My experiments with silence

Before he died, my father-in-law gave me sage advice. I was a “pleaser”, he said; someone who enjoyed making other people feel good. Just as I was blooming with pleasure at an unexpected compliment from this reserved man came the sting.

Nothing wrong with pleasing everyone, he said, except that I tried to please all parties at the same time—continually, and often at a cost to myself.

It is true and you see me here doing it just now. Why begin an article with a self-put-down?

I have a good and strong sense of self, in the psychological sense of the term, I told my brother. Which is why I have no problem putting myself down; because, you see, compliments and criticisms are not linked with my self-worth. Shyam said he didn’t even understand the sentence, let alone the underlying concept.

It has taken me some time to own up to this character trait as a potential flaw. For a while, I thought that the reason I allowed my sentences to trail off tentatively was because I didn’t want to appear arrogant and opinionated. And what was wrong with tying myself into a knot of anxiety every time I had to say ‘No’? With jumping in to make guests feel comfortable and even finishing their sentences for them? It showed that I was a good and considerate person, didn’t it?

I will never be a Rahm Emanuel: someone who thrives amid conflict and has no problem confronting enemies with a raised middle finger and a slew of expletives. So, rather than confront my fear of confrontation, my inability to make decisions and my crippling desire to please at all cost, I decided to handle this character flaw in the most benign way possible: through silence.

Instead of filling up what I perceive to be awkward silences with my own hurried words, I will simply shut up. Instead of filling up gaps with a torrent of compliments, I will maintain a dignified silence and draw people out. Instead of answering my own questions to save the other party the effort, I will let them answer for themselves. And instead of wondering if the other person doesn’t like me because they are taciturn, I will reframe our shared silence as the path to a relationship. That is the plan anyway.

Silence is an underrated virtue, even though the proverb calls it “golden”. If you must link it to a metal, silence isn’t golden. It isn’t even like silver. It is like copper: deep and unfathomable with mysterious benefits.

Unless you are an introvert who likes solitude, silence is a struggle for the average person. As Susan Cain points out in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, we live in an age that values extroverts. Silence is viewed with suspicion. Of the five senses, our culture values the sense of sight the most. Politicians are “visionaries”, and knowledge leads to insight. “Do you see what I am saying?” we are asked. Words are tools to get ahead, to lean in, and to prove a point. Silence is for wimps. Could there be another way?

In this series, I will write about my experiments with silence: not in a drastic 21-day silent vipassana meditation way, but one that busy professionals can incorporate into their daily work and life. My first experiment began appropriately enough at a quiet park.

My neighbour Sumi Cherian and I are in Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park. Sumi, like me, is a nature nut. Unlike me, she has a way with plants and can grow things in her garden that you and I read about in catalogues.

We are in Cubbon Park to meet M.B. Krishna, an ecologist and ornithologist. As soon as we get off the car, I begin babbling about weekend plans and weather. When I realize what I am doing, I pause. I take a deep breath and close my mouth. There is quiet—interrupted only by the mournful call of the Asian koel.

To my surprise, Sumi doesn’t pick up my conversational thread. We walk in silence. I would call it companionable if only I could hear or register its quality. My mind is furiously formulating ways of alleviating this silence—to make Sumi comfortable with the quiet. To make me comfortable.

Thankfully, we reach the most beautiful tree in the park: an acacia which stands like an umbrella, spreading its branches far and wide. By now, I am determined not to break our silence. To my shock, Sumi doesn’t either. Is she mad with me? Does she think I am crazy?

The tree rustles in the wind.

“Do you listen to trees?” asks Sumi.

This then, is what silence produces. A profound rather than pedantic question.

“Do you know that trees can talk?” she says. “Well, not like us with words, but they get their message across.”

And just like that, we have gone from the mundane—did your maid come today?—to the magnificent.

In his fascinating book, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, biologist Daniel Chamovitz explains that plants do indeed communicate. When willow trees get attacked by caterpillars, they release pheromones that can be sensed by the neighbouring willows, who then proceed to create leaf-toxins, thus deterring the approaching caterpillar. When hard avocados or pears are put in a brown paper bag with a ripe banana, they quickly ripen because they “smell” the ethylene given out by the banana.

