Silence in the time of chaos

P Anima | Updated on November 09, 2019

Listening to the quiet: Silence remains a difficult choice for much of the modern world where noise is the default backdrop setting   -  ISTOCK.COM

Noise is the default backdrop setting to the modern world and its pervasiveness has placed silence on a premium, spawning an industry and setting forth a search for quietude and stillness

Venkat Iyer spent his childhood in a house by the Vile Parle Railway Station. His father worked for the Indian Railways and the family’s living quarters were usually near railway tracks. Iyer grew up inured to the noise of passing trains.

“If we happened to be talking, we would pause till the train passed and pick up from where we left off,” he recalls.

Thirty seven years in the melee of Mumbai made the sound of silence an unfamiliar one. Noise pierced in, always. If not the hollering trains, it was the milkman at the door, the pressure cooker letting out steam in the kitchen or a dramatic background score as another serial climaxed on the neighbour’s television.

It remained so until July 2004, when Iyer, project manager with the software firm IBM, quit his job and decided to become a farmer. He bought 4.5 acres in Dahanu, a coastal town in Maharashtra’s Palghar district. It was just over 100km from Mumbai, but light years removed from its noise.

Iyer had recalibrated his life choices, and factored in the risks and lifestyle changes. But he never gave enough thought to the one quality that would define rural life — silence.

He had an unnerving encounter with it on the very first night at the farm. The sun had set, the workers had left, and he was alone. “There was no noise,” Iyer recalls. It rattled him. When a lizard fell to the ground, he thought it was an earthquake. He woke up a dozen times that night.

“Silence had gone out of my life and now it had come back. It was strange,” Iyer says.

He admits it wasn’t easy to get used to silence. He reconciled to it as the days went by and soon learned to desire it. He began to sleep through the night and wake up with the birds. Iyer does not need alarms anymore, nor does he yearn for a few extra minutes of sleep. “I sleep peacefully and wake up fresh.”

Noise — the ubiquitous presence

Iyer chose to enjoy the silence. But it remains a difficult choice for much of the modern world where noise is the default backdrop setting.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes silence as the complete absence of sound, thereby defining a potent and layered word purely through its antonym. That multifaceted antonym has been dominating human life.

Linguist and cultural activist GN Devy calls the 1900s the noisiest century in history. “Loudspeakers, radiograms, audio tapes, microphones, classrooms with microphones, public announcement systems — such an explosion of noise was never experimented by humans before,” he says.

That makes the ear the most used and abused sensory organ. People wake up to sound alarms, use equipment that cook noisily, travel in contraptions that raise a din and celebrate with crackers and gunshots. They hold tight in their palms the source of modern pandemonium — the smartphone. And then, in a bid to cut out the clutter, they plug in earphones, feeding noise deeper into the system.

As the quantum of noise raised peaked, so has the wish for silence — the brand new premium commodity. Public places, such as airports, are blocking out noise. Drivers are urged not to honk. Holiday destinations sell silence as a luxury amenity even as the wellness industry wakes up to its untapped potential.

At the Global Wellness Summit 2017 in Florida, an annual conference of industry shareholders, silence was zeroed upon as the future of wellness. “As digital noise ratchets up, we will see a sharper focus on silence, mindfulness and deep nature at hotels, retreats and spas,” the summit report says. Before it is shrugged off as another fad, the report adds, “And no, ‘silence is not the new kale’, or some hysterical, fleeting, power-sold wellness trend. It’s one of the most meaningful trends in wellness that will only deepen and evolve in years ahead.”

The report puts together the wellness industry’s wide-ranging experiments with silence. Europe is designing silent spas, some situated in crypts and ancient caves. Monasteries, the byword for silence, are being turned into retreats in Italy and Canada. Silent restaurants are springing up, as are silent salons, gyms, and stores.

