In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise

I have just finished In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise by George Prochnik. It took me many days to read this book because of all the noisy distractions, and noise is anathema to concentration.

Before I talk about the book, let me say a little about my motivation behind reading this book: my brother. It’s amazing how much noise is made by my brother alone. When he is not at home, the house becomes silent (except when my dad is watching TV). I wanted to understand why so many people, my brother being a prime example, are in pursuit of noise these days. It’s almost as if he cannot stand the silence. When he is not playing music out loud (on his phone or tablet or whatever), he is whistling or singing. When he is not whistling or singing, he is playing his recorder, electric piano or saxophone. When he is not physically producing or playing any music, he is playing games that are noisy. When he is not playing games that are noisy, he is watching TV with my dad (so there is already enough noise in the room). When I tell him to be quiet, he would sometimes yap back: “This is my own mouth, you can’t tell me what to do with it.” or something like that, and I would just be too angry and exasperated to reply.

Maybe he has the rights to use his mouth to sing or whistle, but my ears certainly have their rights too, don’t they? Not to mention the fact that he can shut his mouth, but I can’t shut my ears.

OK, enough of this loud complaining. Now, a little about the book 🙂

This book documents the journey of the author as he traveled through the U.S. and abroad and met many different people to talk about sound, silence, noise, and other related topics (like the latest soundproofing technology, boom cars, and the music design of Abercrombie & Fitch). It reads a little like a travel journal, and a little like an investigatory report. I enjoyed this journey with the author, and learned a lot about “sound” in general. However, I wish Prochnik would develop his conclusion a little more, linger on his thoughts a bit longer. That is: less description, more reflection. That would have made the book more worth the while, and also, a lot shorter. (As Sheikh Hamza Yusuf once said, many books published today could be rewritten in a much more concise manner.)

The larger point of the book, I think, is that silence is essential for personal (perhaps spiritual) growth, which is important for the amelioration of the larger human civilization. Although Prochnik didn’t delve into the subject too much, noise IS affecting the structure of our brains, and that is the point that I’m really interested in. This is consistent with the thesis of The Shallows, which is that the usage of the Internet, an inherently distracting tool, is altering the way our brain works. Noise is definitely a form of distraction, perhaps one that is on par with the Internet for many people (say, those who listen to their iPods constantly). And when distractions enter our lives, we become unable to concentrate for a long time, the ability to do which a prerequisite for deep thinking and reflection.

However, as Prochnik very insightfully pointed out in his conclusion, the negative effect of the lack of silence is not just a reduced ability to contemplate, but also ignorant egocentrism (although both lead to less “understanding”). This is so because most of the noise problem today is not caused by machines by people who actually crave noise. Take the people who constantly listen to music, or people who leave the TV on most of the time even if they’re not watching it: What they’re trying to do is to have one stream of sounds overwhelming all the other sounds both exterior and interior to themselves. Why do they do that? I don’t know, maybe they are unhappy people who are afraid to face their inner thoughts (thoughts like “What is the purpose of life?”). In any case, the result of their action is that they are encased in their own little worlds, unable to hear, to see, to understand the larger world. Being in nature naked of distractions is the most effective way to break that shield, but unfortunately, most people today do not even have the luxury of nature. The best available option is to try to free oneself of these distractions and immerse oneself in relative silence from time to time. But first of all, do people want to do this? And are people able to do this?

I don’t know about everyone, but I know that for myself, I want some silence, and to a certain extent, thanks to my environment, I do have the ability to find silence from time to time. What happens when you don’t hear or see the world other than the artificial one that you create for yourself, which blocks you from seeing anything but yourself? From the perspective of the Qur’an, you would then become similar to disbelievers and hypocrites in quality, who have no understanding of the truth. In the second surah (chapter) of the Qur’an, Allah describes the disbelievers (remarkably briefly) and the hypocrites, who are worse than the disbelievers:

