On a five-day silent retreat in Liwa, there were only the sand dunes for company. Aside from one daily call to the organiser, I was not to converse with anyone. Instead, I had an hour-by-hour schedule that included long walks in the desert, meditation – and lots and lots of silence. On the edge of the vast expanse of the Empty Quarter, Liwa is quiet at the best of times. In August, it was as if the world had pressed pause. The explorer Wilfred Thesiger once described the region as “very still, with the silence which we have driven from our world”. Fellow traveller and author Gertrude Bell similarly wrote of the silence in Rub Al Khali resembling "an impenetrable veil”.
I thought I would be climbing the walls with boredom but I was surprised how quickly I adapted to the silence. I would spend hours gazing across the undulating ocean of sand stretching off into the horizon, communing only with my own thoughts. Without Netflix or distractions, spending so much time alone with my own thoughts helped me understand myself a little better. I also found myself having lots of creative ideas and sleeping better.
There is nothing new in this, of course. For millennia men and women have sought silence to get closer to God, and peace. Alongside fasting, praying and charity, Ramadan is also a time when some Muslims undertake a spiritual practice called itikaf. It involves isolating oneself in a mosque or at home, away from earthly distractions, and devoting oneself to worship and reading the Quran for the last 10 days of the holy month. Nor is this a singularly Islamic practice. Most religions feature some form of meditation or quiet contemplation, typically involving a period of silence, seclusion or both. According to the Bible, Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days and nights after being baptised. In the Quran, Mariam took a vow of silence before giving birth to Isa, or Jesus. Buddhists regularly seek enlightenment and solace through silence and meditation. Hindus in Bali mark Nyepi annually, a day that invites quiet introspection, while Sanskrit has a multitude of words describing silence. The specific goal of a religious retreat might vary from one faith to another but these periods of withdrawal are generally viewed as beneficial.
But in modern times, it is increasingly difficult to find that quiet corner of seclusion and peace. We are, at almost all times, bombarded with a cacophony of noise, even if we are not aware of it. From the ping of messages arriving on a smartphone to the clamour and bustle of the shopping mall and the background thrum of the office, we rarely have an opportunity to enjoy true silence. Such overexposure to constant noise is bad for our health, increasing our chances of heart attack, stress or a stroke, according to the World Health Organisation.
Little wonder then we have seen the rise of the secular mindfulness and wellness retreat, as overworked, overburdened people everywhere seek seclusion. The Global Wellness Institute estimates wellness tourism will be worth $800 billion (Dh2.93 trillion) by 2020, with the Middle East and North African region ranking first for growth in this area. Meanwhile, there have been a number of drives to persuade people to listen to their "inner voice" more, from Susan Cain's bestselling book Quiet, celebrating introversion, to the Quiet Mark, a UK company lobbying for quieter consumer products.
It is not hard to understand the rising popularity of the retreat. Our increasingly urban and permanently plugged-in lifestyles have made many of us hanker for simplicity. Many of us long for the solitude of an unplugged, undisturbed existence – at least for a while.
The French philosopher Blaise Pascal said humanity’s problems stemmed from "man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. I’m not sure that restlessness and communication are the root cause of all our problems. I do think, however, that an occasional bout of extended silence and a break from the world are good for our psychological well-being.
Research on this issue suggests wellness retreats can be physically and psychologically beneficial. But could this be a case of detox followed by retox? We might find peace on a retreat but once we return to the rat race, our tranquil veneer quickly dissipates and we often revert to old, stress-inducing habits.
The research data, however, doesn't totally support this view. In a study in the publication BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, retreat participants showed health benefits up to five years post-retreat. I suspect some people attending pick up healthy habits or perhaps drop unhealthy ones. Even for those who immediately revert to type once a retreat is over, having a short break can be rejuvenating and at least offer a glimpse of how things could be different. In a world full of distractions and noise, making time to withdraw can reap rewards, whatever your beliefs.
Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University