Silence, Please, I’m Healing
The naked body, given the right circumstances, can sound as vast as a continent.
I’m afloat on my back in a foot of water so thick with Epsom salt, it’s almost viscous. My nose, mouth, eyes, and breasts hover above the salty syrup; the rest of my body is submerged, including my plugged ears. This strange, pleasant hovering is courtesy of Just Float, a facility in Pasadena, California, with 11 sensory-deprivation tanks, making it, according to the company, the largest float-therapy center in the world. Just Float claims these pools have healing properties, including relief from the nebulous sufferings of anxiety, depression, and insomnia. My pool, set in an aqua-hued chamber 8 feet long, 7 feet tall, and 5 feet wide, has one way out: a heavy door like a submarine’s, currently locked from the inside. After the New Age music and soft lighting extinguish themselves — both are designed to ease you in for the first five minutes — I have to figure out how to exist in this tiny wetland, in pitch-black silence, for an hour and 20 minutes. The urge to create noise immediately nags at me. I tap my ringed finger against the side, relishing the percussion. I push off the walls. I brand the air with my voice: I don’t speak words, I just hum. It’s thick and melodic, but also horrible in the stillness.
After a while, though, I begin to discover the dominion of self — or the self’s obliteration, it’s hard to tell. Whatever is happening, it’s making a racket. Every time I blink, each eyelash makes its own individual scrape against skin; every cooperative stroke of muscle creaks like a suspension bridge. My hair is fanned out mermaid-style under the water; I rake my fingers across my scalp, and it sounds lusciously geologic, like tectonic plates shifting and grinding. With each big in-out breath, wind rushes over glaciers, brooked by nothing.
This experiment in flotation is my first attempt to test the curative potential of quiet. Wellness has always been fixated on shutting out The Noise — whether that’s the pesky chatter in our heads, the rants of social media, or the cacophony of the city. And shutting it out is an extremely lucrative business. The wellness industry, according to the nonprofit Global Wellness Institute, is a nearly $3.5 trillion market, more than three times larger than the worldwide pharmaceutical industry. It seems we like silent retreats, green juice, neck rubs, and yoga even better than pills. California, with its ambition to create a healthful New Age utopia, is one of Big Wellness’s thriving hubs.
But can listening to stillness — whether in whispered mantras, the lapping water of a flotation tank, or the rhythm of breath during acupuncture — heal the wounds of modern life? Hand in hand with my own stresses and afflictions, I’m going to test a few options to find out.
Technically, silence is the absence of sound waves, or the presence of sound waves that are above or below our auditory range. John Biguenet, author of the book Silence, says that it mirrors another well-known concept. “It’s a lot like zero,” Biguenet says, “in that it’s an extremely useful construct,” but one that’s hard for us to grasp. “It’s literally a measure of our inability to perceive.” To see how close I can get to silence, I arrange a visit to an anechoic chamber.
The anechoic chamber, a room insulated so that sound waves are absorbed and there’s no echo, is the most perfect vessel of silence that we have. It’s also the ultimate amplification of our bodies hard at work. When John Cage exited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University in 1951, a year before composing his famous silent piece, 4'33", he told the engineer that he had heard two sounds inside: a high-pitched one and a lower one. “The high one was your nervous system in operation,” the engineer told him. “The low one was your blood in circulation.” Cage realized that true silence is impossible to experience — a revelation that turned into one of the bedrocks of his artistic practice.
A handful of chambers exist around the country — the most state-of-the-art is at the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington (the quietest place on earth, according to the Guinness World Records). Today, my husband and I are visiting the chamber at Cooper Union in Manhattan; the Vibration and Acoustics laboratory’s 520-cubic-square-foot box is used to conduct studies about reverberation and instrument design, among other topics.
Before we enter the box-within-a-box, mechanical engineering professor Melody Baglione reads the decibel levels in the lab with a meter. At her chipper voice, the instrument perks up to nearly 70 decibels. Baglione says that a suburban bedroom is probably 42 to 45, while a quiet library would be 30 to 35.
She takes a full balloon and pops it. In the tiled room, the echo clatters around and takes several seconds to decay. She asks us to remember the balloon’s long demise.
Inside the chamber, with wedges of fiberglass behind our backs, the meter plummets to 17 — but that number doesn’t begin to describe the claustrophobic air. Blood rushes at my eardrums. My balance teeters. Internally, there’s a small scrambling to reclaim equilibrium. The “floor” of grated metal, showing more fiberglass peaks below, is disorienting, but not as disorienting as the vanished echo. Our voices suddenly sound clipped and dead.
Baglione sacrifices another balloon. The pop, which is more like a click, is tight and contained. It’s as if the sound erased itself immediately.
A few minutes later, my husband and I are alone in the chamber, sitting gingerly on the grates in opposite corners, zoning out. The ragged catch of my breath is noticeable as my ears tune around the space. I wait for the overwhelming churn of my circulatory system, a sound that, as legend has it, can drive a person to hallucinations within 45 minutes. I do perceive a high-pitched hum, but I remember that Baglione said the institution’s servers are in the room above, and I wonder if I’m hearing my own blood or the digital life force of the building.