A retail store in the UK has launched silent hours when the escalators, TV displays and music will be switched off to make shopping peaceful. A hotel-cum-spa in Germany has installed the “digital kill switch” where guests hit a button at their bedside to disconnect room WiFi, mobile reception and even electricity. Big airports in India — Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata — have banned announcements.

The calming apps

It might appear ironic that apps which keep the modern world digitally preoccupied are holding forth on silence. “Yes, very [ironic],” agrees Ramesh Haridas, London-based start-up investor. And yet there are a handful of apps catering to the need for silence. “Quite a few people point to Calm’s usage and popularity,” Haridas says.

Tap to relax: Apps such as Calm promise to de-stress users and help them sleep better


The meditation and sleep app Calm was Apple’s App of the Year in 2017 and has over 50 million downloads. Headspace, another popular meditation app, promises to de-stress users and help them sleep better. It holds out a range of solutions including one-minute meditation capsules. The SoundPrint app locates quiet corners in public spaces — restaurants, bars and coffee shops. The app has an internal decibel meter that measures the noise level at a venue and marks it quiet or loud.

Tap to relax: Apps such as Calm and Headspace promise to de-stress users and help them sleep better


SoundPrint founder Gregory Scott says on his website that the app was initially designed for the hearing impaired community but is now accessed by anyone seeking quietude.

Building an island

Few methods encapsulate the idea of inner calm and quiet as vipassana, the 2,500-year-old Buddhist meditation technique. Make an island of yourself, make yourself your refuge; there is no other refuge, says a famous Buddhist verse.

Students are taught to snap shut from the world outside and they do so by committing to silence. “The first thing we do is take away the screens they are addicted to, including the mobile phones,” says Hamir Ganla, spokesperson for the Vipassana International Academy (VIA) in Igatpuri, Maharashtra.

The VIA, the largest meditation centre in the world, has 200 centres across the globe and each offers 10-day courses. “Registration is closed 2-3 months in advance. Booking is full within 15 minutes of opening at the international centres,” Ganla adds.

Every month, 1,400 students finish the basic 10-day course at the VIA. Sixty-day courses are offered to those who have graduated to higher levels. Courses are also designed for children and teenagers. “The course for teenagers was started 10 years ago when we observed the stress they undergo, particularly that of competition,” Ganla says.

Those who sign up have to be silent throughout their stay at VIA. While students are allowed to engage with teachers or managers in case of need, total silence remains the norm. Ganla admits that it can intimidate some. “But once they come, within the first 24 hours they begin to like silence.” The meditation technique does not just help participants de-link from the world outside, but also tunes them to seek quietude within, he says. “They are left to themselves,” Ganla says.

When they are eased out of that silence after the course they often realise that talking jars. “They in fact get a headache,” he adds.

While over 1.5 lakh students signed up for the 10-day course at the VIA centres in 2012, the numbers grew to 2 lakh in 2018.

The cocoon: Students who sign up for vipassana courses are taught to snap shut from the outside world and they do so by committing to silence (representational image)   -  ISTOCK.COM


The academy has urban and rural centres and that makes their student profile varied. “Rural folks, say farmers, tend to understand vipassana easily. They are not as anxious about silence as educated city folks tend to be,” Ganla observes.

Silence-free zones

Indian cities are silence-free zones, or are rather noise incubators. Three of the country’s metropolises — Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata — often feature among the 10 noisiest cities of the world. In 2017, Delhi topped the list when Mimi, a digital hearing app, studied its global digital database with over 200,000 participants and analysed hearing loss appropriate to age.

Indeed, noise can severely and adversely affect one’s hearing. As the country frets over air pollution, Sanjay Sood, ENT specialist at Delhi’s Holy Family hospital, points out that the stress on the ears is no less dangerous. “Air pollution peaks in a certain kind of weather; noise, on the other hand, is a problem round the year. It is also a constant — at home, outside, at work,” Sood points out.

Awareness and safety measures in factories and industrial units have brought down instances of hearing loss at work. But the same cannot be said for hearing loss induced by exposure to a single loud sound, Sood says. An abrupt spike in the earphone’s volume is all it takes to damage the ear.

