Over the years, I have developed this habit of not surrounding myself with an utter and complete silence for more than five conscious minutes. While working out, I always have music or a podcast session playing in the background. I blast the music to max volume while stepping into shower. Any office work is done with a pair of headsets jammed across my head. Cleaning out my cupboards, my room, doing laundry, carrying out daily errands to the grocery shop, basically ninety five percent of all the activities I carry out on a daily basis are accompanied by some sort of a background noise or music, as you may like to call it. Hell, even bone-chilling winters cannot stop me from having that ceiling fan turned on to a max!
I am a person who defines the very brackets of introversion, covering a whole lot of territory and all possible traits. And therefore, I should be comfortable with silence, right?
Turns out, no.
A quick note here, this whole phenomenon of ‘awkward silence’ particularly during conversations with strangers or lesser known acquaintances has never really bothered me. I have never felt a need to step into a room and advertise my presence and fill up all the silence spots with unnecessary chatter. In fact, some of the best, most insightful conversations I’ve had, are with people who understand how to navigate around the gaps in a conversation while collecting thoughts on how best to respond to a question and get your companion to react to it.
Awkward silence in a social setting is not what I am talking about here though. When I am alone, I cannot bear stillness around me. I find it extremely unsettling. And from what I gather reading various books and research papers on this topic, the fear of silence if more of a learnt behavior, something that cannot be blamed on the recent surge of social media.
When I say learnt behavior I mean your circumstances. Say, for instance, while growing up it was only Mom, Dad, and myself in the house. We had our noses in books for hours together and never really felt the need to make constant conversations. We also carried out all the household chores with little to no background noise to distract us. So, how I was raised as a child could after all not be a contributing factor in me being uncomfortable with silence.
Another popularly suggested reason, and I agree that this maybe it, is the fact that silence forces us to notice our most innate and immediate thoughts. You are suddenly faced with parts of your personality that are unstructured. I, for one, am not very fond of this side and like to keep in under wraps even from myself. And I am certain this is true for most of the people out there. The fact of the matter is that it is always very difficult to embrace all of your own parts and come to terms with what is it or how is it that you want to lead your ideal life.
So while I am in the shower throwing my own little in-house concerts and singing to literally everything, it’s not because I am paranoid of someone popping out from behind the mirror and attacking me but because silence makes me feel detached from the reality. I don’t feel like a real person when confronted with silence. And you know, you do want to unlearn this, teach yourself to be more comfortable with the quiet.
In a world plagued with Muzak, how do you find a quiet yet assertive way to make a statement? Not necessarily to anyone else but to your own self.
And while we are discussing silence it would be a grave disservice not to mention John Cage, an irreverent experimenter who composed nearly 300 pieces in his 60-year long career. Unchartered sounds were his trademark. Like most artists, Cage had conformed himself to the common definition of music the point of which was to share emotions. He made a life changing encounter with two artists at a time when he himself was in somewhat of a spiritual crisis while going through a divorce with his wife of 10 years.
America’s most unapologetic cerebral artist and the undisputed king of Dada, Marcel Duchamp had a deep impact on Cage. He bought the ‘art is subjective’ ideology to life through his scandalous 1917 sculpture of a urinal. Gita Sarabhai, an Indian heiress studying music in New York connected with Cage and gave him lessons on philosophy and Indian music. She changed the way music was defined, in Cage’s mind. Whereas westerners saw it as a way to share emotions, in India, music had a different purpose.
“To sober and quiet the mind,” she said, “thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.”
The infamous summer of ’69 saw the most famous and one of the most controversial events in the musical world. Debuting in Woodstock, John Cage performed his most infamous piece 4’33’’. The ‘musical piece’ had three silent movements totaling four minutes and 33 seconds.
The initial public reaction was that of an outrage. The piece did find admirers though, amongst the likes of the greats like Frank Zappa and John Lenon, who termed it as the work of a genius. John Cage’s point here being, we need to embrace surroundings and not severe art from life.
It is about listening to everything while listening to nothing.
This pretty much makes up for the world of silence as well. Forced, intentional sounds of your TV, iPods can only do so much to put you at ease. When you get accustomed to listening and treating and finding beauty in even the vaguest of things, hum of the traffic, ticking of your watch, rustling of leaves, you become truly focused. You can take in the environment in its raw form, become comfortable with your innermost thoughts, let incidental sounds froth to the foreground and finally quiet your mind.