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Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

The art of keeping quiet

In a world full of noise, how do you define and use silence?

In 1952, American composer John Cage presented what he called his most important work. Titled 4’33", the work was written for a musician or a group of musicians with explicit instructions: they had to remain silent for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.

The idea, according to Cage, was to release music from the formality of compositions and to make the audience appreciate all the ambient sounds that were around them. You could also call it the mother of all excuses for a composer whose muse had left him, but Cage at that time was a prolific and respected composer.

The piece premiered at Woodstock to a befuddled audience and has remained influential—and controversial—every since, not just in musical circles but also in the art world. Books have been written about it. In composing 4’33", Cage announced his departure from European music traditions—their sound and fury, their complex orchestrations—and aligned himself to eastern practices where chance sounds, the asymmetrical aesthetic and silence were valued.

Last year, a PR firm called the PRactice conducted a panel discussion for its top clients on the topic of silence. You could argue that the best way to drive home the point would have been to gather for 45 minutes of silence, but the panel—which included marketing mavens, advertising executives, filmmakers and yours truly as moderator—didn’t remain silent. We talked through the evening, thus bringing home the challenges inherent in the idea of silence.

How to explain the benefits of silence without using words? Seems like a paradox that is hard to surmount.

In a world full of noise, how do you define and use silence? Is it what you wish for in today’s television channels, particularly when Arnab Goswami is anchoring? Is it the refuge that you seek using your Sennheiser noise-cancelling headphones when sitting on a motorbike in the middle of traffic? Is it the title of one of your favourite songs—The Sound of Silence? Is it the marker of respect that you show to the deceased—by standing up and observing a moment of silence? Is it the path to self-awareness; a way of separating cosmic signals from the noise?

You could say that religions invented the concept and practice of silence; and you would be right. Most religions preached silence as a path to contemplation, self-purification and the divine. The mystic St Teresa of Avila talked about dropping into deep silence as a way of regenerating the soul and spirit.

“You will at once feel your senses gather themselves together; they seem like bees which return to the hive and there shut themselves up to work without effort or care on your part," she said.

It is a lovely analogy, except that bees don’t work in silence. The entire hive buzzes with noise. In the Christian faith, Trappist monks are known for their celibacy (tested memorably by Samantha in the TV series Sex and the City) and their vow of silence. This “conversion" of manners including fasting, celibacy and silence helped them gain self-control, and it must be said, make excellent beer.

In the modern world, however, silence as a practice has moved from Christian mystics and Trappist monks to the East. Eastern religions value silence as a way of not just introspection but also self-purification. It is an integral part of Jain, Buddhist and Hindu philosophies.

Jain monks are called munis. The word itself comes from mauna or silence. Monks used mauna-vrat or active silence as a way of detaching themselves from the mundane world and gaining control over their senses. They stayed silent for days and nights to listen to the deepest cells of their being. The problem is that most of us are afraid to listen to what our inner being is saying. This is why we reflexively text and play with apps when we have a moment to ourselves.

In Hinduism, silence is used in the four types of yoga: bhakti yoga, or the path of devotion; jnana yoga, or the path of knowledge; karma yoga, or the path of action; and raja yoga, or the path of meditation. It is hard to separate silence from meditation and other mindfulness practices. The whole point is to concentrate on your breath and keep your eyes and mouth shut.

Mahatma Gandhi, India’s greatest ascetic leader, practised silence once a week. “It has often occurred to me that a seeker after truth has to be silent," he said. “I know the wonderful efficacy of silence. I visited a Trappist monastery in South Africa. A beautiful place it was. Most of the inmates of that place were under a vow of silence. I inquired of the Father the motive of it and he said the motive is apparent: ‘We are frail human beings. We do not know very often what we say. If we want to listen to the still small voice that is always speak­ing within us, it will not be heard if we continually speak.’ I understood that precious lesson. I know the secret of silence."

All these religions recognize that the world of the mind is primarily connected with speech and action. It involves logic, analysis, discussion and debate. In order to feel the soul, to go deeper into the beauty and serenity that is at the heart of all creation, you have to introspect. Turning inwards (or turning-in words, to use an obvious pun) in silence can help us acknowledge the conflicts, contradictions and ego that controls behaviour.

Let us assume that you aren’t at a point in your life where you seek spiritual upliftment. You don’t necessarily want to go inward and figure out the beauty of the universe and what god is thinking. Can you use silence not for ego sublimation but for enhancement? Can silence be a path to power?

Paradoxically, yes. The higher you are in the corporate world, the less you need to speak. Mostly, you listen, sift and decide. “Talk much and they think you are a fool. Be silent and they will become curious."

In their essay, The Functions of Silence in India: Implications for Intercultural Communication Research, Nemi C. Jain and Anuradha Matukumalli talk about how silence in Asia has been valued, while silence in the West is viewed as socially disagreeable, passive and powerless. In today’s “lean in" culture, staying silent has numerous negative connotations. It can communicate apathy, hostility, confusion and indecisiveness. This need not be the case.

Silence, or simply pausing before speaking, can be a technique adopted for the corporate environment. It could be something simple like allowing the other side to speak first and then calibrating your response to what they said.

Listen, after all, is the anagram of silent. Listening can be as active as speaking. This is something that great leaders learn to do very well. They listen to all and opposing points of view and finally formulate a response. They know that silence cannot be misquoted by the press. They know that confidence is silent; insecurity, loud.

Cultures in countries such as Japan, China and India that emphasize collective thinking, cooperation and a web of interdependence are called “high-context" cultures.

In such cultures, silence plays a crucial role in maintaining collective harmony, be it within families or in the society at large. Staying silent helps avoid conflicts and preserves relationships. “Throwing out words" carelessly can cause undue damage. Conversely, the “silent treatment" is often more effective in making a point. “If you don’t understand my silence, how will you understand my words?" lamented a poet.

Here is an experiment for you. Next time you are in the pool, take a deep breath and allow yourself to sink into the water. When I tried free-diving, the biggest thing I noticed was the silence inside the water. It is as profound and soothing as the womb. As I swam, I pondered the many facets of silence and have listed them below:

Silence in sit-downs—in negotiation and with family.

Silence in speaking—clever use of pause for effect, stand-up comedy.

Silence against self-incrimination—right to remain silent, also called the Miranda rights.

The challenge of being silent in a culture that is communication-heavy? Silence in loud cities; or in workplaces where radio silence is almost reserved for bad news exclusively?

More in coming weeks on Silence and Sound.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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