The world is all noise. We constantly feel inclined to respond to emails and text messages promptly, engage on Zoom calls, give instructions, take instruction, propose, debate, question, answer, argue, declare, shout and whisper. Social media has connected us to people on the far side of the planet in incredible ways but has also opened up a myriad of avenues for communication. Are you keeping up or drowning under the deluge?
On average, a primary school teacher is asked around 1,500 questions a day and has to ask 400 (I should know: I am one!). If you have young children, then you will be their first port of call to explain the mysteries of the universe. My youngest son had a particular habit of asking unanswerable questions: ‘Why do no animals have five legs?’ Raising my children, I found, was a constant back and forth dialogue, exhausting but wonderful, too, as it made me see the world again through a child’s eyes.
If you have ever finished a day at work, arrived home to have dinner with family, then be bombarded by the frenzy of social media messages from numerous platforms – this is all a case of having too many social media accounts to keep up with (I have about thirty WhatsApp groups on my phone, plus Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit, Discord, and four email accounts) and too many messages to read and respond to. It’s easy to feel that the world is all noise.
How can this world of instant communication, both virtual and IRL, be navigated successfully? Well, I have a proposal: a silent day of the week.
If the thought of that makes you wince, then I share your reaction. The idea of a silent retreat, 24 hours or more in total silence but done in the company of strangers, has never appealed. Yet the benefits of becoming silent for a period of time are many:
- A calmer mind
- A time to address and process dilemmas
- Resilience through overcoming the adversity silence presents
- An increased focus on what matters
Anti-colonial nationalist Mahatma Gandhi, who was the voice/conscience of a nation, never spoke on Mondays. If something was very urgent, he would write an answer but his family and those around him knew it was his time to focus his energy inwards. As a figurehead who gave so much of his time and energy to others, this was his time to recharge, reflect, and renew himself for whatever challenges lay ahead.
You might think my proposal to be silent for a whole day is unmanageable, that your work or family life or both together would make this impossible. The answer, I believe, is for this to be done en masse and to begin with smaller units of time, a silent hour, for example. An employer might find it unworkable if their whole workforce were unable to speak for a day, but if each employee took different days as their silent one then there would always be someone to pick up the phone or speak in a meeting, and so on.
Personally, I know that I need some time on my own, away from people and from the distraction of my phone, to be silent. I usually walk along one of the beaches near my home or onto the South Downs. I try and notice nature, the change in the seasons and the small details. I feel better listening to my own thoughts without interruption.
At my yoga class, our instructor calls the final corpse pose (Shavasana), the most important pose. It is not challenging, anybody can lie down and relax, or can they? Our instructor encourages everyone to stay for this final ten minutes, but usually, half the class leave at this point.
They hurry off to shower and dress and check their phones and get back into the world. They are leaving not just the yoga studio, but the state of mind they have just spent an hour and a half cultivating. To my mind, Shavasana is the reward at the end of the session, a chance to lie still and be thankful for what my body has just achieved, for what it does for me every day I am alive. It is a silent space to be still in a world full of noise.
Many other cultures link silence and wisdom. In Native American society, only elders had the right to speak as they alone knew enough of the world to give their opinions and advice. Long pauses were common when they sat in a group as each idea was given its due. Nobody spoke to fill the void. Nobody felt uncomfortable.
Tibetan monks have habitually moved into caves for silent retreats that can last years. They seek transcendence, a means of leaving the earthly world and spending more time in the spiritual world, bringing their minds closer to Buddha – all without mobile phones.
The Western world is busy. More and more of us live in towns and cities. Despite advances in technology, many of us work longer hours for employers who expect more and more of us. Silence is a powerful way of reclaiming a space for oneself. Start with ten minutes. Let everybody know you are doing it. Over time, you might find others want to experience the same silence as you, the same state of mind.
Silence is not a void, an absence of speech, but a space for travelling inwards. Take the time to go there, explore, and come back refreshed, renewed, reinvigorated. You deserve it.