“Exposure to any noise above 50 decibels can impair the hearing organ and that can even be a song heard on your earphone,” he adds. Heightened noise leaves behind a trail of physiological and psychological ailments including hypertension, depression, anxiety and hearing loss. While noise-induced impairment is reversible in some instances, it cannot be undone in others and only partially restored in the rest. “It is totally unpredictable,” Sood warns.

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.1 billion young people (aged 12–35 years) in the world are at risk of hearing loss due to exposure to noise in recreational settings. Hearing impairment triggered by the personal music player is now an area of wide study.

The quiet word

Silence is the antidote to noise. But forging a bond with it is tricky. A spell of silence can soon enough descend into boredom, prompting a hasty return to the comfort of familiar noise. The potential of silence to alarm and unnerve humans cannot be underestimated.

Venkat Iyer often has visitors, family and friends who come to take stock of his new life. With hardly any gadgets at home, guests are left with one distraction — nature. During one such visit, Iyer took his guests to the riverside, but noticed soon enough that a cousin was missing. Iyer searched for him along the river and went back home only to find him sitting inside his car, the AC on, music blaring full throttle. “When the only option is silence, you can’t handle it,” Iyer observes.

Author of A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland understands why silence can be intimidating. Humans, she points out, are taught to spurn silence since childhood; hence the “lack of practice” with it.

“We put years of hard work into teaching children to be sociable, to speak, to share their toys, not to bite... and none at all into teaching them to enjoy or use silence and solitude. If we use ‘go to your room’ as a childhood punishment, of course, silence is going to unnerve us as adults,” Maitland observes.

The long walk

Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge discusses the fear of silence in his 2018 book Silence in the Age of Noise (Penguin Random House). He recognises and understands it, one that causes him to get busy “with this and that, avoiding the silence... I send text messages, put on some music, listen to the radio or allow my thoughts to flit about, rather than holding still and shutting out the world for a single moment”. He identifies it as the fear of getting to know oneself better.

By myself: On top of seven million cubic miles of ice, Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge discovers minuscule joys   -  ISTOCK.COM


Kagge comes to terms with this apprehension on his long walk alone to the quietest place he’s been — the South Pole. Alone on top of seven million cubic miles of ice, he discovers minuscule joys: “The nuanced hues of the snow. The wind abating. Formations of clouds. Silence”. It was a journey where he carried the supplies he needed on a sledge and never opened his mouth to speak.

“I shut up,” he writes. “I had no radio contact, nor did I see a single living creature for fifty days”. Instead, he listened: “Nature spoke to me in the guise of silence. The quieter I became, the more I heard”.

On that vast expanse of snow, in the few moments when the wind didn’t blow and the snow appeared silent, he stood unmindful of his past and the future, alert only to his present. The most interesting kind of silence, he notes, is not the one around a person, but within. It exists even in the midst of noise, even when standing under the shower letting the water wash over the face, he says.

Maitland keeps her relationship with silence simple. “Silence happened to me [I wasn’t looking for it] and I found that I liked it [very much],” she tells BLink.

In her forties, Maitland’s life took a turn; her marriage was over and she had set out to build a life alone. She spent a span of time alone in the Sinai Desert and the Isle of Skye before retreating into a home in remote Scottish country. A Book of Silence (Counterpoint, 2008) is Maitland’s account of forging a spirited association with silence.

She does not believe there is a universal response to the surfeit of noise in the modern world. Noise, she says, simply works for some. “Some like lots of noise and, very often, though not always, they also like lots of social interaction. Others flourish with less noise and fewer social connections. But it is complicated — lots of people like solitude but continue to love noise, say listening to music.”

A Book of Silence dissects the long association of humans with quietude cutting across religious philosophies. And she points out that in the future, despite the hullabaloo raised by humans, silence is what will be left. “The whole of space is silent. Sound waves cannot travel in a vacuum (unlike light waves), and once you travel beyond the atmosphere, slightly over 60m, it is all silent. Even in all the noise we are making, silence occupies much more space in the universe,” she says.

