Silence is golden, as The Tremeloes sang – but is it, in fact, much rarer than gold? It certainly felt that way on the way to work this morning as I tried to negotiate with an estate agent on my mobile, while holding a call from my wife and blocking the noise of London rush-hour traffic. What is this epidemic of busyness and noise doing to our bodies and souls?
These questions are addressed by a new TV series, The Big Silence, an experiment in aural detoxification made by BBC religious programming, led by Abbot Christopher Jamison of Worth Abbey, West Sussex. As a Benedictine monk, Jamison is steeped in the Catholic tradition of the contemplative life, but he is convinced everyone in the "real" world can also benefit from hush. "Silence is something people fear or avoid," he says. "Life would be transformed for the better if we could embrace silence."
In the series, five Britons – Carrie, David, Helen, Jon and Trish – all of whom have high-pressured jobs and hectic lives surrounded by the white noise of internet, text, mobile phone and multimedia – volunteer to spend eight days in a Jesuit retreat in North Wales. Apart from one daily discussion with a spiritual guide and when they dictate a video diary, they are immersed in utter silence.
"They have nobody to meet except themselves," says Jamison. "Some people crack under the pressure. People often think it's going to be wonderfully refreshing. But the reality is very different – if we spend times in silence we bump into our very deepest selves."
Indeed each of the volunteers, in varying degrees, "cracks". Grumpy complaints of being lonely and bored are superseded by rebellion and finally an unexpectedly shattering emotional/spiritual experience that promises to change their lives forever.
Not all the volunteers are seeking to bump into the Almighty – most are lapsed or sceptical, while 50-year-old ex-human resources director Helen doesn't believe in a deity. Looking for a new direction after losing her job, Helen experienced a deep spiritual epiphany. Businessman David goes for a walk with Jesus ("I know I sound mad"), and while contemplative silence is common to many religions, it is also integral to psychotherapy and meditation.
"It is not necessary to employ the language of God unless welcomed," says Christopher Titmuss, an internationally renowned Buddhist meditation teacher. "Silence is often associated with punishment, but love of silence, immersion in silence, is profoundly important."
Titmuss runs walking holidays, or Yatra (the Sanskrit for pilgrimage), in which the hiking is conducted in silence. Olivia Bezalel went on one in the Pyrenees, and says: "On the one hand you're opening up the senses to the outside world – sounds and smells – and the other, you're opening up awareness of yourself."
Bezalel, who teaches "mindfulness and body-centred psychotherapy", uses silence to treat trauma sufferers and is sure of its health benefits. "When you cut off your senses because of noise or something unpleasant, you're immediately causing your muscles to contract," she says. "Breathing more shallowly, you can suffer high blood pressure of cardio-vascular tension, and muscular tension. That's why meditation is used to reduce stress and for controlling panic attacks."
But doesn't extended silence go against human nature? "We're hard-wired for communication and talking," says Bezalel. "But if you're over-communicating or endlessly listening to information, it's an escape route from oneself. It depends on the individual, under what situation they are going into silence. It could be marvellous – or nightmarish for someone who has mental health problems and is not aware of them."
None of the volunteers in The Big Silence has mental health problems but two, Carrie and Trish, are mourning their fathers – or rather using busyness not to mourn them. "It's an understandable avoidance of the emotional response," says Christopher Titmuss. "Sometimes with father loss, the compensation is, so to speak, looking for a transcendental father figure – one called God."
The Big Silence begins on 22 October on BBC2
A USER'S GUIDE TO SILENCE
* Set aside an hour each day for complete, uninterruptable silence.
* Take the time to listen. Be aware of sounds around you – both inside and outside of the room.
* Take advantage of the silence to listen to your breathing – taking deep, long belly breaths to release tension. "In fact check into your breathing at any time," says meditation teacher Christopher Titmuss. "And take a few breaths before picking up the phone."
* Beginners should avoid undergoing a lengthy period of silence without someone to give spiritual or psychotherapeutic guidance for at least a few minutes a day, advises Titmuss. "Otherwise you will struggle to make sense of the experience."