Why we all need some peace and quiet

Modern life is becoming increasingly noisy. But if we learn to to spend time in silence, the effects on our mental wellbeing – and our physical health – can be profound. Gerard Gilbert turns the sound down

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 Grumpy complaints of being lonely and bored are superseded by rebellion and finally an unexpectedly shattering emotional/spiritual experience that promises to change their lives forever.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."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

    Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

    £40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

    Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent