The power of silence

In a world filled with noise, it can be hard to find peace in the silence. Katie Scott explores our relationship with stillness and why the quieter we became, the more we hear

here was a moment when I was in my twenties when I realised I was terrified by silence. I found myself sitting in the middle of an empty room. My long-term partner had left and with him, most of the furniture. It wasn’t even real silence. The background hum of East London life was there, as always, but in my space, there was no conversation and no movement. It was unnerving but I was scared to break it. I sat, cross-legged, and held my breath. 

In the weeks that followed, I had a constant stream of friends visit and stay over. I avoided coming home if I was to be alone. Now, years later, as a mother of four emerging from months of homeschooling, I found myself yearning for the silence that years before I had steadfastly avoided. 

On the first day that I had an empty house, I opened the front door and stood for a minute in the hallway. Again – there wasn’t absolute silence – there are few, if any, places in the world where there can be. I noted the gurgle of the dishwasher; the faint hum of a lawnmower; the low thrum of cars; birdsong; ducks arguing on the pond; and my breathing. After just an hour, I noticed that my hearing had become more acute. I heard the rustle of birds in the eaves of our home and the creak of a tree outside my window. It was, as explorer and author Erling Kagge suggests in his book Silence in the Age of Noise, by cutting out some of the noise of life, I could hear better. He describes a moment on the ice of Antarctica when he realised: ‘The quieter I became, the more I heard’. The desert was not silent, it was full of small but constant noises, and his presence added to the quiet cacophony.

An hour into my study of the sounds around me, however, I craved more noise and I missed conversation. I sought out my dog just to be able to speak to someone. Although my space was the quietest it had been for months, the noise in my head was overwhelming. Kagge admits, ‘I often chose to do anything else rather than fill the silence with myself.’ A fear of silence is a fear of getting to know ourselves better, he continues. A study carried out by a team at the University of Virginia, US, and reported in Science journal, detailed how participants chose to give themselves an electric shock whilst sitting in an empty room with no distractions. They chose pain over surrendering to inactivity and silence. I hope I would have been able to sit for the 15 minutes required from the participants but I do recognise that even when I can be quiet, often I’m not. I will turn the radio on, hum to myself or call someone – the noise moves with me from room to room. Silence is uncomfortable and scary. It makes me feel lonely. It forces me to listen to the noise of my thoughts. 

Entrepreneur and author, Vijay Eswaran argues in his book, The Sphere of Silence, that, however painful the process, we need to build moments of silence into our lives to do just this. We have to listen to our thoughts to order them. He advocates spending an hour, ideally, in the morning, when you sit away from the bustle of life and don’t talk. In this time, he sets goals; reads; notes what he has read; and then spends ten minutes simply being mindful. He explains in an article in the Harvard Business Review: ‘The approach is entirely up to you, but the objective of this segment is to be present and pay attention to your feelings. The added benefit of silence is it acts as a natural filter to your thoughts. It gives you time to think about what you are feeling and what those feelings mean to you.’

Eswaran will admit that stillness is an art form – a skill – and it requires practice. ‘The way that you know that you are closer to it, is when you stop reacting to things around it, and begin to respond,’ he says. ‘The difference between reacting and responding is detachment. Mastering the art of silence allows you to master detachment.’

Even if you are not someone who is scared by the chaos of their own thoughts, you may still find yourself avoiding silence driven simply by the basic human need for interaction. We are social creatures. In this day and age, we have the potential to never be alone. Our interactions may not always be personal, meaningful or, indeed, reciprocal – a glance at Instagram for example – but they are interactions nevertheless. Two minutes on your phone to check emails or like a comment on Facebook, and you feel connected and not alone. It’s all noise and, as Kagge bluntly states, as a result, ‘silence is almost extinct’. 

Antarctica is a place only a lucky few will visit, but there is a mindblowing number of silent retreats offered all over the world to cater to every need. Whilst recognising the merit of these sanctuaries, Kagge questions whether we need to travel to a quiet place to find silence. He describes how he achieves silence even when washing the dishes at home or on his half an hour stroll to work. He has taught himself to find silence within himself and surrender to it totally. ‘Sure, we are all part of the same continent,’ he writes: ‘but the potential wealth of being an island for yourself is something you carry around with you all the time.’

Like his fellow author, Kagge admits achieving inner silence is difficult but says that most people underestimate themselves. He adds that yoga and meditation are great tools towards achieving this goal, but are also not necessary. ‘It doesn’t have to be complicated’, he says, and there are no set paths. You simply have to try. 

Clarity of thought is an immediate benefit, says Eswaran, but the impact can also be physical. He explains: ‘The thing that kills today more than any other disease on the planet is something that is rarely spoken about. In fact, it is not even fully understood, and has no particular cure nor medication for it, and that is stress. Simply put, stress kills. Stress leads to all types of health conditions ranging from hypertension and heart disease to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, which take a toll on physical health.’ He argues that learning how to cultivate a level of detachment is possible using a consistent practice of silence – and this mitigates stress. 

Kagge points to the rising number of people suffering from loneliness when there is more noise in the world than ever. Silence offers a chance to get to know ourselves better, he argues, and therefore become less scared of being alone. 

After months of enforced isolation, for many Kagge’s words may ring hollow. We are all desperately seeking company after being denied it. Schools, streets, offices and parks are all bustling again – life is everywhere. But perhaps this is an opportunity to recognise that there was a benefit in being forced to stay quiet in quieter places. Perhaps, as we slip back to normality, we may recognise that silence is a luxury; it has value, power and boundless benefits. I turn off the radio and my phone. My thoughts still bustle and shout, but I try to order and calm them. One of Eswaran’s comments rises above the noise: ‘Silence is beautiful if you care enough to listen to it.’ 

Silence in the Age of Noise
Erling Kagge

In the Sphere of Silence
Vijay Eswaran

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