As I See It: Going Silent
September 12, 2011 Victor Rozek
My first IT job was working swing shift computer operations for a Silicon Valley wafer manufacturer. In those days, disc packs were removable and resembled layered cakes consisting of a stack of platters coated with oxide icing. Each evening I would run a long series of sequential jobs. The process needed to be expeditious if there was any hope of finishing by shift’s end, which meant starting the next job as soon as the preceding one ended.
But even if I wasn’t glued to a monitor, the movement of the heads across the platters provided an accurate indicator of progress. No matter where I was–in or out of the computer room–the final flourish and retraction of the heads made a distinctive sound that signaled that it was time to start the next program.
I quickly learned that the absence of sound was more telling than the noise that filled the silence. And my ears often proved to be more useful than my eyes.
I’ve heard it said that it is easier to go through life blind than deaf. So much sensory information comes to us through our hearing. Whether it’s the screech of brakes while we’re driving, or a pot boiling over in the kitchen, or the telltale crunch of a printer jamming, we automatically process a cacophony of background noises, filtering out the normal, and turning our attention to sounds that may require intervention.
The sounds of IT are frequently part of the product design. Most high-tech devices have built in auditory feedback; the soft thump of keyboards, the click of mice, the whoosh of departing email, not to mention the mechanical chatter of copiers copying, printers printing, and computer fans humming. Then there’s the human factor: colleagues talking on the phone, coffee being slurped, women walking in heels on linoleum, and the lyrics of office conversation accompanied by the drone of air conditioning.
A great deal of what we hear is useless if not annoying. Which is why many IT professionals opt for filling their head with their favorite music. Ear buds have become essential attire for the programmer seeking relief from the constant background noise.
While sound can be useful and entertaining, it can also be exhausting, and true silence is an increasing rarity in the digital age. The pervasive clatter of media, the hum of traffic, and the myriad forms of human expression surround us like the very air we breathe. Noise is incessant and ubiquitous. Quiet has become an anxiety-producing anomaly.
Even though so much of what we say and hear is banal, many of us have an unexamined discomfort with silence. The radio is always on in the car, the TV is always on at home. When people gather, even a momentary silence is quickly filled with conversation. If two people sit silently in a restaurant, it’s a safe bet they’re an old married couple who have come to hate each other.
There are cultures that value silence as a spiritual practice, an opportunity to withdraw from the world and connect with something deeper. But Westerners, myself included, find it difficult to sit still in silence for any length of time. It’s how kids were punished. We are too accustomed to sensory stimulation to find ease and comfort in its absence. It’s as if noise is a current that propels us forward. Turn it off, and we don’t know what to do with ourselves.
For me, movement helps. Hiking, particularly off-trail in high-elevation settings, is like a moving meditation that clears my mind and reinvigorates my relationship to the natural world. Recently, I went through one of those periods where I was fed up with everything. Too much noise, too much static, too many people wanting something. Everything became an annoyance. The kid with the needlessly loud motorcycle. The endlessly depressing economic news. The feigned concern of the guy in the debt reduction commercial eager to intercede on my behalf with the IRS. The buffoonish and petty Congress. The latest boost in my health insurance premium. The roar of my neighbor’s riding mower. The telephone solicitor who refuses to stop yapping until he either finishes his spiel, or I hang up. Even my wife’s voice began to sound shrill and irritating. It was time to go.
I packed my truck and headed for the mountains.
If you crave quiet, avoid campgrounds. People driving what resembles oil tankers on wheels crank up their obnoxious generators so they can watch TV while disturbing everyone else around them. I found an unauthorized spot and pulled in, put on my boots, and headed uphill.
If finding a quiet place to un-plug is a challenge, it may be even harder to turn off the internal chatter. Distance helps. After two or three miles, my mind clears and I become aware of my breathing, the mindful progression of my steps, and the sounds of the forest. Silence is seldom absolute. It is comprised of the sounds that remain when louder sounds are no longer present. I hear the wind part the branches. A fallen tree leaning against a standing one creaks, like a galleon at anchor. Higher up, I walk through a Monet canvass–a meadow pocked with wild flowers, blues, and purples, pinks, yellows and reds, and I hear the hum of bees, like little engines always on full throttle.
Silence activates the other senses. I become aware of the smell of hemlock needles and sun-baked grass. I feel the weight of the sun on my back. I see detailed carvings in great walls of stone made by that most dramatic and enduring of artists, erosion. I taste the fine particles of volcanic dust when the wind swirls about me. Nothing to do but walk, and look, and listen.
Higher still, vast snow fields cover steep hillsides, with islands of trees, stone, and earth dotting the ocean of white. The landscape is steep as I cross the snow, moving from island to island, climbing toward the summit. It’s peaceful here, elemental. Nothing that matters down below matters here. I want that peace, I want to regain my center. Gradually, I feel the annoyance, the anger, fall away. I breathe in the landscape, and exhale the remaining tension. Just then, a deer some ten yards below me, spooks and begins to trot across the snow field. I stand still, watching in gratitude. And then, the most extraordinary thing happens. She stops about half way across and turns her head to look back at me. We stand gazing at each other for a time and finally she turns around and rejoins me on the island. I’ve never seen a wild animal make such a choice.
I spent four days neither hearing nor uttering a single word. Each day I go up into the mountains, and each day some miraculous thing would happen. Maybe miracles always happen, and I just fail to notice. Silence was like a doorway into a world made foreign by noise; a portal to what the senses miss when they are otherwise engaged. We know that the highest and lowest notes are inaudible to us, but they nonetheless exist. Doubtless there are levels of consciousness, connection, and insight that are likewise concealed by the presence of constant, frenetic noise. The skeptic will scoff, but our standard of proof is entirely based on what we already know and believe to be true. As Einstein said: “I’ll see it when I believe it.” And I’ve come to believe that–as a source of peaceful rejuvenation–silence seldom disappoints.
Recently, I came across this Buddhist admonition: “Do not speak unless it improves on silence.”
Perhaps this would be a good time for me to shut up.