The Sound of Silence
During conversations, I like to reflect on what was said or think through what I’ll say next. This leads to frequent pauses and silences. Some people find it awkward, most admire that I’m comfortable with silence.
The fact that I’ve been complimented by this suggests that it isn’t common. There’s the idea of awkward silences, where silence is seen negatively. There has to be constant chatter, constant activity. Instead of taking time to think, someone will speak whatever’s on their mind to fill the void.
This is an observation of Western society, we seem to fear silence, we seem to fear emptiness and solitude. This manifests itself not only in conversation but everywhere. Talking and extroversion is seen more favorably than listening and introversion. Silence and stillness? More like boredom. We’d rather scroll on newsfeeds than feel bored. We’d rather listen to loud hip hop music or a Joe Rogan podcast than listen to silence. We’d rather dance to loud music where we can’t even hear ourselves think then spend a night alone with our own thoughts.
As a society, we choose overstimulation, we choose productivity, we choose entertainment, rather than silence, emptiness, and solitude.
Eastern culture shares a different relationship with silence than its Western counterparts. This is seen through legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films. His films have a sort of “gratuitous motion” where instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.
In a 2002 interview with Roger Ebert, Hayao Miyazaki comments on the importance of emptiness in his films:
“We have a word for that in Japanese,” he said. “It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.”He clapped his hands three or four times. “The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness, But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.
In contrast to the noise and distraction in American films, Miyazaki says that pockets of stillness are essential to his movies. I think pockets of stillness are essential in everyday life. It’s through silence and solitude that we can hear our own voice, and listen to our authentic selves. It’s through silence and solitude that we can think for ourselves and find our own reality. Claude Debussy famously said that, “Music is the space between the notes.” This is as true for music as it is for life.
Creating Pockets of Stillness
Western society is beginning to recognize the value of stillness with its recent fascination of mindfulness and meditation. This is a big step forward. Meditation trains us to be present, and being present is the key to cultivating pockets of stillness within our lives.
For example, next time you feel bored, maybe you’re waiting in line for lunch, instead of scrolling through Instagram or texting your friends, be present in the moment. You might feel bored, but that’s alright. Boredom in itself can be magical.
Next time you’re dining out with a friend, be present. You’ll find that when you’re truly present, there may be silences but they aren’t awkward.
Instead of going to a party or the club, be present and take time for yourself. Go for a walk, write in your journal, or do nothing.
The more we cultivate stillness, the more we’ll hear, see, and understand. That solitude doesn’t mean loneliness. That emptiness is plentiful. That silence sounds beautiful.