  • Indeed, those who disbelieve – it is all the same for them whether you warn them or do not warn them – they will not believe.
  • Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil. And for them is a great punishment.
  • And of the people are some who say, “We believe in Allah and the Last Day,” but they are not believers.
  • They [think to] deceive Allah and those who believe, but they deceive not except themselves and perceive [it] not.
  • In their hearts is disease, so Allah has increased their disease; and for them is a painful punishment because they [habitually] used to lie.
  • And when it is said to them, “Do not cause corruption on the earth,” they say, “We are but reformers.”
  • Unquestionably, it is they who are the corrupters, but they perceive [it] not.
  • And when it is said to them, “Believe as the people have believed,” they say, “Should we believe as the foolish have believed?” Unquestionably, it is they who are the foolish, but they know [it] not.
  • And when they meet those who believe, they say, “We believe”; but when they are alone with their evil ones, they say, “Indeed, we are with you; we were only mockers.”
  • [But] Allah mocks them and prolongs them in their transgression [while] they wander blindly.
  • Those are the ones who have purchased error [in exchange] for guidance, so their transaction has brought no profit, nor were they guided.
  • Their example is that of one who kindled a fire, but when it illuminated what was around him, Allah took away their light and left them in darkness [so] they could not see.
  • Deaf, dumb and blind – so they will not return [to the right path].
  • Or [it is] like a rainstorm from the sky within which is darkness, thunder and lightning. They put their fingers in their ears against the thunderclaps in dread of death. But Allah is encompassing of the disbelievers.
  • The lightning almost snatches away their sight. Every time it lights [the way] for them, they walk therein; but when darkness comes over them, they stand [still]. And if Allah had willed, He could have taken away their hearing and their sight. Indeed, Allah is over all things competent.

Qur’an 2:7-2:20

This is a very powerful passage. In it, three types of perceptions are mentioned: hearing, sight, and “heart”. They are all related in that what the hearing and the sight take in could affect the condition of the heart. The ears and the eyes are the area where knowledge comes in, but where ignorance also comes in. When the ears and the eyes are open to the haram, the heart has no place for the halal. But when the ears and the eyes are open to the halal, the heart also has no place for the haram (please c.f. this lecture by Sheikh Hamza Yusuf). Most of what we take in through listening to pop songs is haram garbage that fill our heart, leaving it with no place for the Qur’an. And when you don’t hear and you don’t see the signs of Allah, you become heedless and you become lost, and your heart becomes rusted. And indeed, nature is the place that is the most full of the signs of God (a fact that is mentioned over and over again in the Qur’an), so by blocking these signs with the aural and visual noise from the TV, the iPod, and other distractions, we are depriving ourselves of the chance to become closer to Allah.

For example, imagine the sight of a simple, beautiful flower, swinging ever so slightly with the breeze. When you really see it, you become present in the world; you enter a state of harmony with the rest of Allah’s creation. That is the moment when one perceives something that is beyond the reach of any isolated philosophical contemplation.

Nature vs. Concept

One story from the book that impressed me a story where a deaf student at Gallaudet and a community member walked around together in the neighborhood to take some photographs. I’ll quote the student “Michael” directly:

What they wanted me to snap were objects that reflected the values of their community, but with no attention for the objects themselves. So they’d say, ‘Flowers are important to my community’—and then they’d guide me anywhere where the flowers were in the frame. I’d encourage them to take it from different angles—bird’s-eye view, from the right, the left, up, down, back and forth. I wanted to get them to take it from different perspectives—to see what it was and how it fit in with everything else in the church.

Prochnik commented that “Michael’s experience revealed the way that the community members were letting words and concepts blind them to the actual world they were standing in.” While Michael is present in the actual world, the community member lives somewhere between groups of concepts, stories, stored images, and only finally the actual world. In other words, while Michael sees everything in harmony, the community member sees everything as disparate objects.

This contrast is also one that I have experienced in my philosophical “loss of innocence,” as I turned from a human being synchronized with nature to one that is drown in a sea of philosophical concepts. It was only recently i.e. after one extremely stressful and exhausting semester full of academic philosophy, that I realized that you get philosophy from nature, not nature from philosophy (although how exactly I’m still not sure). If the order is messed up, the result is mental gymnastics, not inspiration.

In other words: “If the terrain and the map do not agree, follow the terrain.” Maps are extremely helpful. The problem arises when we start believing in the map more than the terrain. At that point, we’re practically blinded by the map. To not be blinded by the stories we tell ourselves, we need to become become “transparent eyeballs” and allow ourselves to be part of the grand narrative of nature. In other words, turn off that music.

Fundamental Frequency

By the way, it is interesting that “hearing” is always mentioned before “seeing” throughout the Qur’an. Maybe it signifies that hearing affects our hearts more directly than does seeing (after all, we can also just close our eyes), although I have the impression that most scholars suggest the opposite. Plato once said “Give me the music of a nation; I will change a nation’s mind.” The Ancients, clearly, understood just how much our ears are connected to our hearts.

There might also be another layer of significance in this word order: Perhaps we could perceive the truth better with our ears than our eyes. The idea seems to lie in the concept of “fundamental frequency”, which Prochnik described:

Every structure, organic and nonorganic, has a special frequency at which it naturally vibrates when energized into motion…  What makes for the fundamental frequency of a given object? That object’s mass and tension… An object’s fundamental frequency is a kind of naked snapshot of identity… what we’re straining for, even if only subconsciously, is the fundamental frequency.

The phrase “naked snapshot of identity” made me think of the term “essence”. Perhaps, the fundamental frequency expresses the essence of each object, and the only way we can perceive this expression of essence is through our faculty of hearing. This would seem to fit with the metaphysical theory that says that the building blocks of the universe understood as “physical” in the traditional sense are the main players in the structure and dynamics of of the universe, but these building blocks, understood in terms of their intrinsic nature or essence, create a space for that which is beyond the physical, for the hidden and the spiritual.

But then, fundamental frequency is still a physical phenomenon. But perhaps it is at the border of that which defines “physical” in the traditional sense, as most things are in physics nowadays. In any case, I don’t think I have ever heard the fundamental frequency of anything. My ears have been very distracted all my life, as I grew up in a noisy environment. But here is perhaps one example of an object’s fundamental frequency…

Recently, I received a forwarded email that mentioned pulsars, which are huge, “highly magnetized, rotating neutron stars that emit beams of radiation.” Other than being fascinated by its size and the strength of its radiation beams (apparently, “they can penetrate and puncture anything including the earth”), I was surprised to discover that these huge scary stars make rather simple sounds like the hammering or knocking. You can listen to the sounds of pulsars from Cornell University’s database:

(Recommended: B1933+16 and B2020+28)


The even more amazing thing is that, Allah apparently made an allusion to these stars in the Qur’an (86:1-3):

  • وَالسَّمَاءِ وَالطَّارِقِ / By the heavens, and At-Târiq (one who knocks at night);
  • وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا الطَّارِقُ / And what can make you know what At-Târiq is?
  • النَّجْمُ الثَّاقِبُ / (It is) the star of piercing (brightness);

The word ‘Tariq’ accurately reflects the audio waves of these stars—knocking sounds; and the word ‘Thaqib’ accurately reflects the output of these stars—penetrating waves. (sentence taken from the email)

If these verses really refer to the pulsars, then here again, we have the sound mentioned before the sight, a strong indication of their relative importance in terms of connection to the essence of things. Perhaps philosophers should start “listening” a little bit more.

Noise and Silence

Prochnik’s definitions of “noise” and “silence” at the end of his final chapter, I think, tie up this whole discussion very well. First, he quoted the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty as saying that perception is differentiation, while forgetting is nondifferentiation. Then, he described noise:

It might be enjoyable or not enjoyable, but noise is sound that makes us, for the time it’s there, cease to distinguish between the beings and objects outside us. Noise enables us to forget the larger world.

As for silence:

I would describe it as a particular equilibrium of sound and quiet that catalyzes our powers of perception. Quiet is distinguished because it enables differentiation, and the more we observe the distinction between things, the less mental space we have for our isolate selves. It’s not chance that even when we’re talking about quieting our own voices, we speak of ‘observing silence,’ as though just by being silent we create something to behold beyond the self.

Finally, I would just like to highlight something said by a Deaf individual mentioned in the book. I couldn’t find the exact quote but basically she remarked that the majority of human beings are born into an incredible opulence in terms of sensations. It was the word “opulence” that struck me. Indeed, it reminds one of an incidence in the life of al-Hasan al-Basri, who finally led a beggar to admit that the beggar himself is very rich indeed, being in possession of limbs and eyes that he wouldn’t trade for all the money in the world. And yet, it is very easy for us to forget the blessings of Allah (astaghfirullah, walhamdullilah). In Qur’an 23:78, Allah said to us: “It is He Who has created for you (the faculties of) hearing, sight, feeling and understanding: little thanks it is ye give!” It is often until we lose them that we really start appreciating these faculties—the case for many disabled people in the world. But with gratefulness, the disabled is also much closer to Allah, and Allah will certainly compensate their sufferings with Paradise if they remain patient.

A little du3a

May Allah help those who are inflicted with hardships; May Allah forgive us for being forgetful and ungrateful with regards to all the Mercy and Blessings that He has bestowed upon each of us; May Allah guide us to use our ears and our eyes to gain useful knowledge and to perceive His presence, and become ever closer to Him, ameen.

About sy2m

a student forever ... never stop seeking knowledge :)
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