Silence is Golden – and Beneficial to Mind, Body & Spirit
Last week a report appeared in the media with the results of an Oxford University study, proving that periods of silence are good for us and aid in the healing process. This concurs with the philosophy of Pythagoras two and a half thousand years ago who, while teaching the therapeutic benefits of musical harmonics, always insisted that his students first learn the discipline of silence.
The university research program was conducted by Oxford’s department of clinical neurosciences and given the acronym SILENCE (for: Sleep in the ICU Lowering Elements of Noise in the Critical-care Environment). A quote from their principal investigator: “Noise is a distraction and a stressor, and a quiet and calm environment is definitely better for patients and staff in hospitals. It would make sense that complete silence has a calming effect.”
It has been measured by doctors that silence is more relaxing for your body and brain than listening to music, by the lowering of blood pressure and increased blood-flow to the brain.
The SILENCE study obviously had our physical and psychological wellbeing as its primary concern. While thinking about silence, we should not ignore the fact that sound is also an effective remedial agent – recently I co-wrote an article on scientifically-proven healing using acoustics and vibration, which will be published soon. However, medicine for the body is often more effective when the patient is harmonious in mind and spirit – hence Pythagoras’ assertion that we first centre ourselves in silence. And solitude and silence work well as a team.
Over the past eight months, millions around the world have gotten closer to experiencing the kind of solitude long sought-after by a social recluse, monk or hermit. Understandably, not all of us will emerge from the pandemic convinced solitaries. It is natural to yearn for human companionship and interaction. But one unexpected benefit of 2020 for us moderns may be gaining insight into why older cultures valued time alone so highly.
Each morning I recite a portion of the Desiderata to myself, and the very first line of it says: Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
Also, on a daily basis, I receive by email a snippet from Michael Roads which he calls ‘365 Steps to a Happier More Conscious Life.’ His post for 31 October 2020 reads: The inner words of Silence are not meant for the intellect, with its erroneous interpretations and rationalisation. They are meant for the ever open and hungry soul.
The most direct way to realize the benefits of silence is by being alone. Solitude has become topical during this ‘year of the pandemic,’ but probably for the wrong reason: it takes on a negative connotation when expressed through the word loneliness. Personally, I have put the challenges of 2020 to positive use, as there are some things that simply require more ‘me-time.’ I’ve always resonated with the opening line of the song by Little River Band, Cool Change: “If there’s one thing in my life that’s missing, it’s the time that I spend alone.”
Words like isolation and loneliness evoke fear in many people, whereas solitude is often equated with fortitude. Solitude withdraws from us the external objects, demands and tasks that crowd our days. All the energies we have dispersed so widely, in different relationships, projects and pursuits, can re-centre themselves.
Advocates of solitude see how, with fewer distractions, we are able to reconnect to aspects of ourselves we usually don’t have time for. This may not always be pleasant. But periodically reassessing who we are, even when it throws up confronting desires, harrowing fears or humbling insights, can be a process of renewal.
I consider myself fortunate (although you might not agree) to have undergone voluntary periods of solitude when I was younger. In the early 1970s, before I turned 21, I spent some time in the Australian opal mining town of Lightning Ridge. Although I often worked as part of a team, I always maintained a claim-site of my own, where I could mine alone when I wanted to. Descending a hand-dug shaft by rope ladder to a depth of 11 metres (36 feet) and using only pick and shovel, I would burrow candle-lit tunnels through the earth, lost in my own thoughts for hours at a time. Like many others, I squatted on ‘Crown land’ in various locations around the outback desert region and once, I stayed in a ‘humpy’ (a tin shed), right off the beaten track, for a week without seeing another human being, as a kind of experiment in isolation. I learned a lot about myself, and lost the fear of being alone.
The value of such a test is an insight into why, in many cultures, rites of passage involve periods of enforced withdrawal from the wider group. As the Stoic Epictetus observed, if a person can’t be content in their own company, the odds are they will not be happy around others either.
Spiritual teachers from diverse global traditions have withdrawn into the desert, as Christ did, or onto isolated heights, as did Mohammad in the Quran or Moses in Exodus. Many sources suggest it is only through being alone that the highest truths become accessible to the seeker. As the mystic St John of the Cross recorded: “The very pure spirit does not bother about the regard of others or human respect, but communes inwardly with God, alone and in solitude as to all forms, and with delightful tranquillity, for the knowledge of God is received in divine silence”.
Another factor explaining why the benefits of silence are best experienced when we are in complete solitude, is that we can be influenced by inaudible energies when we are in close proximity to others. To help understand this, consider the recent news report about the planning of the radio astronomy observatory at remote Murchison in Western Australia. For the ‘Square Kilometre Array’ (or SKA) to work successfully, it is important that it be situated in a real Quiet Zone: that means complete radio silence, no mobile phone signal, no drones, no electric fences, or any other electromagnetic interference.
The human mind is, I believe, a transceiver which can likewise be subject to unwanted signal disturbance. If the goal is psychological calm and serenity, of the type sought by the Oxford University project, then a Quiet Zone within the hospital environment would be a positive initiative. When the purpose is spiritual reconciliation, however, then finding your own ‘Fortress of Solitude’ (if conditions allow) and being away from other people for a while, may better help you to fulfill that goal.
Whenever you find yourself left alone, with nothing going on in your life, why not use the silence to your advantage? What you are seeking may be within you.
“Nothing is silent. Become full of nothing.”
– From Words from Silence by Leonard Jacobsen