The book has been beckoning to me for months now. Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge’s Silence in the Age of Noise (2018) has been definitively not-silent, asking me every day if now might be the time to begin. And now, it is.
I open to the title page to begin reading in my parents’ living room. It is turning gray outside with a coming snowstorm, though it is nearly June here in Gunnison, Colorado. I embark on this concise little treatise, its thick pages punctuated by the white space that is the literary translation of silence. It is a beautiful volume, with its cover of lavender snowset sheen, a soft gradient ending appropriately in a mountain range—it is understated, quiet, and somehow oh so loud. It is not a large book, but it feels large in my hands.
Kagge is a famed adventurer, the first person to ever have completed the Three Poles Challenge on foot (the North Pole, the South Pole, and the summit of Mount Everest). He has trekked the sewers of Manhattan and the sidewalks of Los Angeles. A father of three, he has started his own publishing house in Oslo, keeping the operation deliberate, independent, personal. When I visit the website for his publishing company, the quote at the top of the page puts a smile on my face:
If you are planning to read only one book this year, you should really get your act together!
He is, in short, a traveler of the path lesser known. His writing is simple, elegant, and in many ways, silent. As an explorer of so many landscapes—of the physical, wandering on foot for months, alone, in the snow; of the literary, the entrepreneurial, breaking into a market saturated and dominated by The Big Guys; and of the familial, a single father of three—he seems to have spent plenty of time in deep consideration of his choices. The text reflects what I see as a thoughtful, infinite soul.
All of this said—the first thing that jumps out at me from the book itself is fear.
“‘Perhaps it’s because silence goes together with wonder, but it also has a kind of majesty to it, yes, like an ocean, or like an endless snowy expanse,’ he said. ‘And whoever does not stand in wonder at this majesty fears it. And that is most likely why many are afraid of silence (and why there is music everywhere, everywhere).’”
Jon Fosse, qtd. in Kagge 11
Fear of silence. It feels almost compulsive. I spent my whole adolescence with earbuds attaching me to my iPod. In high school, for even a five-minute walk between classes, I would take the time to unravel the cord of my earphones, plug myself in, turn myself off. The same went for driving—I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have my music playing. It’s only recently that I’ve started to notice that I’ll hop in the car, start driving, and realize I haven’t turned on any music. Still, I tend always to have multiple options at my disposal—especially when it comes to my asana practice.
I think of master teacher Maty Ezraty’s recent interview with Yoga Journal about leadership in yoga. She discusses the prevalence of what she terms “the new vinyasa flow-music stuff” (Ferretti, yogajournal.com). Certainly, music and noise are not all bad; neither Kagge nor Ezraty is making this argument. But the quote above from author and playwright Jon Fosse has shaken me; I find myself questioning my own teaching. When did I become so comfortable leading asana only with the assistance of background music? Why does silence feel tense to me in the yoga room? When my phone malfunctions and puts my soundtrack at risk in the middle of a class, my response is panic, and embarrassment. How will my students be able to relax in silence?
I taste the fear here, fierce and bright and very vital. It tangles us up in the ego of Sirsasana and arm balances, of body image and small talk, of social media and consumerism. It leads us, in short, to “rummage around in a world that has little to do with [us]” (Kagge 75). Still, it’s an interesting conundrum—when I really question it, I find that our collective fear of silence is almost as powerful as our fear of being heard. We don’t breathe loudly when we practice our Ujjayi unless the instructor does it with us. We feel ashamed when we make human noises in Savasana. We apologize for sneezing during meditation, or for the wheezy sounds of our arid Colorado-stuffed nostrils during Anuloma Viloma. How much fear we must wrestle for the simplest performances: we are afraid of being heard; we are afraid to be silent.
“Everyone has experienced the ways in which silence can come across as exclusive, uncomfortable and at times even scary. At other times it is a sign of loneliness. Or sorrow. The silence that follows is heavy” (33).
At the very start of the text, Kagge tells the story of two friends of his who decided to climb Mount Everest. The story ends, very potently, with silence. Here, then, is the crux of the issue: silence is a state of ego-death. And ego strives always for survival, for immortality, for center-stage. Performance artist Marina Abramović posits that “the opposite of silence is a brain at work. Thinking. If you wish to find peace, you must cease thinking” (qtd. in Kagge 114); the ego would prefer never to stop thinking—I think, therefore I am.
Ego has been taught through lifetimes of social conditioning—samskaras (Hill 12)—to fit into specific boxes: Here is our fear of being heard. And at the same time, ego is terrified of annihilation: Here is our fear of silence.
Kagge introduces his musings on silence with the three questions he sets out to answer, thirty-three different ways, over the course of the text: “What is silence? Where is it? Why is it more important now than ever?” (Kagge 5). These questions all serve to illuminate the potency that silence has for our current cultural moment, and start to offer reflections on how we can come more fully into the beautiful richness of silence, and out of the fear. But while these questions may have informed his searching, I think the place Kagge ultimately arrives is not concerned so much with the what, where, and why, but rather, with the very tangible “is-ness” of what he calls “the silence within” (25).
Does this sound familiar? It should. Kagge references meditation and yoga practices multiple times over the course of the text, and even offers us a direct experience of Hindu mythology, informed by yogic philosophy, through a story of the “student who asks his teacher to explain Brahman, the soul of the world” (81). As yogis, we are familiar with this “silence within.” This is Purusha, Ishvara, the impartial observer of ego’s drama. This is the higher Self. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is all about bringing us into our experience of the silence within, and into eternal unity with that stillness. This is the silence that follows AUM; the silence of Savasana; of the loving detachment that we experience as we reach towards our practice of vairagya.
“I no longer try to create absolute silence around me. The silence that I am after is the silence within” (25).
So then: how do we come into a full, loving experience of outer silence? How do we cultivate our own inner silence? How do we leave fear behind and reach towards the enlightened state that is, in Kagge’s words, a “mastery over silence for the sake of silence” (119)?
Kagge supplies few direct answers to these questions. While the rear cover of the book classifies its genre as “Self-Help” (this discovery makes me laugh—which self are we helping? Which self even needs help?), the text seeks to explore rather than resolve. Ultimately, I think the writing functions as an experience in itself, bringing us closer to the deep, rich is-ness of silence that can help us find peace.
Kagge does offer a number of suggestions, even if indirectly: Spend time in nature, he says. Make a commitment to practice Mounam, to be silent—for a day, a week, a month, six months. Contemplate simple pleasures, “green moss on a stone” (95). Immerse yourself. Meditate.
“[Silence] is about getting inside what you are doing. Experiencing rather than overthinking. Allowing each moment to be big enough. Not living through other people and other things. Shutting out the world and fashioning your own silence” (51).
I believe the issue is an experiential one. Our union with our higher Self is not a word, or phrase, or concept; it is a state of being. Absorption, peace, and silence are like this, too. If we can find a way to experience what silence is, we will naturally start to embody that experience, and, as Kagge writes, “God is in the silence” (81).
What is left, then? Perhaps, just this:
Ferretti, Andrea. “Master Teacher Maty Ezraty on the State of Yoga Right Now.” Yoga Journal, 22 Dec. 2018, https://www.yogajournal.com/teach/maty-ezraty-on-yoga-right-now. Accessed 27 May 2019.
Hill, Dennis, translator. Yoga Sutras: The Means to Liberation. By Patanjali, Trafford, 2015.
Kagge, Erling. Silence in the Age of Noise. Translated by Becky L. Crook, Vintage Books, 2018.