‘Listen, there it is…’
We were walking along a country lane in deepest Suffolk when the voice of our guide stopped us in our tracks. Concentrating furiously we strained to hear this obscure creature. Nothing… except for our leader.
‘Oh… listen to that.’
Eventually someone asked him what he was listening to. ‘The silence,’ he said, matter-of-factly. ‘It’s very rare we actually hear it.’
We are so unaccustomed to silence that we don’t recognise it even when it promises to deafen us. We spend our waking hours decoding sound but when the volume falls, we feel uneasy… reaching for some other signal to reassure us that we’re still alive and breathing.
In an experiment reported in the journal Science, researchers at the University of Virginia invited forty people to sit alone in an empty room for twenty minutes. No electronic gadgets permitted. A button, if pressed, would give them an electrical shock. Everyone gave it a practice press and received a practice shock. Ouch! No-one would be touching that again.
After enduring the twenty minute silence of their own company most people reported how difficult it had been, even unpleasant — just sitting there, doing nothing. For two thirds of the men and a quarter of the women it was so troubling that they chose the electric shock.
What are we so twitchy about? What are we anxious we might see if we stopped to look, if we turned inward, instead of always outward ? Silence and solitude have become such strangers that our attempts to greet them are brief and unrepeated. We cannot still the buzz in our brain. Maybe we’re attempting too much too quickly.
‘Do not try to save
The whole world
Or do anything grandiose.’
writes the poet Martha Postlethwaite.
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
An intentional solitude is the clearing. It can be like a wakeful sleep. Just as sleep helps the mind process and organize the chaos of thought — and we sometimes wake with a clarity that previously eluded us — so sitting alone in quiet, determining to resist the distractions, can be regenerative. It can renew our friendship with our own selves. It can orientate us by locating us. It can ignite the imagination.
In theory faith traditions revere notions of peace and tranquility, but in practise their functional everyday editions allow little space for extended quiet. The Quakers are an exception, a community which gathers together with the intention of relegating noise and promoting ‘the stillness’.
‘In the stillness we open our hearts and lives to new insights and guidance…. As we feel this sense of encounter grow stronger, we may begin to see the world and our relationships in a new way.’
The stillness creates a clearing in the forest.
We can be quick to assume that silence is something that’s not for us and, it’s true, it doesn’t come easily. But then millions of ‘couch-to-5k’ converts were convinced they weren’t runners until a digital app on their phone tricked them into imperceptibly improving their distance week by week. They became runners almost without realising it. Sometimes without believing it.
The forty day Christian season of Lent is like an old-school analogue app which will subvert the progress of our own destiny with a subtle, day-by-day, incremental intervention. Only at the end, looking back, may we see the change in direction of travel. The new habit we acquired, which became routine.
Lent might be a good season to develop an aptitude for silence and the silence of a clearing can be created anywhere. Two minutes one day. Three minutes later in the week. Five the next. Eyes closed. Breath slowed. Mind stilled. At the kitchen table, the radio turned off. In the bedroom, smartphone out of sight. A short walk from the office in town, turning through the doors of that unwelcoming old building everyone walks right past.
One lunchtime, the writer Michael Palin, stressed by cross-questioning in a London court case, was desperate to find somewhere to ‘sit quietly and get myself together’. The only options involved eating, drinking or an entry price. ‘Then, out of the blue, at the very heart of Fleet Street, I discovered the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West. I was never so grateful for a place of repose, an oasis of peace and quiet in the midst of the mayhem.’
In the furious activity of a world where the volume is turned up, houses of worship may be just the place to create a clearing in the forest of life.
‘Churches are vessels of hush, as well as everything else they are,’ says the novelist Francis Spufford. ‘And when I block out the distractions of vision, the silence is almost shockingly loud.’
In case you were wondering (and let's face it, you were) publication of Lifelines is not far off... more news in the next week or two. And thanks for your patience.
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