A new book on what silence is and how it can enrich us

Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise was published in May.note

Before I read a speech by Justin Zorn and Lee Mars “Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise,” I tried to let myself sit comfortably for a moment. This is silence. I wasn’t aiming for a meaningful silence, I just wanted to see what would happen if I tried to embrace the calm. Almost immediately, I played some music, a podcast, or scrolled through any of the many apps on my phone. Nothing distracts me from myself.

This was not surprising. I’ve always been someone who prefers humming background noises, whether while cooking, cleaning, or getting ready for bed. Sleeps? Don’t worry, I don’t have one but two white noise machines that work really hard. Even while swimming, I have a waterproof iPod shuffle and headphones that allow me to flip through the music while I do my laps. The silence was not something I enjoyed but actively resisted.

There was a part of me that didn’t want to read “Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise,” didn’t want to hear the mischief I was doing to myself by isolating myself in a semi-permanent cocoon of sound. But pushing that kind of resistance and discomfort is the goal of this column, which is devoted to self-help books. So I settled down, tried to move my doubts aside, and started reading. Spoiler: I loved it.

Zorn and Marz’s book is sometimes a guide, sometimes a scholarly exploration of what we mean when we say “silent,” and sometimes a socio-political analysis of what it means to live in a world with so much noise. It begins with the basic concepts of noise versus silence, and the science behind silence. Subsequent sections invite readers to reflect on mysticism in a silent practice, and how these practices can affect families and friends. Finally, it touches on public policy and cultural change. It’s tough for a single book, and the authors have talked to so many people and incorporated so many different points of view on the subject that sometimes it can get confusing. But this comprehensive approach worked for me, perhaps because it offered so many ways to identify and think about noise and silence and the ways in which they interact.

Take the concept of silence. Rather than providing a single definition, Zorn, who has served as a policy advisor and meditation educator for the US Congress, and Marz, a collaboration consultant and leadership coach, offer scattered thoughts from the interviewees. Zen priests, ministers, venerables, poets and neuroscientists, a death row prisoner. Silence means something different to each of them, and the authors invite you to take what works for you. Zorn and Marz insist that the power of thinking, the ability to listen, a sense of accomplishment and purpose – silence can be all that and more. The hard part is learning how to find it, and knowing how to keep it.

The section entitled “A Field Guide to Silence” offers some nice and easy suggestions for getting a bit of mindful silence into your day. These are things you’ve probably heard before – making a ritual out of a small daily task, while spending a few minutes in nature. But it also includes some advice that may seem counterproductive at first – like making friends with the noise, and letting it become something you feel in control of, not mad at.

My favorite parts of this book are the ones that look at the ways silence works as culture changes. What is the place of silence in the work of justice? Zorn and Marz asks. They do not assume the answer to the question. Instead, they argue, “the silence that is total complacency is not silence in the true sense of the word, because refusing to recognize and process abuse is the polar opposite of clear perception and intent.” Silence as they see it, cannot be a refusal to awaken, because the kind of silence in which they believe is, in essence, the awakening of the self in the truest sense of the word.

For me, it’s still a work in progress. I can’t imagine I’ll be able to swim in silence anytime soon, knowing that sleeping in silence is simply out of the question. But I think I will be able to find my own type of silence more easily. I hope to be a little slower playing the podcast, sitting back and enjoying the sense of peace as I listen to the hum of my housemates, and the cheerful screams of the children in the building. I managed to write this without playing the music, and that’s a start, right?

Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise

By Justin Zorn and Lee Mars, Harper Wave, $28.99.

Christina Tucker lives in Philadelphia and writes for Autostraddle, Elle, Vogue, Teen Vogue, and NBC News’ Think. She did the podcast as the fourth head of NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour.”