Silence: In the age of noise

Happy new year to you all.  Here we are at the start of a new year, and in the depths of winter in the UK.   A time when nature takes shelter from the cold and hibernates for the season, with many birds having already taken flight to warmer climes.  Some of us embrace the wonders of winter, emulating nature and spending more time cosy indoors, eating comfort food, and slowing down to the natural rhythm of the season.

I noticed over the Christmas holidays how quiet our village was and the word that keeps coming to mind for me is ‘elixir’.  I think I have been craving the quiet for such a long time, when the nation slows down for the holidays I really notice the difference and the quiet washes over me at times.  There is less traffic on the roads, construction work comes to a halt for a while and e-mails mostly cease even if just for a couple of days.  I find myself sinking into it with gratitude.

I took the opportunity over Christmas to start reading some of the books on my bookshelf, and one of these was Erling Kagge’s Silence: In the Age of Noise, which was the inspiration for this blog.  A Norwegian explorer Erling once spent fifty days walking solo across Antarctica with his radio broken.  The first paragraph of his book struck me:

Whenever I am unable to walk, climb or sail away from the world, I have learned to shut it out.  Learning this took time.  Only when I understood that I had a primal need for silence was I able to begin my search for it – and there, deep beneath a cacophony of traffic noise and thoughts, music and machinery, iPhones and snow ploughs, it lay in wait for me.  Silence.”

Erling Kagge / Photo Lars Botten

Now, I have to confess being in silence, without my phone, work, a magazine, a book, Netflix…something on the go is a huge challenge for me.  But, after reading the first part of Erling’s book I snuggled up on the sofa, and just sat there, for an hour or so.  It was such a breath of fresh air to do absolutely nothing.

I’ve recently started doing lots more walking, around four miles most days, through local countryside.  My route takes me via a fairly busy road to begin with, but about fifteen minutes in, I’m away from traffic noise and into wide open fields.  I’m surrounded by bird song, the wind, rustling trees, and I pass dog walkers, and the odd jogger.  Some days I start off feeling anxious and really not in the mood to go out into the cold, but I put my walking boots on and off I go.  As my body starts warming up and my cheeks start to flush, I remember why I do these walks.  It is the fresh air on my face, being surrounded by nature and seeing it change through the seasons.  It is a sense of achievement and knowing that by the end of my walk I’ll generally feel better.

My thoughts and feelings meander as I walk.  That is the nature of all thought; it comes, it goes, it changes.  Fear and worry can move into calm and clarity.  Stress and anxiety can move into ideas and solutions.

This for me is where silence is imperative in life.  I know I don’t give myself enough time to just be.  To let go of the list of all the things I want to achieve both personally and professionally and do absolutely nothing.

I love this illustration by Mitch Blunt which is aptly named ‘Silence: in the age of noise‘.  As soon as I saw it I thought about how we navigate our way through life, through a sea of noise and distraction.

Image by Mitch Blunt

One of the biggest distractions I find in modern life is social media.  I understand it has its benefits, and my preferred platform is Instagram.  I’m drawn to the creative community on there, but I was finding myself checking it more than I should and going down the ‘compare and despair’ route.  So, I’ve recently taken some time out from social media, only logging in to post on behalf of my clients, and of course to share any new blog posts I write.

I came across this interesting TED talk by Cal Newport Quit Social Media‘.  Sounds a bit drastic I know, but when you listen to Cal,  he puts a great case across for quitting social media.  Cal is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and is the author of the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.  Here are the opening few paragraphs from the book which piqued my attention:

In the Swiss canton of St. Gallen, near the northern banks of Lake Zurich, is a village named Bollingen.  In 1922, the psychiatrist Carl Jung chose this spot to begin building a retreat.  He began with a basic two-story stone house he called the Tower.  After returning from a trip to India, where he observed the practice of adding meditation rooms, he expanded the complex to include a private office.  “In my retiring room, I am by myself”, Jung said of the space.  “I keep the key with me all the time; no one else is allowed in there except with my permission”.  

In his book ‘Daily Rituals’, journalist Mason Currey sorted through various sources on Jung to recreate the psychiatrist’s work habits at the Tower.  Jung would rise at seven a.m., Currey reports and after a big breakfast he would spend two hours of undistracted writing time in his private office.  His afternoons would often consist of meditation or long walks in the surrounding countryside.  There was no electricity at the Tower, so as day gave way to night, light came from oil lamps and heat from the fireplace.  Jung would retire to bed by ten p.m.  “The feeling of repose and renewal that I had in this tower was intense from the start” he said.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska

There is something romantic about quiet time by the light of an oil lamp and roaring fire that appeals to me.  This reminds me of Hygge, and I have to confess this concept is right up my street, and I secretly wish I lived in Scandinavia so I could surround myself with more of it.  Hygge isn’t necessarily about silence, as it includes time spent with others, but it certainly incorporates elements of it.  I also love the work of the Minimalists, and I’m intrigued about what it’s like to simplify life and have less, in order to focus on one thing at a time.  Anyway, I digress…

Some, I can imagine thrive on the noise, chaos and busyness of life, but not me.  I have a real yearning for quiet on a regular basis.  I believe the benefits of quiet, focused time is just as relevant now as it was back then, even more so I believe.  Easier said than done, I do understand that too.  Cal goes on to talk about other historical and modern-day thinkers, academics and leaders in the fields of technology, science and culture, and their deep work habits.  For example, screenwriter and director Woody Allen who wrote and directed forty-four films that received twenty-three Academy Award nominations between 1969 and 2013.

Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen

I think Cal puts across a compelling case for focusing on our passions, and spending less time distracted by social media.  This is one of the reasons for my recent break from Facebook and Instagram.  I do envy those who have never got caught up in the world of social media e.g. friends who are gardeners, creatives etc. and who don’t feel the need to be a part of it.

I often write about something that I’m currently trying to figure out in my own life.  I don’t have the answer to finding regular peace and quiet to focus on the work we need to do, or to give our brains a rest from consistently being ‘on’.  However, I have glimpsed the sense of peace that comes when I’m in a place of silence, and it feels damn good!

Elmley Nature Reserve

I think it starts with some simple steps, although we all know, deep down, what works best for us individually.  For inspiration, take a look at Zen Habits blog post ‘Sound of Silence:  How to Find Some Quietude in Your Life.’  My own personal favourite when I’m in need of some silence is to book a weekend away with my husband somewhere in the heart of the countryside, and fairly remote.  Favourites include Elmley Nature Reserve in Kent, and Dewslake Farm in Wales.  Canopy and Stars have a great selection of places to choose from across the UK, where you can get back to basics and sleep under canvas, or enjoy getting up close and personal with nature with a little luxury thrown in.

I need to remember, however, that silence can be found in small moments, and we don’t have to go off on holiday to find it.

I want to finish with a couple of quotes.  I hope you have found this blog useful, and as always I’d love to hear your thoughts and your own ways of finding quiet in modern life.

In silence there is eloquence.  Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves.” – Rumi

Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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