These were the words we used at our kitchen table almost every night when my daughter was growing up. The practice started from our experience at a Quaker school in Rhode Island where I was the Upper School Division Director. In a Quaker school, we regularly experienced and practiced silence. Starting a faculty meeting with a moment of silence or weekly ‘meetings for worship’ with 450 Upper School faculty and students, in which the silence was intermittently punctuated by a voice sharing a query or a thought, helped me appreciate the power and significance of silence in community with others. In these quiet moments, you could hear the sounds of people breathing, and learn to listen for the subtle sounds that dance through a room of thinking people.
Silence, time to listen to sounds we don’t know exist, is a rare experience in our fast-paced, hectic and chaotic world. What would school be like if we taught children to listen in silence to the world they inhabit? As they became sensitized to the myriad of sounds would they learn to filter out the penetrating noise and distractions, paying closer attention to their natural surroundings? Would they learn to listen more actively or pay attention to the thoughts and ideas of others? In a sense, would they rediscover the virtue of patience. I wonder.
Krista Tippett interviewed Gordon Hempton (@ghempton), author, researcher and founder of The One Square Inch of Silence Foundation (click here for the link to the interview). He studies acoustic ecology, which is the study of the relationship, mediated through sound, between human beings and their environment. He has spent his life documenting places in the world where natural sounds intermix to create a world of beauty, the beauty of sound.
Tippett asks: I want to talk about the language of silence and sound, natural silence. You sometimes use it when you talk about these very few places…
Hempton replies: Natural silence, natural quiet.
Tippett elaborate on her question: ..quiet places where natural silence reigns over many miles. And as you said a minute ago — you say this a lot — it’s not absence. It’s not a vacuum or an emptiness. This kind of silence is presence and it includes sound, right?
Hampton replies: Oh, yeah. It’s not the absence of sound. I think a physicist will tell you that true silence does not exist, not on planet Earth with an atmosphere and oceans. When I speak of silence, I often use it synonymously with quiet. I mean silence from modern life, silence from all these sounds that have nothing to do with the natural acoustic system, which is busy communicating. Wildlife are as busy communicating as we are, but it’s not just messages coming from wildlife. I can name some that have been really transformative in my personal life. But it’s also the experience of place, what it means to be in a place. (emphasis is mine)
Silence is not the absence of sound, it is an experience in which the listener becomes attune to a place. So attuned or aligned that the “natural acoustic system” becomes alive. How might we teach our students to experience this kind of silence? If we found ways to teach it or have them experience it, might they become more aware and sensitive to their natural surroundings. Learning to listen and be comfortable with silence is a gift.
In response to a question about a place where he experiences his “center of gravity,”
Hempton replies: But I found the sound that I enjoyed most was the sound of the silence in the volcano. The measurement of decibels actually goes into the minus point, but there still is a sense of presence, of where you are. Then once you get over the rim of the volcano, you begin to pick up what I call the mantra of the islands, and that’s the distant beating of that drum called the Pacific Ocean.
What a beautiful reflection on the meaning and power of place!
When my daughter was growing up, not only did we begin dinner with a moment of silence, but we also introduced this idea of “quiet time.” Quiet time in our family was when we all engaged in our work or play in silence. Sometimes it would last for 15 minutes, while other times it would go on for what seemed like hours. What I realize as I reflect on my daughter’s need for and comfort with silence as an adult is that she learned early on that silence could be her friend. She learned not to be afraid of silence. I wonder if her finely honed skills of listening to others is related to her early experiences with silence as a friend.
Quietness is a gift! Let’s learn to befriend it, understand it and incorporate it into our daily lives and our work with students in school. I believe we can support the work of Hampton to preserve our natural acoustic systems if we learn to value silence.
Joy of Quiet, by Pico Iyer, New York Times, December 29, 2011