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

“Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise” was published in May.handout

Before I read a word from Justin Zorn and Leigh Marz’s “Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise,” I tried to let myself sit comfortably in a moment of it. Silence, that is. I wasn’t aiming for a meaningful silence, I just wanted to see what would happen if I tried to embrace quiet. Almost immediately, I itched to turn on some music, or a podcast, or scroll through any of the many apps on my phone. Anything to distract me from… myself.

This was not surprising. I have always been a person who prefers the hum of background noise, whether while I’m cooking, cleaning, or getting ready for bed. sleep? Don’t worry, I have not one but two white noise machines hard at work. Even while swimming, I have a waterproof iPod shuffle and headphones that allow me to cycle through music as I do my laps. Silence hasn’t been something I enjoyed but something I actively resisted.

There was part of me that didn’t want to read “Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise,” didn’t want to hear what disservice I was doing myself by insulating myself in a semi-permanent cocoon of sound. But pushing through that type of resistance and discomfort is what this column, devoted to self-help books, is for. So I settled in, tried to move my skepticism to the side, and started to read. Spoiler: I loved it.

Zorn and Marz’s book is at times a guide, at times a scientific exploration of what we mean when we say “silent,” and at times a sociopolitical analysis of what it means to live in a world with so much noise. It begins with the basic concepts of noise vs. silence, and the science behind silence. Subsequent sections invite readers to contemplate the 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 a tall order for one book, and the authors talked to so many people and include so many different viewpoints on the subject that at times it can feel overwhelming. But this all-encompassing approach worked for me, maybe because it provided so many ways to define and think about noise and silence and the ways they interact.

Take the concept of silence. Instead of offering one definition, Zorn, who has worked as a policy adviser and a meditation teacher in the US Congress, and Marz, a collaboration consultant and leadership coach, provide a scattering of reflections from the people they interviewed. Zen priests, ministers and reverends, poets and neuroscientists, a prisoner on death row. Silence means something different to each, and the authors invite you to take the one that works for you. The power of reflection, the capacity to listen, the sense of fulfillment and purpose — silence can be all of that and more, Zorn and Marz insists. The hard part is learning how to find it, and figuring out how to keep it.

The section titled “A Field Guide for Silence” provides some gentle, easy suggestions for carving out a bit of mindful silence in your day. These are the things you may have heard before — making a ritual out of a small everyday task, taking a few minutes in nature. But they also include some tips that can seem counterproductive at first — like making friends with noise, allowing it to become something you feel in control of, not agitated by.

My favorite parts of this book are the ones that consider the ways silence functions as culture changes. “What is the place of wordlessness in the work of justice?” Zorn and Marz ask. They don’t presume to answer the question. Instead, they argue that “silence that is close-lipped complacency is not silence in the truest sense, because the refusal to perceive and address abuse is the polar opposite of clear perception and intention.” Silence as they see it, cannot be a refusal to wake up, because the kind of silence they believe in is, at their core, waking up the self in the truest sense of the word.

As for me, I am still a work in progress. I can’t imagine I’ll be able to swim in silence anytime soon, and I know sleeping in silence is simply out of the question. But I think I’ll be able to find my own kind of silence a little more easily. I hope to be a little slower to turn on a podcast, to sit and enjoy the sense of peace as I listen to the hum of my housemates bustling around, the gleeful yelling of the kids on the block. I managed to write this without turning on music, and hey, that’s a start, right?

GOLDEN: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise

By Justin Zorn and Leigh Marz, Harper Wave, $28.99.

Christina Tucker lives in Philadelphia and writes for Autostraddle, Elle, Vogue, Teen Vogue, and NBC News’ Think. She podcasts as a fourth chair on NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour.”

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