Silent Night

When you flick off a switch or turn off the radio, the quiet night reveals itself. Luciana Bellini looks at how silence and darkness can hold a unique space for us to explore our inner, and outer, worlds…

If you were to take a straw poll to find out which of the four seasons would be crowned the favourite, it seems unlikely that winter would come out on top.

Those dark, fallow months tend to get a bad rap in popular culture, eschewed in favour of the luscious abundance of spring, the sun-dappled haze of summer or the showy splendour of autumn. Few appreciate the quiet beauty of this season, the magic and wonder that comes from embracing the hushed darkness and transformative solitude. All too often the winter gloom is seen as something we have to endure – we grit our teeth and push through until we see the lighter days of spring on the horizon. But the time has come to embrace that inevitable darkness, and to discover all that it can offer us.

Throughout our lives, we are conditioned to seek out the light, but there is a different, almost otherworldly power that comes from harnessing the dark. ‘In the dark, I can almost sense gravity,’ wrote the author Tamsin Calidas in a recent article on the beauty of winter. ‘The skies above are vertiginous and vast. I feel both my fragility and my strength.’ Those cold, clear skies, which give way to frostbitten dawns, are filled with enchantment. For author of Under the Stars: A Journey into Light, Matt Gaw, the darkness offers both expansion and contraction: ‘It’s strange really, in some ways your world is made smaller – you operate in this reduced bubble of visibility – but in other ways it is infinitely bigger. At night, you experience not only space, but time… The light from the stars has often been travelling for thousands of years before it reaches your retina,’ he told journalist Loughrey in a recent interview.

In a world where so many different factors are competing for our attention, the simple act of going outside on a dark night and gazing up at the skies has almost been forgotten. Our ancestors used stargazing as a way to find their way in the world, a skill that has been largely replaced by smartphones and GPS. Indeed, we’re now so constantly barraged by light and noise and technology that even having access to unadulterated skies has become a rare commodity. And yet there is much to be gleaned from enveloping yourself in that inky blackness. ‘On winter nights, I often sit out… gazing at the vast, dark, velvety skies, punctuated by glittering constellations,’ writes Calidas. ‘When I am stargazing, I take a homemade oil lamp – a soft-burning taper – to irradiate the darkness… Its low light draws that immense space of universe closer… It makes me feel small, childlike.”

These winter months – traditionally a period of retreat and hibernation – provide a sacred time to reflect and reconnect, both with ourselves and with nature. For Gaw, that means taking time to appreciate the majestic mystery of the moon, whose wan light »
illuminates ‘a way beyond nothingness, and the hope of some kind of return’.

For Calidas, the season awakens a desire to gather. ‘In the gloaming, I enjoy hosting gatherings with friends around an ancient limestone circle of rocks on the hill of the croft… We wrap up in blankets, singing and softly beating drums as the moon rises. Often, in the stillness after, it feels as if the universe is listening. In the silence, I sense a presence that is inspiring, comforting and reassuring.’

For that is another element we can discover in the tranquility of winter: the power of silence. Amid the pinging of news headlines and the incessant bleeping of devices, moments of true quiet are all too scarce. ‘Silence is essential. We need silence, just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light,’ writes the spiritual leader and poet Thích Nhat Hanh in his book Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise. ‘If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.’ For the Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, silence is intrinsically linked with wonder. ‘The world’s secrets are hidden inside silence,’ he writes in Silence: In the Age of Noise. ‘For me, silence is not merely about the complete absence of sound; it is also about the ability to find wonder in the everyday.’

Yet for some, embracing silence can be an uncomfortable practice. Too much room for thinking and reflecting, not enough distractions. What might you uncover if you sat in perfect stillness and truly listened? ‘Silence is the opposite of scrolling, sharing and clicking,’ notes Kagge. ‘It’s about getting inside what you are doing. Experiencing rather than over-thinking. Allowing each moment to be big enough.’ While it may seem daunting, those moments of potential discomfort can lead to astonishing rewards. ‘All the wonders of life are already here,’ writes Thích Nhat Hanh. ‘They’re calling you. If you can listen to them, you will be able to stop running. What you need, what we all need, is silence. Stop the noise in your mind in order for the wondrous sounds of life to be heard.’
Of course, silence is not a new concept – it is something deeply human, a biological need we have all had for thousands of years. Harnessing silence can be used as a way to rest our over-stimulated nervous system and to help it deal with the constant flow of information and sound that we experience every day.

These periods of quiet help us to restore our cognitive resources, as the energy we normally use for external communication is channelled inwards. Silence feeds our imaginations and enhances concentration. When used in conjunction with mindfulness practices, it can allow us to reach ‘inner silence’, where we’re able to observe and process even the most difficult and uncomfortable of thoughts. There are few things more vital to our emotional and physical wellbeing than the silence of a quiet mind.