In Washington, D.C., at a recent performance by the master of mime Marcel Marceau, three cell phones rang during the first act. When an announcement was made during the intermission to turn off all phones, non-phone users gave the first standing ovation of the evening.
Apparently, we're now so addicted to nonstop chattering and noise in our public life that sitting with our phones turned off while a French artist plumbs the depths of silence is a threat.
That's a shame. Silence, which, according to the 19th-century Hindu master Ramana Maharshi, is when we most enjoy "intimate contact with surroundings," can be more fertile than the yackety-yak we hear all day, more nourishing than the chatter that envelops us so often. Under the right conditions, it can be regenerative, restorative. It can produce volumes of knowledge and reams of insight. But we rarely give it a try, maybe because we rarely have a chance.
The racket is everywhere. Muzak, of course, is a given: It took out a lease in every elevator and department store in the country years ago. Its soporific, often saccharine versions of classics and pop songs are supposed to relax us, distract us, pacify us. Invariably, at least for me and most of my friends, they infuriate and aggravate us.
All that musical chatter has become the aural landscape of the country: We've surrendered our quiet and our peace for a jingle-jangle so insipidly watered down, it requires a new definition of "music." And when a nation's repose has been stolen, when our common civic space is encroached upon by a never-ending stream of sound, there is vastly diminished opportunity for reflection, deliberation, and contemplation; for reaping the harvest of the still moments when we can remember who we are. Chuang Tzu says:
"Men do not mirror themselves in running water--they mirror themselves in still water. Only what is still can still the stillness of other things."
Apparently, it's easier to stir up the water than to welcome the stillness, to hear the stillness, to sit in the stillness.
Nothing new here: The din has gone on for years. What's worse about it now is the invasion of our public space by television. In airport waiting rooms, TVs blast news and cute features; if you don't want to watch those, you can put a few quarters into mini-TVs and choose a show of your liking. Some diners have similar TVs at patrons' booths. The last time I stayed at an upscale hotel in Chicago, I was dismayed to find small-screen TVs blabbering away in the elevators.
Everywhere we go, there's such a cacophony, such a relentless ruckus, that ear plugs become subversive and seditious. We seem to be afraid to be with ourselves, to hear ourselves. We prefer, for some odd reason, to let canned sounds and imagery insulate us from what we might discover if we were privy to our own sounds, our own thoughts, our own images and visions.
Maybe we do this because these sounds and images from the outside dazzle us with bogus promises that they're more real and more valuable than what we can produce ourselves; maybe because they so easily and effortlessly relieve us from looking down our own deep--and possibly bottomless--well of neuroses, fantasies, longings, desires, and confusions, a good many of which we know nothing about. Apparently, we prefer keeping it that way, which is our loss since it insulates us from a more profound understanding of who we are. By opting for singing other people's tunes, for seeing other people's visions, we don't necessarily become them, but we do become less ourselves.
We used to have a choice whether to engage in the racket around us. We could walk away from it. Or we could turn it off or lower it so it became background, not foreground. Now, we seem resigned to letting the numbing noise muffle our "still, small voice," one that was always hard to hear, anyway.
To rescue ourselves from the racket, we can carry our own portable Cones of Silence (the device that spies used on the old "Get Smart" TV series to ensure their privacy), but that would be clumsy--as well as misconstrued as rude and impolite. The alternative is to cultivate our own inner Cone of Silence through a discipline that enhances our awareness of what goes on around us even as we keep a certain psychic distance from it. That doesn't mean we tune it out, only that we don't become fully invested or absorbed in it. We hear the sounds but do not let them become our sounds; we see the TV images, but know there's a world--a real world, the true world--beyond them. It means being ourselves and hearing ourselves even as we see and hear the world, and even as we know that the world is being itself, good and bad, true and false.
That's hard to pull off but enormously worthwhile. Doing it can help us detect our own nuances and subtleties, the quiet stuff of our lives that gets swallowed by all the babble. Not doing it leaves us at the mercy of the chatterboxes and boom boxes--and that, in turn, leaves us open to the 'round the clock din that defines us when, in truth, only we can define ourselves.