Lost in space: Human language bound by a structure of time — the past, present and future — is of no consequence in space   -  ISTOCK.COM


Science of silence

Maitland talks of the vast silent space beyond the Earth, while linguist Devy probes the relevance of language in this vacuum. He effortlessly dips into science, philosophy and linguistics to establish the insignificance of noise outside the cacophonous Earth and, thereby, that of language. He divides the future of silence into three aspects — the economic and material, the evolutionary, and the political.

When humans work to materialise journeys beyond the Earth, of settling elsewhere in space, it consequently makes language — or noise — redundant. Human language bound by a structure of time — the past, present and future — is of no consequence in space.

“The structured language humans evolved 70,000 years ago showed a sensitivity to time; it is based on the revolutions of the Earth. That sense of time has no validity outside of the Earth,” Devy points out.

Silent forms of communication — visuals and digits — are already a part of people’s lives. That noiseless language, Devy says, is set to grow. “Images compiled using digits neither occupy time or space.” Humans, he says, have collectively, yet tacitly, agreed upon experimenting with minimal use of vocal language and maximising digit-based communication. “Our communication is enveloped in silence. We are sending messages, but not speaking.”

Silence is an economic choice and an industry in modern world. “We have started to pay for ear plugs that block sound. An industry of silence helps regulate the noise in our zones to the levels we want.”

Devy also places the gradual transition to silence on a larger evolutionary plan. Silence may not be a knee-jerk reaction to noise or a grand exit plan, but a natural course of progression.

The evolution of the human body and brain, he stresses, follows a pattern. He draws upon Charles Darwin’s law of organ use and disuse. “At turning points, whenever an animal species gives up the use of a particular organ, like the tail in humans, and moves to replace it with another that has the same effect, the organ about to be lost is overused,” Devy argues.

The greatest evidence of that, he says, is the century just gone — considered the noisiest in history. “The quantum of noise will be much less in the future. All norms of civilisation indicate that — education, socialisation, disciplining. Humans will speak less, make less noise.”

The Padma Shri awardee agrees that the possibility of evolutionary changes may be too futuristic. But he also points to research in the recent past that has highlighted neurological changes in humans. Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid (Icon), which explored whether reading was a natural act, proved to be a revelation to neurologists when it came out in 2008.

Wolf, the director of the Centre for Reading and Language Research in Tufts University, US, had researched on readers of all ages, particularly those with dyslexia. The incidence of dyslexia, Devy says, is far greater in modern society. “It has nothing to do with the cognitive inability of children, but a lot to do with their cognitive advancement.”

For nearly two decades, Devy points out, neurologists have been discussing the fatigue to the broca’s lobe on the left side of the brain, which processes sound and elicits meaning from them. Fewer and fewer children, he says, may be interested in the linguistic interpretation of the word. Neurologists, he adds, have also noticed greater activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is connected to the eyes. “Humans might be surrounded more by images than written language.”

Silence is also political. And Devy points to the evidence of it across the world. Governance of human societies has grown complex since the idea of democracies came up.

“The complexity of law and the rights regime is way beyond easy management by those who govern. So the State itself is promoting the idea of silent citizens,” Devy says. It is true for governments everywhere, he adds. Regulated silence is becoming the norm.

Regulated or not, it certainly governs Iyer’s life. When friends call up and ask that pervasive urban question, “What plans for the evening?” he replies, matter-of-factly, “Nothing”. The villagers do not step out after evening. Iyer does not have a TV. He cooks dinner, eats with his wife Meena, sits quietly on the porch, checks his mail and reads online about the monsoons and cyclones, provided there is power. And then he goes to bed.

Staying still and doing nothing does not daunt him anymore. A fan of poet-philosopher Rumi, Iyer has discovered new meanings in his words: Listen to silence, it has much to say.

Published on November 08, 2019

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