A babbling stream, a birdsong and the faint tap tap tap of my laptop’s keyboard are all I can hear. From my window, I see multiple shades of green. A greenery so dense I can barely glimpse the blue sky it conceals. This is Snowdonia, North Wales, and I’m here for a course. This, however, is not your usual chalk and talk affair. The programme is more of an experiential retreat, exploring the psychotherapeutic properties of silence and contemplation. One of the core components of the course is prolonged periods of silence each day, with Tuesday earmarked as a full day of silence. Why silence? What could silence possibly teach us?
One of the often-voiced indictments of the modern world is that the pace of life is getting faster. The pace of life is hard to measure; what is the unit of measurement? One thing the modern world is undoubtedly getting, though, is louder. The World Health Organisation reports noise pollution as a growing environmental concern. A recent study of hearing impairment collected data from 200,000 participants worldwide, using an app called Mimi. This app allows people to conduct a medically certified hearing assessment on their smartphones. The findings suggest that hearing impairment is strongly correlated with noise pollution. Participants living in cities with more noise pollution tended to have greater levels of hearing impairment. Noise pollution is not inconsequential.
Beyond the noise of our machines - traffic and construction are big offenders - humans are also less silent than they once were. On the phone, chatting online, sending voice/ video messages, we now have many additional ways to communicate. Perhaps this connectivity has negatively influenced our attitudes towards silence. We frequently talk about awkward or deadly silences, often striving to fill the voiceless void with words, tweets and posts. In our age of information communication technologies, overstimulation is rife and silence has become increasingly synonymous with boredom.
On my retreat, I was looking forward to the silence part, believing it would liberate me to get some reading and writing done. However, silence, according to the rules of my course, was defined as abstaining from all forms of communication. So, no phone, internet, reading, writing or talking - not even sneaky hand gestures. One central idea behind this practice is that it encourages contemplation and reflection.
Ultimately, I found the exercise rejuvenating. Eating meals in silence alongside the other silent attendees was initially strange. However, without the pressure to engage in polite small talk, or listen to it, the mind was freer to appreciate the food and the natural world outside the window. The fact that silence was extended to the written and electronic word meant that all the habitual social networking and electronic messaging urges were held in check and the mind gently found its way to stillness and contemplation – “boring”, I can hear some people think.
The French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, argued that “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
I’m not sure that restlessness and compulsive talkativeness are the root of all our problems. I am convinced, however, that an occasional bout of silence, extended to all forms of communication, is an important aspect of promoting well-being.
Finding silence in the city, however, can be difficult. My course took place in the Welsh countryside, where silence is relatively abundant, albeit punctuated by the gentle sounds of nature. In the UAE, we have the desert, the Rub Al Khali or the Empty Quarter, one of the largest sand deserts on Earth. Once you escape the dune bashers, there is no place on Earth more silent. On encountering the desert, the explorer Gertrude Bell made a similar observation.
“Shall I tell you my first impression – the silence. It is like the silence of mountain tops, but more intense, for there you know the sound of wind and far away water and falling ice …but here nothing…silence and solitude fall around you like an impenetrable veil.”
In its Empty Quarter and other deserted spaces, the UAE has a great natural resource to promote well-being. We just need to embrace the silence occasionally.