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Modern living robs people of experiencing pristine darkness.
Modern living robs people of experiencing pristine darkness.

Listening to the sound of silence

Flashes of light, a barrage of beeps and loud musicwe live in an overstimulated, frenzied atmosphere. Bring back pockets of silence and darkness in your life

In our gadget-driven, consumerist lives, our eyes focus on pixels while our ears are tuned to pings and rings. A visit to any mall on weekends bears testimony to the fact with we live in a busier, noisier and brighter world than our forefathers. While diminishing attention spans, shallower relationships and a blurring of work-life boundaries are the generally acknowledged downsides of a fast-paced lifestyle, two facets that are even more fundamental to human experience, silence and darkness, are also gradually fading.

As we continually inundate our lives with more and more things, both silence and darkness are ebbing away from our everyday experiences. Even as we reap immeasurable benefits from technology, we must realize that for human nature to thrive, both quietude and darkness are essential. In fact, the banes typically associated with technology-centred lives, like shorter attention spans and less time for real relationships, are possibly a consequence of constantly being bombarded by flashes of light and a barrage of beeps.

To ease the grind of our daily routines, we opt for the latest and the snazziest gizmos—the sleeker car with GPS, the smarter phone, the slicker laptop and not to mention the Wi-Fi enabled dream house. Ironically, as we strive to make ourselves more comfortable, we also contribute to an assault on our well-being. Both silence and darkness have been part of our natural rhythms for eons. In our 24x7 world, where light and sound stimulate us round the clock, we can rediscover facets of ourselves by carving out silent and dark spaces for ourselves.

In A Book Of Silence, published in 2008, author Sara Maitland describes an unusual voyage she undertook to examine and experience the concept of soundlessness. For 40 days, she chose to live in a remote English cottage without any contact whatsoever with people. By the end of the first week itself, Maitland noticed intriguing changes within her. Her experience of various physical sensations became more intense. She began to relish her food more as her gustatory and olfactory senses grew more discerning. Her awareness of temperature became more pronounced and she started perceiving subtle changes of colour in the environment. Strangely, as the weeks went by, she felt “a kind of oneness" with the cosmos even though she was all alone.

Once Maitland returned to her usual life, she found that there were actually umpteen silent moments tucked away in her life. Now, she began to capitalize on such moments, like having a hot bath. She also began to seek out slices of silence by switching off her phone, practising meditation and waking earlier to greet the glow of dawn. As she experienced silence in new places and became more aware of her inner reactions, she realized that there are multiple silences, each with its own character. She dispels our popular notion of silence as an absence or “lack of something".

Maitland feels that silence has a pivotal role in creativity. Silence forces us to introspect, reflect and examine our lives. This “brooding process", in turn, serves as a cradle from which novel ideas emerge. In a similar vein, Stuart Sim reminds us in his 2007 book Manifesto For Silence: Confronting The Politics And Culture Of Noise that “thought is essentially a silent activity". He warns that thinking is “likely to become superficial when competing with other stimuli". Interestingly, even as we communicate, silence can play a powerful role, as linguists have long recognized. John Cook reports in the Journal Of Counseling Psychology (1964) that counselling sessions are more effective when they are punctuated by pauses in the conversation.

Maitland believes that the “overstimulation" of modern living is “addictive". And the constant chatter we engage in, either real or virtual, masks the “thinness of relationships". Even though social media makes us more connected, people, in general, feel less rooted or supported by their relationships. The alarming increase in rates of depression the world over suggests that alienation and disenchantment are growing phenomena. Maitland believes that our mental ill-health is “related to a lack of silence and a lack of training in how to use silence".

Sim also argues that the assault on silence in today’s world is closely linked to commercial interests. He argues that most bars play music at deafening volumes to discourage conversation and thereby promote alcohol consumption. The cornucopia of sounds from music to advertisements to promotional offers that greet us in a mall further bolsters Sim’s argument. He says that the “noise helps to create a frenzied, overstimulated atmosphere" which then results in “frenzied consumption".

Just as Maitland explores silence, former priest Barbara Brown Taylor navigates darkness, both literal and metaphorical, to understand herself better. In the book, Learning To Walk In The Dark, published this year, she describes how she was taught to fear darkness, like most children are, so much so that she equated darkness with anything scary. But the best way to overcome our fears is to confront them gradually. She quotes British author Jack Bremner, who advocates that darkness is a great teaching tool to help children manage their fears. By practising to walk in the dark, we show children how to handle the anxieties that cloud their minds. Similar to Maitland’s experiments with sound (or lack of it), Taylor discusses how darkness can augment our senses. She describes the success of the Blindekuh restaurant in Zürich, Switzerland, that was started by four blind people—the rationale being that when people are prevented from seeing their food, they savour their meal more intensely. Apparently, the concept of dining in the dark is so appealing that similar restaurants have sprung up in Paris, London, Sydney and Tel Aviv.

Taylor points out that most of us own many devices and rarely experience complete and total darkness even after switching off the lights. How many of us fall asleep with a glow of TV light or a cellphone charging? Further, modern living robs us of experiencing pristine darkness. Taylor says the magnificence of the Milky Way is occluded by artificial lighting for roughly two-thirds of the US population. Staring at vast, open spaces like the ocean or the night sky typically makes us ponder our place in the greater cosmos. As we experience less of these moments, we stop delving into our deepest selves.

Thus, ever so often, we must make a concerted effort to weave silent and dark zones into our daily routines. As Taylor says, if we do not limit the cascade of visual and aural stimuli that greet us day and night, we may “no longer be capable of seeing or hearing things that really matter".

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties.

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