When you have a baby, you learn to be quiet. You practice intentional acts of quietness. You listen for every sound. You are intimately acquainted with each board under your feet, knowing precisely where every plank of hardwood creaks. You know their sound and where to walk. You know the timbre of the toilet seat resting on the back of the tank. The sound of the shades coming down. One material rubbing against another.
You learn through experiments In quietness. You’re paying attention to everything so you don’t wake the baby. It’s a critical level of attention because it is imbued with purpose.
There’s another quietness that I find fascinating: the sound that’s made from two things not striking each other. It’s a concept called “Anahata.” In Buddhism, it refers to something that is “not struck.” It’s also the sound of the fourth chakra. The heart chakra. It’s the sound of the universe. Aum. You can stand there, completely still with your hands covering your ears and still hear the sound. It is in everything. The conceptual experience of this calm and serene state, a state without attachment, is supposedly essential for us to make sense of the contradictory nature of life. It’s from here that one is able to balance the corresponding pairs of chakras that give each other power.
Quietness in this context is the sound of existence. It’s an attentiveness that’s been written about for thousands of years. It’s an attentiveness that designers can use to support their work.
The wind blowing through our cedar tree at home makes a soft sound. Her flexible needles create space for the wind. Blowing through the needles of the Douglas Fir the wind makes a sharp, dry, and somewhat rigid sound. The loblolly pine like white noise crescendoing. Have you ever heard the thin woody clatter of palm leaves rustling in the breeze? Have you ever stopped to notice the sounds?
Sometimes at night I catch myself occasionally making these vignettes in the living room or in the kitchen before bed, like I’m living inside one of Joseph Cornell’s surreal assemblages. A poetic theatre where the blanket is out on the couch so there’s a place to place the baby when he inevitably wakes up in the middle of the night. The remotes all lined up and the pillows are fluffed. The cords are put away. Toys in one area together. All of the clutter has been removed from the kitchen counters. Water glasses are placed in a neat and tidy row with fresh water slowly coming to room temperature. The rooms are inviting. There is space reserved for you. Tidy but not staged. Sometimes I notice myself doing it. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m just in it.
I enjoy working with musicians who have honed their listening abilities to incredible levels. When they’re recording songs, I love the way they tune and attenuate the various audible frequencies of a snare drum so that it can be heard in the mix appropriately without increasing the volume. I admire that level of listening and attention.
Making space for sound by dedicating yourself to an inanimate object that asks nothing of you in return is a beautiful type of craft. My songs are mixed with brute force: If I want to make something easier to hear I just make it louder. I have a long way to go with my acts of listening. But at least now I am aware.
Quaker worship is quiet. They sit in silence, waiting to be moved to speak. Many times an entire service goes by without a single word being spoken. They prioritize our innate ability to be receptive and to wait. They eliminate the traditional rituals from their practice so that they don’t simply wind up going through the motions.
There’s an old Taoist story about a butcher who never had to sharpen his knife because he simply felt his way into the cuts and the spaces in between the joints. His blade stayed razor sharp that way. “Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants,” Cook Ding says.
The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything, everything, everything is waiting for you.
“Everything is Waiting for You.”
Quietness gives us freedom from the lure of the past and the uncertainty of the future. In quietness I can experience something old in new ways. I can find new perspectives to listen from. I can explore the inverse of my own thinking without reeling from the horror of it.
It’s that way with design, too. As you learn to tune in and pay attention, the flaws and the painstaking details of something become exquisitely apparent. They reveal themselves to you without you ever having to look. You listen with your eyes, your ears, your full body. You begin to design in such subtle ways that you don’t have to create things that speak with huge gestures or through loud elements.
My personal favorite achievement is when your work ceases to be “horsey.” (That’s professor-speak meaning clunky, too big for its space, or otherwise just plain ugly.)
A designer who can find that level of quietness can begin to listen with all of their senses. Try silently observing a group sometime. If you’re at the airport or in a waiting room or just riding the bus. Watch quietly and question any judgements you find yourself making about what you’re seeing. Try telling yourself the opposite story about what you see occasionally. Or don’t give them any story at all. Just let them be. Listen for how you listen, and question what you hear.