On my walk to and from my go-to coffee shop today—roughly 10 minutes each way—I elected not to listen to one of my normal spate of podcasts. Instead, I turned on the Silence Special, the fourth episode from The Young Quaker podcast. As its name implies, it’s basically 35 minutes of straight-up silence, recorded at a meeting of worship in Nottingham, England.
Per The Guardian’s helpful primer, Quaker meetings are “characterized by silence, which is occasionally broken when someone present feels the urge to speak, say a prayer or offer a reading.” Claims the cheerfully British host, Jessica Hubbard-Bailey, in her brief, yet poetic introduction to the special, “The stillness opens up a space in which we can listen and wait, which is both comfortable and uncomfortable, holy and ordinary, still and dynamic.”
Despite my best efforts, I am not one for meditation; nor am I religious. Yet those words, and the silence that followed, held a quiet power (pun intended). The podcast, as a medium, is perhaps the best we have at bridging the unbridgeable gap between performer and audience member. Because of how and why and when we consume them, listening to a podcast amounts to hearing an interloping voice speak in your own head. It is the ultimate "hot" medium—a form of entertainment that engages one sense so completely yet requires almost no participation. Like your own subvocalizations, the words of the podcast host can either be almost completely ignored or intently listened to, depending on where you are or what else you’re doing.
But while all podcasts act on you—becoming a voice in your head—the Silence Special is the only podcast I’ve experienced that inherently forces you to act on it. Because the silence in the Silence Special isn’t total silence; rather, it’s a group of people sitting in a room not talking, with all the aural detritus a group of people sitting in a room not talking implies. You can hear the turn of a page. The creak of a chair shifting under someone’s weight. The muted sound of quiet breath. The occasional harsh, staccato cough. And, behind or in front of it all, the methodical tick of a clock.
Naturally, then, walking the few blocks on my way back from the coffee shop, I found the stray city sounds mingling with the sounds of the worship room. The rattle of a train passing in the distance. The smooth hum of cars passing by. A subliminal vibrating sound, like an airplane zooming overhead and far away. The metronomic beat of my footsteps on the pavement. The sound of my own breath. The rustle of my over-ear headphones brushing up against the hood of my coat. All of these sounds became a part of the room; and all of the sounds from the room become a part of the world around me. So pleasantly immersive was the experience that I sincerely could not discern whether the calm, low breath I heard was coming from me in Chicago or a Quaker in a distant room in England. Perhaps for a few moments we were one.
The Young Quakers apparently got the idea for the podcast from the BBC’s “slow radio”—a radio series comprised of birds singing and monks chatting that sounds not dissimilar to the soothing sleep apps you can download for your Smartphone. I’m sure that program is lovely. But it is not, by design, conducive to the kind of blissful oneness the Silence Special offers; the sound of chirping birds may become a part of your world, but you don’t really become a part of theirs. The Young Quaker’s silence episode is much closer to the experience of watching John Krasinski’s new horror movie, A Quiet Place, in a crowded theater, as I did this past weekend. The film is premised on a species of evil creature—more or less a giant mutant ear—that is totally blind but has superhuman hearing, and will hunt you down and tear you limb from limb should you make even the slightest sound. Writes K. Austin Collins, for The Ringer: “A film that demands silence of its characters implicitly demands the same of the people watching it, and it’s strange, even admirable, how effective A Quiet Place can be when you realize that you’re holding your breath not only as a natural reaction to suspense, but in abidance of the rules of the movie. You’re not in danger, but you might find yourself inadvertently behaving as if you were.” As as an audience member munching popcorn or whispering to your friend during A Quiet Place, you feel as if you’ve become complicit in the movie’s terror. And as a listener walking around or riding in a car or taking a train during the Silence Special, you feel as if you’ve become complicit in the dynamic stillness of the Quaker’s worship.
I wouldn’t deign to call this a religious experience, but it did feel briefly spiritual—or as spiritual as a podcast can be. Their world became my world and my world became their world and it became difficult to tell the difference, or whether it mattered, or what that even meant. I've yet to try virtual reality for myself, though I imagine it’s both similar and not; it seems predicated on the willing abandonment of the physical for the virtual, while the effect of the Silence Special seems predicated on you actively maintaining your sentience in the real world, amidst the susurrus of wherever you happen to be. The Silence Special feels like the highest, purest expression of the podcast, as a medium that aims, incidentally or not, to collapse the distance between your head and a narrator’s voice—to be, in the words of Hubbard-Bailey, comfortable and uncomfortable, holy and ordinary.