‘Let silence take you to the core of life.’
Over the past few months I have been struck by the frequency I have heard the phrase ‘time is moving so fast’. Is time seemingly moving so fast because we are moving too fast? Or is time in fact speeding up on us and if so how do we slow it down?
For me the complexity, yet simplicity of silence is the key to unlock time and in turn ourselves; however finding the time and desire to access that door can be very challenging. I would like to share with you a few of the people who have inspired me with the significance of silence as well as a few of my own musings.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of work-shopping with one of my theatrical heroes Peter Brook. It was in this workshop I first learnt the value and power of silence within theatre. He invited the group into a circle whilst we waited for him to speak. After five minutes he hadn’t said anything. Initially it was uncomfortable but then the silence became powerful as we became more aware of our surroundings and each other. Throughout the workshop he invited us to be silent, to see, hear and respond in new ways, to go beyond the normality into something far more potent and exciting. “Theatre has lost silence, we must re-find it” he said and explained about his time with Mother Theresa in Calcutta learning about the power of silence.
‘See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.’
Earlier this year I met Pádraig Ó Tuama, the Irish poet, theologian and meditator. I heard him speak about silence in a tender, insightful way.
‘When I was younger, I needed to face myself. I tried turning to God, but I filled that with so many words that I became distracted by words. Eventually a friend — a very good friend — said to me that I should try two things. A bit of silence, and a bit of psychotherapy. I tried both. The silence was hard. In silence, you face yourself. The psychotherapy was also hard because the psychotherapist was often also silent and made me face myself too. And what is it that we face when we face our silence? We face our deepest hunger to belong. We face the truth that our approaches to power can often be hollow. We face the truth that we are as full of need as we ever have been. We face our deepest fear. Underneath all of our words and sayings and noises and performances are basic human impulses – some creative, some chaotic – to survive, to reproduce, to create, to endure. There is love at the heart of silence. To hear it, we, too, must be silent. We must learn. We must not be afraid. We must listen. It will help us to live. It will help us to love. It will help us to be true, especially when we are surrounded by noise.’
Pádraig Ó Tuama
He also quoted The Chosen written by Chaim Potok. In this extract from the book the son of Rabbi Isaac Saunders is learning the gift of silence and makes this observation;
‘You can listen to silence… I’ve begun to realise that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it…You have to want to listen to it, and then you can hear it. It has a strange, beautiful texture. It doesn’t always talk. Sometimes – sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it. It hurts to listen to it then. But you have to.’
In 2014 Florence Waters’ article in The Telegraph, The healing effects of total silence quotes Guy Burgs, a leading meditation expert about the problem of the digital age;
‘The mind of an iPhone junkie is not easily stilled, but when it is you begin to become aware of the bigger themes controlling your life – memories, insecurities, the need to be seen, and other drives that you might allow, albeit subconsciously, to control your life. Either we reduce this stimulation and rediscover the sense of inner peace we may have lost, or we develop new levels of mental stability and robustness. Silence can teach both. It works like a detox. As soon as you stop bombarding the body with new stuff, it’s able to start clearing out the accumulated toxins. The mind works the same way. One of the reasons we seek stimulation is because we don’t want to be with how we feel.’
Rebecca Beris reported in 2013 for lifehack.org that a study on mice published in the journal ‘Brain, Structure and Function’ used different types of noise and silence and monitored the effect that sound and silence had on the brains of the mice. The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning. During periods of silence, your brain has the freedom it needs to discover its place in your internal and external world.
Over the past two years I have walked the fragile ground of grief. Sometimes I have run away from it, sometimes fallen over it, sometimes kicked out at it, sometimes surrendered to it, and sometimes quietly curled up in it. Often the hardest but most profound way I found was by facing it with silence as my guide. It is the journey of silence where I could stop, breathe deep, notice, tune in, become aware of time and of my true self. And I would often come to a place of honesty, peace, acceptance and even joy. When I took the time and felt the effects of silence, I longed for more of it. Sometimes I just simply sat, other times walking or travelling with an ear to when silence beckoned.
In 2014 I travelled from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans Siberian Railway. For six days and seven nights I travelled 5,623 meditative miles through Siberia in a very cold December with my loving, supportive husband. Even in good company it is possible to find silence. After arriving in China I walked a large part of The Great Wall allowing my heart to come to silence to be present to what I was seeing and experiencing. Continuing my journey to Japan, I walked through and sat silent in many of the beautiful temples throughout Nara and Kyoto where silence would only be occasionally broken by a temple bell.
Last year I travelled to North Wales and entered into a silent retreat for a week alongside fifty other strangers. I ate in silence three times a day, which at first was uncomfortable but soon became a beautiful simplicity of gratitude. I walked in silence for miles each day and the more I walked the more I became present to nature, the universe and myself. I painted pictures in the art room, sculpted numerous clay pieces uncovering and recovering parts of myself. All in silence. The silence became sacred. And then I sat still. I did nothing, pushing through the need to distract myself. And yes, it was challenging and painful and revealing but I also became present to a mystery within.
On my travels to Bali at the end of last year I had the privilege of meeting Frank Paepcke, a yoga instructor and psychologist. He shared with me part of his daily practise of silence. In the morning, he contemplates his own death as he believes it strengthens love and a need to live fully and appreciate each moment through the day. And at the end of each day he sits in silence and asks himself the 3 L’s:
Have I Lived today?
have I Loved today?
and have I Laughed today?
Whilst learning to be a volunteer on the wards at St Joseph’s Hospice, I asked one of the nurses what is particularly helpful when volunteers spend time with patients at the end of their life. She said very simply that sitting in silence, not being afraid of the silence and not trying to fill it with words is often the most powerful gift you can give someone.
‘If you can sit in silence with a person for half an hour and yet be entirely comfortable, you and that person can be friends. If you cannot, friends you’ll never be and you need not waste time in trying.’
Life is an extraordinary mystery. We are an expression of that. Perhaps we need to stop distracting ourselves because somewhere inside us there is a knowledge that there is more to this life than we might expect. So next time we hear ourselves saying ‘time is moving so fast’ perhaps its time to slow down and indulge in some silence.