Fortunately for all the tree-huggers, Chamovitz reports that trees can feel touch too. They may not know the name and ID of the specific human who has touched them, but they feel the touch all the same.

To experience this subtle connection with the natural world requires stilling the mind. Writer Henry David Thoreau lived for two years near Walden Pond and chronicled his experiences. Solitude engenders silence, of course, but as Thoreau describes, it also attunes you to the natural world—to shadows and their moods; to buds and why they blossom at certain times; to butterflies and how they choose flowers; and to the healing quality of both silence and nature.

Sanskrit poetry describes this sublime connection between humans and nature. There is a delightful tradition called dohada, which views trees as pregnant before flowering. Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara and epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana all make allusions to this link between humans—specifically women—and trees.

As described by Maurice Bloomfield in an article, The Dohada or Craving of Pregnant Women: A Motif of Hindu Fiction, Hindu prosody has come up with an “exquisite notion of this sudden blossoming of trees in the springtime preceded by a pregnancy fancy”.

Different trees have different whims. The Ashoka tree likes to be kicked by dancing girls as a prod for it to flower. The champaka trees bursts into buds when sprinkled with perfumed water. And, my personal favourite, the bakula tree blooms when it is sprinkled with wine from the liquor-addled lips of gazelle-eyed maidens.

After reading this, I tried spitting a California chardonnay—the 2013 Kunde Family Estate chardonnay, if you must know; don’t buy it—on the bark of a creeping Madurai jasmine in my terrace, but it didn’t burst forth into bloom. Must have been the bad wine.

But I, like many Bangaloreans do, hug and kick trees whenever I can—like the salabhanjikawomen portrayed in sculptures. You know the kind, seen all over India, in temples and archeological sites? “Moon-breasted, swan-waisted and elephant-hipped,” as poetry would have it. These are women standing in the seductive tribhanga or three-angled pose, often leaning against a creeping saal tree, hence the name, salabhanjika: she who breaks off the bough of a saal tree to make the tree bloom.

It isn’t just women though who are modern-day salabhanjikas. Prem Koshy, owner of the iconic Bengaluru café—Koshy’s—once climbed atop a mahogany tree opposite his café to protect it from municipal workers who wanted to cut the tree and widen the road. Koshy refused to come down. The tree still stands and he distributes mahogany seeds to interested customers.

“Trees are angels of silence,” says Krishna, the birder and ecologist, when we finally catch up with him. Watch a raintree close its leaves and become still at dusk and you will understand what he means.

I know gardeners who sing to their plants, even though Chamovitz writes that plants are deaf and cannot hear Bach—or Beyoncé for that matter. Plants live in silence. They feel, but don’t hear. They communicate through pheromones and chemicals. Humans do too, when you think about it—particularly when it comes to falling in love. This is why we share good chemistry with some folks—and hopefully it includes our spouses—and not with others. Chemistry doesn’t need words. In fact, experts at non-verbal communication suggest that gesture and eye contact communicate far more than speech. Words, as the cliché goes, are cheap.

Sumi and I aren’t exchanging words though. We are sitting under the acacia tree in silence. I want to hear what this tree is saying. It has probably leaves-dropped on conversations, marriage proposals and political scams. What does it know? What is it saying?

“Well, you have to first go inward and silence the chatter in your brain,” says Sumi. “Then you pay attention and begin feeling things. Like that dog over there, lying at the bottom of the tree. He can sense what the tree is saying.”

Silence improves sensitivity. No question about that. Once you calm down your monkey mind, it is easier to pay attention.

Animals are extraordinarily efficient at communication. They use their voices for a purpose. A lion roars to claim territory or victory. Deer give alarm calls to warn their neighbours about nearby predators. Coyotes howl at the moon to call their pack back into the fold after a period of individual hunting. Birds sing to impress mates.

In each case, the usage of the voice has a reason. Humans are the only species who use their vocal cords for gossip and diatribe. We speak for many reasons and sometimes for no reason at all. Like my nephew said when I asked him what he and his friends talk about. “Oh, we spend half an hour discussing Drake (a rapper). Mostly, we talk about nothing at all: games, scores, apps, music, stuff like that.”

Can I channel the efficiency of animals and birds in my speech? Can I use my vocal cords efficiently?

More in coming weeks on Silence and Sound.

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