Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Escaping all the Noise

Our crowded planet is also an increasingly noisy one. When electronic beepers are not sounding, people are sounding off at great length on various media and in person. I find that going to lunch is sometimes an endurance test: the restaurant noise makes hearing many conversations a strain (and my hearing is fairly good).

A recent article in Parade magazine talks about what it is to live surrounded by a constant bath of noise: living in loud areas can raise the blood pressure. The word noise, we are told, is related to the Latin word for sickness: nausea.

A longer article in the Guardian by George Michelson Foy recalls his own experiment in searching for the quietest place on earth. Trying to escape the dull roar of Manhattan's ceaseless sounds, he visited a monastery, an Indian sweat lodge, and a nickel mine. None was quiet enough. Finally, he discovered the quietest place on earth: the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota.

Whereas some visitors to this small room, thoroughly insulated to absorb every imaginable whisper, find it unbearable, he enjoyed the experience. Most people would experience claustrophia or other problems being sealed in such a room, cut off from the comforting sounds of human life, but his record 45-minute stay in the room was (he says) calming and peaceful, as he listened to the blood rushing in his veins and other bodily functions.

I remember reading a few years ago about a man visiting the bottom of the Grand Canyon and finding the silence there frightening. I doubt if he would head for Minnesota's Orfield with its 99.9% sound-absorbent chamber.

Realizing to his disappointment that total and complete silence is possible only in death, Foy was sorry to end his 45-minute submersion in solitude and silence. Being comfortable with the feeling of absolute calm, he felt rested and peaceful, sorry to leave after only 45 minutes of what many would see as sensory deprivation akin to torture.

Like Foy, who associates silence with happiness, I have been a seeker of silence-- but not the physical absence of sound. I enjoy reading, contemplation, meditation and writing with only the half-conscious sounds of modern life (air conditioning) or birdsong in the background.

I doubt if I would be happy in an anechoic chamber, but I know that the quest for silence is important and profound in mysterious ways. I don't see it as a source of happiness, although a period of silent meditation produces a calmness of mind and a serenity much needed in a too-loud world.

Mostly, I follow the lead of Thomas Merton, who wrote extensively about the silence of contemplative prayer during his 27 years as a Trappist monk in Kentucky. As a result, he could really hear the rain beat down (a wonderful passage in Raids on the Unspeakble) in what he calls a welcome kind of speech. He was fully attuned to the world of nature outside his hermitage and felt connected to people around the world, many of them his readers. In writing, he felt close to God and saw in silence a "friendly communion" with millions of others able to take time out from the constant distractions of everyday life to experience a brief moment in the timeless present.

"The real journey of life is within," Merton wrote. He did not need to seek the quietest place on earth. As to happiness, he would probably understand what the woman, asked by Inspector Maigret in one of Simenon's stories, says when he asks her, "Have you found happiness?"

She responds, in an Old World way that would seem totally foreign to today's Americans, "as much as anyone is entitled to."

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