by Jenny Jackson

Ottawa Citizen

July 15, 2005

Go into a silent room, empty-handed. Close the door, sit down. See how long you last.

Ask your employer if you may use a vacant conference room to be alone during your lunch break. See how far you get.

Try to wake up, make breakfast, get the kids to school, drive to work, ride the elevator, shop, dine out, call a store, return a call, hail a cab, take an airplane, go downhill skiing, or simply spend time in your own home, all without radios, televisions, loudspeaker systems, piped-in music and, worst of all, MTV blaring 24/7.

Can’t be done.

We live in a matrix of sounds that wash over our nervous systems. As Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst and writer, told the London Observer. “People are aware of having too many external stimuli … The question is about whether anyone has an internal world any more.”

But a muted backlash is building. In the past year or so, particularly this spring, it has become cool to be quiet.

In April, The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network in the United States sponsored a daylong vow of silence to “recognize and protest the silencing” of the group and its allies. The day was such a success, another will be held next year.

The same month, the U.S. National Park Service designated “One Square Inch of Silence” in one of its parks, thereby recognizing that noise pollution is as noxious as any other kind, perhaps more.

This month, Oprah joined the bandwagon, devoting most of O magazine to solitude. For the majority of contributors, the quiet was implied.

Perhaps it was inevitable that such a self-absorbed generation would seek seclusion to explore — what else? — our inner selves. Or perhaps a growing number of us are reaching the age that Hindus say demands asceticism: “When a householder sees wrinkles in his skin and greyness in his hair and the son of his son, let him retire to the forest.”

Maybe city-dwellers are fed up with the constant jangle: in-your-face boom boxes, blaring music piped in over the ski hills, bop-bop-pop music through the telephone while you wait “on hold.”

Human kinetics professor David Behm did a series of studies at Memorial University in Newfoundland that showed insistent background noise impaired people’s ability to perform simple tasks. Other studies have found that children living near airports have higher blood pressure and heart rates and shorter attention spans.

In a 1999 study at Boston’s Northeastern University on the “Behavioural Characteristics of Loud-Music Listening,” 10 per cent of the subjects became hooked on blaring music. “The music induced rapid, potent changes in mood and level of arousal … and the tendency to elicit the experience of craving.”

Perhaps most troubling is the sense that places of silence — or at least places free of human noise — are disappearing fast.

Gordon Hempton, an “acoustic ecologist,” lives on the edge of Olympia National Park in Washington State. For the past 25 years, the former musician and botanist has made it his life’s work to find the quietest spots on Earth and record them for posterity. He was recently successful in having the park service designate one square inch of silence. It is not exactly silent, just as free as possible from human-generated noise. People passing by are asked to walk softly — no swoosh-swooshing rain gear, no talking, no laughing. He has also asked airlines to avoid flying overhead.

Hempton says we do not realize how quickly our environment is being degraded. People think they can go for a short drive to the country and get the simple, pure sounds of nature, but the fact is, in many places, those days are over.

Noise leaves us in a constant state of agitation. Even though we believe we rely mostly on our eyes, the fact is, we hear from much greater distances and we hear all around ourselves. “After all, we don’t have earlids,” says Hempton.

A number of anti-noise lobby groups have sprung up in the past few years, but there seems to be an equal and opposing contingent that will never let the music die. “If u dont (sic) like noise, move to the woods and hump trees all day,” reads one e-mail to the U.S. lobby group Noise Free America.

Even more withering was the maitre d’ who refused a patron’s request to turn down the background music: “Madame, you don’t understand that most of the people who go out to dinner have nothing to say to one another.”

Silence can make us profoundly uncomfortable. Police and journalists know how to make someone talk — they simply fall silent and leave the subject to jabber into empty air, revealing much more than intended.

A BBC radio interviewer was once dismayed when Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, paused for 19 full seconds when asked whether the Iraq war was morally justified. Finally, when prodded by the desperate host, he said that such a question demanded proper consideration, not a simple sound clip. The interviewer was so impressed that he tried to persuade editors to leave the long silence in the documentary. It was cut.

“Fear of silence is often a fear of absence, of the void we dread, the growing terror of nothing to think about,” wrote Lawrence Freeman, a Benedictine priest and head of the World Community for Christian Meditation. He was writing to priests, encouraging them to get comfortable with more silence throughout the Mass, and reassuring them that everyone finds it a little nerve-wracking at first.

Silence and meditation have long been the primary domain of mystics and religious folk, beginning with Saint Antony and the Desert Fathers, hermits whose lives were ascetic in the extreme. They aimed for a fathomless silence that was not simply quiet but a conduit to wisdom, self-knowledge and finally, to God.

Silence is still important in the pursuit of holiness. Many eastern traditions have silence as their centrepiece. The late Pope John Paul II said all prayer is based in silence and Mother Teresa insisted her nuns pray for two hours a day on top of their heavy workloads. The prayer was not meant as hardship but rather fortification.

Saint Francis once urged his followers to preach the gospel on all occasions and to everyone they met. When absolutely necessary, he added, use words.

But the rewards of quiet are by no means limited to religious people. Peter France, the author of Hermits: The Insights of Solitude, tells the story of an elderly lady who went to the cemetery every spring to lay flowers on the graves of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne but shook her fist at Henry Thoreau’s grave: “None for you, you dirty little atheist.”

Yet the wisdom emanating from Thoreau’s years on Walden Pond is among the touchstones of North American culture — much of it about society, not solitude. It was Thoreau who said most men lead lives of quiet desperation.

It may be that desperation that drives people to finally confront themselves at retreats whether Buddhist, Yogic, Christian or one of a variety now offered worldwide. Many find it positively gut-wrenching, especially facing silence alone. Yet they say it was the best thing that ever happened to them. They found themselves, they found God, they finally tore away the obscuring veil of words that falls over the day-to-day world. They were finally able to stop doing and just be.

All it took were days of tears.

Actress Daphne Zuniga wrote in 3O2 magazine that “every thought and feeling I’d ever avoided came up as I sat there (at a retreat) in silence day after day. Those nine days turned out to be some of the hardest of my life.

Early in her retreat, “I cried to my teacher, saying that I’d never felt so lonely. She pointed to a box of tissues and said, basically, ‘You’re right on course.'”

Zuniga packed up and left that night, ready to return to Los Angeles. “A mile later in the pitch back of a country road, I stopped, yelled, and turned the car around.”

She stayed the full nine days and came away with a fearlessness she had never known.

An enlightened L.A. actress — well, it is California after all.

But even New York is tuning in, or out, as the case may be.

The latest rage is quiet parties, initiated by artist Paul Rebhan and singer/songwriter Tony Noe. One Saturday night in 2002 they could not find a bar quiet enough to carry on a conversation, so they started Quiet Parties, no yelling allowed. Some have areas where no talking is allowed — just written notes.

The movement, which has spread to other cities, now includes silent dating, “popular with singles who like to flirt without speaking.”

No words to get in the way.

Jenny Jackson writes for the Citizen.