Silence in a Noisy World
Dr. Nicola McCaffrey takes a closer look at silence. What does it mean for us? And why is it important?

Silence in a Noisy World

- Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything. Gordon Hempton
02.December 2019 Dr. Nicola McCaffrey, Clinical Psychologist

Stop.

Close your eyes.

Take a deep breath.

Tune in to your senses.

 

These moments are fleeting. Rare. Endangered. So much of our lives these days are filled with noice. Whether it be the radio, the the rhythm of the cars on the street, or the hum of the computer as we work, our lives are filled with sound. We rarely take the time to sit with ourselves and listen to our inner world. The outside world demands attention and that’s often where our focus lies.

Many of us fear silence choosing to fill our lives with sound. Noise becomes a distraction, a path leading us from boredom into something else. And yet silence is clearly marketable. Significant amounts of money are spent on noise cancelling headphones and silent weekend retreats. But for some reason we seem to resist silence in its natural form.

A dear friend and colleague of mine, Dave Roberts, recently wrote a wonderful piece on silence that I would like to share with you all today. His words do this subject more justice than mine ever could.

“In 1952, American composer John Cage wrote an orchestral piece in three movements. It was an experimental score which Cage declared could be played by any instrument, or combination of instruments.

So just imagine a group of musicians assembled onstage, instruments at the ready, waiting for the conductor to signal the beginning of the piece. What’s unusual is that when the baton falls, nobody plays a note. They simply sit still. And they continue not playing for the whole of the first movement. And the second movement. And the third. For this piece consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of orchestral “silence”. The audience waits for the conductor to signal the end of the piece beforebreaking into applause, and the musicians take a bow.

If this sounds like a joke, it isn’t. The piece – called “4’33”” – is played quite often by professional orchestras, and John Cage himself was deeply serious about his intentions.

It would be easy to dismiss this as 4’33” of silence, but that’s not at all what Cage was aiming for. He was profoundly curious about sound, whatever the source. About the musicality even of random noise. So 4’33” is about ambient noise – the sound of people coughing or moving in their seats, the faint rumbling of nearby traffic, or raindrops pattering on the roof. It’s an exercise in attention to whatever sound is emanating from the auditorium.

Which raises some interesting questions. I want to investigate this silence. What does it mean for us? And why is it important?

The Norwegian explorer and adventurer Erling Kagge is celebrated as the first man to walk single-handed from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole. He took no communication equipment with him – no radio or sat phone. Well actually he was persuaded to take a satphone for safety reasons but left the batteries behind on purpose. He was alone and incommunicado for 58 days, in temperatures down to minus 70 degrees Farenheit. What struck him, despite the emptiness of the landscape, was the variety of sounds he encountered. Wind-blown snow. The tramp of his feet. Even, in complete stillness, the sound of his own breathing and blood circulation. Erling Kagge recognized – quite literally – that as long as we have a pulse, physical silence is unattainable. What struck him was the value of a different kind of silence, which he termed “inner silence”.

Inner silence is about a quality of our being – about how we are, what state of being we carry around with us, what qualities we bring to situations as they unfold before us. It’s that kind of silence – inner silence – that I really want to explore with you.

Let’s face it, we’re surrounded by noise. From the moment we wake up we’re assailed by traffic noise, smartphone bleeps, building sites, people talking, music for airports and elevators. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Sounds can be energizing, or comforting, or thought-provoking. What’s important, in my view, is to cultivate “inner silence” as we navigate our way through this cacophonous world.

Why so?

For me, two things really stand out. Those two things are listening and staying present.
Day-to-day, as you go about your life, how often do you come across situations where people stand back and take the time to really listen to what it is you’re saying to them? How often do you leave a conversation feeling seen and understood? How many of your previous bosses were actually good at listening to what you had to say, rather than simply giving you instructions?

I work with organisations that are striving to create better, more productive cultures by helping individuals, leaders and teams to communicate more effectively. And we know that the ability to listen is critical if vital information is to flow through the organization to the people who need to hear it. And we also know that a “listening culture” creates enormous benefits by way of personal engagement and fulfilment at work.

And the second thing…staying present.
We’re hearing a lot about this – it’s often called “mindfulness”. In some quarters it’s seen as a short-term fad or fashion, but really, what could be more important – and more straightforward – than staying present in the moment? Engaging with the world from a perspective of “inner silence”, so we see more clearly what is coming towards us, and experience the world with more freedom from our own assumptions and prejudices?

I’m not advocating that we should all become mute. I’m not suggesting we should live in caves or adopt a Trappist lifestyle. What I am saying is that silence – inner silence – creates enormous benefits, and it’s really worth making the connection.

So thank you, Mr Cage, for those 4’33” of orchestral silence. The music keeps reverberating long after the piece has ended…

(Courtesy of Dave Roberts, Life and Business Coach, PeoplewithE.)

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