Remember when coffee shops were the bohemian or introvert hangouts? Thanks to Starbucks and the $5 cup of coffee, the scene is a place to, well, be seen AND heard. It’s everyone’s hangout. More like a 50s malt shop than a setting for poetry readings. I miss the introspective and muted atmosphere.
Last week I had two and a half hours to kill every day while my daughter was in art camp. I thought, Great! I can take along my laptop and read and write in the closest coffee shop. The closest shop with wi-fi turned out to be a Starbucks. Admittedly, I prefer Starbuck’s soy chai latte to everyone else’s, but I would have thrown back a latte made by Sanka if I had known I was going to have to endure the school cafeteria atmosphere at this place. I half expected a food fight (adults throwing scones?) to break out. Everyone was so loud I could hear conversations through my deeply inserted ear plugs. Real estate agents talked shop- $900k contemporary housing… my client said this… just need a motivated buyer– and beauty product experts compared notes- my face felt so tight…now look at the moisturizer on page 54 …ooh that would look great on you… Air kiss, air kiss. Insert eye rolling here.
Yes, I’m a quiet snob. I like it pure and I like it high quality. And it’s nearly impossible to find.
Every place in the world has begun to sound the same: like traffic.
~ Gordon Hempton
According to Leslee Goodman’s article Quiet Please in The Sun Magazine, acoustic ecologist, Gordon Hempton, believes there are fewer than a dozen places in the United States – and none in Europe- where you can sit for twenty minutes during the day without hearing a plane fly over or some other noise from human activity. Hempton has spent more than twenty-five years traveling the world recording the vanishing sounds of nature. He is on a mission to find and secure quiet places that create a shift within; a shift from noisy distraction to peaceful presence.
Hempton believes, Silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything.
The Benefits of Silence to Humans
A 1996 study that involved high academic achievers showed that a quiet house often led to better scholastic performance. When the high achievers (all members of the academic honor society, Phi Beta Kappa) were asked to describe their childhood homes, the majority of them were places where quiet was respected. Parents reprimanded with calm voices and disapproving looks. Televisions and stereos were not on during meals. The children were given quiet places to study, read and think.
A study published in 2009 demonstrated that a quiet walk through nature has the same effect as medication on children with ADHD.
Stillness helps us let go of to-do lists and mental gymnastics. According to Hempton, our inner environment mirrors the external. If we live in a noisy, chaotic city or suburb then our mental chatter is amped up as well. Our busy minds struggle to process all the outside stimulation. Quiet makes space for coherence. Our ears sigh from relief and become open to softer sounds. Our thoughts slow down. Words transform to feelings.
Other research (mentioned by Hempton in Quiet Please) shows people are less likely to help each other in noisy environments. Noise detaches us from ourselves and other people. Could it be that kindness is easier to express when the volume is turned down? Why not? Aren’t we friendlier when we are relaxed?
I remember stepping inside the cool stillness of a church sanctuary in Madrid. We left the hustle and bustle of the hot daytime street and entered the dim hushed cathedral. At first my mind and ears continued to buzz with noise and mind-bantering but after sitting in the back pew for twenty minutes or so, I noticed my breathing slow. My thoughts became less rapid and the body language of my family changed. Their posture loosened and their eyes stopped frantically scanning the horizon. Tension abated. We were in harmony with our surroundings. I could have stayed there for hours.
I feel the same way about the silent practice of meditation. A few (or 30) minutes of mental ricocheting and then an alignment between breath and spirit occurs. I experience a sense of floating in silence while following a natural rhythm.
How Love of Quiet Places Can Save the Planet
The noisiest natural environment (one free of man-made mechanics) is still much quieter than the majority of human environments. Though nature-based atmospheres are our best bet for a pure quiet
experience, there are some human-generated sounds that blend well with the out-of-doors. Hempton lists baby coos, footsteps and the Hawaiian slack-key guitar (the instrument’s slow tempo reflects its easy-going love-of-outside lifestyle). He also mentions folk music for its penchant to sing about love for a place rather than a person. Think John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High or Joni Mitchell‘s Big Yellow Taxi.
Natural silence allows us to fall in love with a place because we experience ourselves deeply within that quiet. We are completely present. We attach to the surroundings, ourselves and each other. Remember the detachment research where people were less helpful in a noisy environment. Through our love for a quiet place we find love of everything. Helping something or someone we love is effortless.
There is a passage in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden where Thoreau (alone in the woods next to Walden Pond) spends his whole day observing a battle between two ants on a tree stump. The quiet is so freeing, he takes an interest in and feels empathy for ants!
The Rare Quiet Place (Not Starbucks)
As I type up this piece, saws buzz, drills whine, hammers pound and a large truck beeps and growls. We are putting an addition onto our house. Our kids are irritable and my creativity eeks out in fits and starts. I worry about the neighbors’ reactions and my introverted psyche. Besides the ten other people crawling outside and within our home, the noise is enough to scramble my brain forever. My nerves echo the jagged and square-toothed sound waves the machinery is emitting. If I only had a nice sound-proofed room all to myself where I could sip some tea (and avoid Starbucks). Oh wait, I WILL have a room to myself (no soundproofing but the location is ultra-private) in just a few more nerve jangling weeks. Ironically, a portion of the abrasive construction noise will result in a she-cave/sanctuary for me. It will be a dream space where I plan to soak in silence and experience the presence of everything.
Until then, here are some other gloriously still places to retreat to:
Bookstores with nooks and crannies
A handful of old-school coffee houses
Library (although they are not the hushed zones they used to be)
Interior of a car on a long drive
Cabin up north
Grocery store late at night
Backyard deck at twilight
Cemetery (Rest In Peace)
How many times a day do you tune out noise? Do you tune out noise with noise (headphones, radio, nature sounds on CD)? Where are your quiet places (I promise I won’t invade;)? When have you felt the power of stillness?
For more ties to the serenity of nature please check out: One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet by Gordon Hempton and Josh Grossman or any of the nature laden poetry books by Mary Oliver.
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If you enjoyed this post you may also like:
There’s Nothing Wrong With You. You’re an Introvert. (space2live)
When Parenting Overwhelms– space2live