. Children have lower reading and cognitive skills. Noise in hospitals impedes healing and contributes to medical errors.
We need silence.
Experiencing silence gives the body and mind a chance to rest. It benefits our mental and physical health. Silence is essential for wellness.
Yet people often avoid silence. Why? Silence is a reckoning. Silence allows thoughts and feelings to emerge that we’d rather not face.
In a youtube clip that’s been viewed over 11 million times, comedian Louis CK addresses this:
“Sometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no. Here it comes, that I’m alone. Like, it starts to visit on you, you know, just this sadness.”
A recent study asked people to sit alone in a room with no distractions for 6-15 minutes. Most participants did not enjoy the experience. When given the option of administering an electric shock to themselves while sitting in the room, 67% of men and 25% of women shocked themselves.
No wonder so many people wear headphones throughout their daily lives.
There’s nothing wrong with bringing pleasing sounds into our lives, but using sound to ignore and suppress negative thoughts and feelings only makes them more powerful. When we constantly push silence away we miss the opportunity to discover something deeper and truer than the persistent mental chatterbox that’s constantly running in our heads.
Louis CK describes his experience:
“I started to get that sad feeling and I was reaching for my phone and I said, you know what, don’t. Just be sad. And I let it come and I just started to feel, oh my god, and I pulled over and I cried so much and it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments. And then I had happy feelings because when you let yourself feel sad your body has, like, antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. I was grateful to feel sad and then I met it with true profound happiness. The thing is, because we don’t want the first bit of sad… we push it away. Then you never feel completely sad or completely happy.”
Fortunately, science has found an antidote to our noise-ridden lives: forest therapy. Nature soothes the body and brain. Research shows that spending time in nature lowers stress and reduces blood pressure.
Filmmaker Patrick Shen explains:
“We are biological creatures who have existed in nature since the origins of humanity. Our hearing apparatus is clearly designed for that environment. The sounds of commerce and industry, on the other hand, are very new to our species and our bodies have not evolved to live amongst the racket of modern life. I think for most of us, a ‘balanced’ auditory environment involves some degree of sound from the natural world.”
What balance of quiet and sound is your antidote? Bird song? Water flowing? Wind through leaves? Find your restorative place and let your silence work its de-stressing magic on your body and mind.
"True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment" – William Penn
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Watch the trailers for "In Pursuit of Silence"