It's the place between words, a slight pause before listening and after talking: silence. Poets and philosophers have fallen in love with the idea of what is left unsaid: the space where nothing exists but the shapeless abyss.
Sometimes defined a deafening void, silence is an art. It comes with its own grammar: forging words that go with any sound or message is no trivial thing. Silence is a dynamic and ever changing force. It's been revealed through the study of magnetic resonance that our brain is able to hear silence and it anticipates the sound.
In fact, during a pause, our cortical auditory areas are primed and lay in wait of a sound. If silence is an art, it was an artist who shared his intuition about its sound. In 1952, with his composition 4'33", John Cage offered three whole movements without playing one single note. More than music, Cage's revolutionary concept was in demonstrating what a beautiful instrument our mind is. For a full 4 minutes and 33 seconds, the pianist sat without touching one single key.
During that time, the audience could listen to the silence. This meant anticipating a melody and, with ears primed, paying attention to all the small creaks and noises inside the music hall, normally covered by the music -- whispers, yawns, someone coughing, and the distant murmurs seeping in from the street. Cage wanted to prove that absolute silence doesn't exist. Even in a perfectly insulated space, we can hear the beat of our own heart. His point was to demonstrate that our lives are immersed in a sound continuum. "Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."
But if it's technically true that even silence has a sound, it is also true that silence has its place.
- As a useful tool in negotiating -- well timed, thoughtful silence during contract or pricing negotiations can make the difference in gaining the upper hand.
- As a legal protection -- as spelled out in the Miranda "you have the right to remain silent..."
- As an inner quality -- in spiritual practices for transformative and integral growth.
- As a reverential gesture -- to show respect to a person.
Water will not be the only resource in scarce supply, silence will too. From Silent Night to Simon and Garfunkel's Sound of Silence and Deep Purple's Hush, we've been humming about silence in pop culture. We also learned about the wisdom of silence in popular sayings like "silence is golden" while we're still figuring out how to be still. We're greeted by a stony silence after an argument, and we've occasionally enjoyed the peace and quiet of a relaxing moment.