The Cacophony of Silence
By Elonne Stockton
I just arrived in New York City, the first leg of my trip to the States. As I lie in bed, jetlagged, with traffic noise outside,I am reminded of John Cage’s comment from 1991 that “The silence almost everywhere in the world now is traffic.” In an earlier essay from 1937 he said, “Wherever we are, whatever we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.”
Traffic is the underlying sound for the majority, and it has a very different frequency and resonance from the frogs and crickets back at my apartment in Thailand. When I lived in NYC I found the sound of cars and trucks outside my window almost comforting, and I could sleep through anything. Now I am acutely aware of its negative effect on my nervous system.
As I drift off, I deconstruct the noise. Although we label traffic as one word, it is not one noise, but rather countless noises: car horns, squeaky brakes, noisy motors, police whistles and threats, pedestrians laughing, pedestrians fighting, random singing of pop songs I am not familiar with . . .My worries, nonsensical thoughts and all of the residue from the day begin to fade. Paul and Tiwariji’s advice and instructions echo in my heart. My cells buzz with the infinitesounds. The exhaustion takes me.I am gone.
Sitting for pranayama the next morning, even at 4am the sound of traffic rustles outside. Starlings, doves, pigeons and sparrows wake up. Some never seem to have gone to sleep. As I sit,the day dawns, and the traffic amplifies, the noise beginning to overpower the birds. I tune in to inner sounds. My heart beats to the rythym of the city that never sleeps. All the while people outside bow and pray “to the neon god they made,” while the sign whispers.
Later I head to the East Village to meet an old friend for lunch. I find a sunny spot to wait on the platform for the 1 train, 54 feet above 125th Street. Mantras and memories play in my head, both coming from distant places. Early April gusts of wind sting my ears and turn the streets and avenues into instruments.
On the train, a young Asian woman mouths the lines to a speech or monologue withconfidant anticipation. A teenage boy grooves to the drums spilling out of his earphones. A sharply dressed businessman looks out into the darkened subway tunnels, loudly crunching numbers in his head. A woman holds a laughing toddler, who soon turns into a squealing toddler. Two lovers on a lunch break, holding hands, silently communicating with each other. Two deaf men sitting across from each other, sign stridently, fully engaged in a heated conversation.
The city is a deafening cacophony.
Indian sciences refer to silence as anahata nada. Tantra calls it the para, pasyanti and madhyama, which come before the vaikharih stage of heard sound. Everything is sound, or as John Cage said, “There is no such thing as silence.”
From audible noises to those that are beyond our range of hearing. From the words that come out of our mouths to the inner dialogues that continue to shape our personality. Some words we try to understand with our heads, but all the words and soundsfind their way into our hearts, and move into a deeper, cellular level. Everything plays together, making up who we are and creating the tone of our environment.
While all sounds are equally valid, some have the power to heal and other sounds have the power to harm and cause discord. What is the quality of our sound? How much do we contribute to the noise pollution with our actions, words, gestures, thoughts?