Later, at lunch, my husband speaks of finding peace in the chamber, while I’m left chilled. Silence, after all, is a shape-shifter. In language, it can be cut with a knife, or be the weapon itself. It’s one of the most commodified of luxuries, and one of the harshest of punishments. White torture, an extreme form of sensory deprivation that has been used on prisoners in Iran, calls for silence or only white noise, as well as no colors (including in the food), no natural light, and underground cells. Why is silence sometimes presumed to heal us, sometimes to harm?
On a recent Sunday at InsightLA, a nonprofit organization devoted to mindfulness, co-director and founding teacher Trudy Goodman Kornfield and her husband, the Zen Buddhist author Jack Kornfield, conduct a session of meditation and discussion for a well-heeled Santa Monica crowd. At one point, Jack shares a story about monks in 1960s Bangkok stepping silently between warring factions of the government and student protesters, which halted the fighting for a few days. The story makes clear who the heroes are and meditation’s potential: Monks and even weekend dabblers have the ability to bring about peace in the world. It’s a sentiment echoed by particle physicist John Hagelin, the president of the David Lynch Foundation, the filmmaker’s organization for promoting Transcendental Meditation. Hagelin writes on the TM website that “most people don’t know how deeply their own consciousness is connected to the collective fate of the planet — or how they can use a powerful, scientifically tested technology of consciousness to help create world peace on Earth virtually overnight.”
Meditation might be one of last vestiges of religious life accepted by the secular, and retreats selling weekend- or week-long meditation have become a competitive business. There are many of these getaways located within a day’s drive of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, which have the whiff of a woodsier conference center or a quasi-spiritual nature womb for birthing an executive’s billion-dollar idea. When Don Draper visits Esalen in the final episode of Mad Men, he’s struck by an idea for a brilliant advertising campaign; stories of these creative lightning bolts abound in entrepreneur circles.
There is some evidence that silence can help a professional achieve creative flow. Neuroscientist Judson Brewer, a longtime meditator and Buddhist whose Yale University laboratory has studied the effects of meditation and mindfulness, discovered that when we meditate, parts of the brain deactivate — areas that have been implicated in disorders such as anxiety, attention-deficit, hyperactivity, and Alzheimer’s disease. In other words, your brain is benefiting from a time-out. But silence is merely a conducive environment; Brewer says the same benefits can be achieved with a screaming baby nearby. “We can either fight with the sound or we befriend it,” Brewer said. “The sound isn’t the problem — you’re the problem, by getting caught up in it.”
In the confines of InsightLA, with master teachers meditating beside you, the calm feels potent and transferable. When one of the meditators asks in the discussion hour how he, one man, can possibly shift a violent world, Jack Kornfield says that one person’s practice ripples outward. That it is a feeling, a patience, that you carry into the world. Afterward, I think of myself quietly radiating peace to each person I drive by. But, as always, that calm inner flame dwindles after a few hours as the patterns of life retake their hold.
Historically, silence has been associated with the most reverent, disciplined forms of religion. The Rules of Saint Benedict, of which silence is a major tenet, were written around 530 A.D., and monasteries following the precepts became widespread across Europe in the ninth century. By the 14th century, the German mystic Meister Eckhart noted that “nothing is so like God as silence.”
I decide to try the religious route by escaping to the New Camaldoli Hermitage for a weekend of silence. New Camaldoli, in Big Sur, is a community of Roman Catholic monks living in the Benedictine monastic tradition. For them, silence and contemplation are two lifelines to God.
The monastery, however, also attracts tourists. Within minutes of my arrival, one woman loudly asks me where to park. As I wander the grounds, an Italian tourist and his two children run by screaming merrily. Mistaking me for an employee, they ask if I can reopen the monastery bookstore.
Irritated, I duck into the chapel, where there’s a service in session. A dozen or so monks in white robes sing a psalm, facing one another in two rows. Behind each row is a section of pews where retreatants and pilgrims gather, thumbing through hymnals. The dying light of the day is stained yellow by the glass. At the end of the service, the monks lead us into a rotunda with an altar in the center. We shut our eyes.
Silence with a group of people has a different pulse than lone silence. At its most still point, it operates on a sense that each person is reinforcing the next person’s efforts, that you’re bonded in wordless cooperation. It can take years to let silence exist with a loved one, but in collective silence you strike that intimacy immediately.
Over the next two days, I spend hours in silence, walking the grounds, sleeping in my room, attending services where the brothers sing in harmony, their heads bowed, before walking back to their humble apartments. I am in awe of their hushed, reverent fellowship. Still, it’s a pleasure and a relief on Sunday, after 11 a.m. Mass, to see them gather for a social lunch — laughing and teasing one another about who’s going to eat all the pie. The noise doesn’t feel out of place. Like the bond of the brothers, the silence at New Camaldoli isn’t remotely toxic or totalitarian. It’s pliable and resilient. I break it several times with brief conversations — with friendly faces in the communal kitchen and with one of the oblates. Silence isn’t so fragile, I find: It can be ruptured and just as easily reinstated. I had worried that it was like a wild animal that would scare and vanish at the presence of a human. But when I drive home at the end of the weekend, the silence is still there, alive and unwieldy.