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 Grumpy complaints of being lonely and bored are superseded by rebellion and finally an unexpectedly shattering emotional/spiritual experience that promises to change their lives forever.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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

    £30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...

    Guru Careers: Account Executive

    £18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / Software Engineer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software Developer / Software Engineer i...

    Reach Volunteering: Volunteer Trustee with Healthcare expertise

    Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses are reimbursable: Reach Volunteering...

    Day In a Page

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf