Silence is Golden

We all dream of peace and quiet after a long day’s work, but 10 days of absolute silence? You must be ready to face your deepest, darkest thoughts

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
We all dream of peace and quiet after a long day’s work, but 10 days of absolute silence? You must be ready to face your deepest, darkest thoughts
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Since 2008, Finland’s Country Brand Delegation has been looking for a new national label: it was a difficult choice, given that it’s a country with an exceptional education system, jaw- dropping landscapes, vibrant culture and amusingly, spas in full nudity. Two years later, the Nordic strip went with silence, an invisible commodity that has not only been sharing the spotlight with kale and cold-pressed juices, but also a mighty cash cow for Finland, where tourists from around the world flock to spend weeks indulging in nothing but Mother Earth’s orchestra au naturale.  

Aside from a desperation to unwind, noise pollution has long been a cause of life-long impairments in children in areas such as educational attainment, cognitive and language development as well as reading scores, according to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. 

Adults are not immune either: road and air traffic noise escalates stress hormones, blood pressure, heart rates and anxiety while sinking concentration and the ability to relax or sleep. In 2011, the WHO measured that the 340 million residents of Western Europe annually lost a million years of healthy life because of noise and further argued that at least 3,000 cardiovascular-related deaths stemmed from their surrounding high decibels. 

So we know the deprivation of silence is bad, but does it actually help? 

When given the chance to rest, the brain takes the time to evaluate information. In 2013, a biologist at Duke University, Imke Kirste, found that two hours of silence per day actually prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory, involving the senses. Interestingly, silence produced the most lasting effect compared to exposures to any other stimuli in her research. 

So, even on a sub-national scale, silence sells. In retail, they are manifested into the form of expensive noise-cancelling headphones, and on the wellness front, weekend-long, to sometimes, month-long silent retreats. 

Silent retreats: what are they? 

Usually ranging from two to 10 days, silent retreats are packed with sound-free meditation sessions starting from 4am. until the early evening and are usually interspersed with individual or group discussions with a guide to reflect upon the thoughts that surfaced during the quiet periods. While rules vary between each outlet (some suggest practitioners ignore itches and pains to build self-control, for example), all forms of communication – including writing and signing – as well as movements more extreme than walking in a swift pace are banned. For the less courageous, half-silent retreat courses, where conversation is allowed during meal times, are also available. 

Though only receiving the spotlight in recent years, this practice of noise-free self- purification and observation was actually born 2,500 years ago from a Buddhist school of thought called Vipassana, which believes that spending days in what they call “the noble silence” can eradicate suffering, egos and life’s many tensions, and in turn, help achieve total spiritual liberation and full enlightenment. Currently, there are close to 300 Vipassana outlets around the world, all of which operate on a donation basis. Though Vipassana is usually free of worship or deities, its centres dictate much more stringent rules such as abstinence from lying, intoxicants, consumption after noon, sensual entertainment, wearing accessories, and sleeping on high or luxurious beds on top of the 10-day course of pure silence. 

Sounds unbearable? That seems to be the account of many past silent-retreat goers, who describe the first few days of the experience to be “excruciating boring” and “like a monkey has been let loose in my head”. That is, until day seven or eight (or, for some, after a meltdown) when the mind finally learns to calm down, accepts the boredom and makes peace with its thoughts. Usually, the rocky path is worth it, seeing that the results include increased consciousness, controlled speech and a newfound appreciation for the beings around them – some even claimed a heightened sensitivity so extreme that the sight of raindrops on leaves was enough to bring tears to their eyes. 

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Guy Burgs, founder of Art of Meditation and one of the pioneers of secular silent retreats, says that his visitors have substantially increased in the past four years, looking for “deeper and longer practice”. 

“People are not just content to have meditation as a coping tool in their everyday lives, but they are using it for deeper healing and genuine transformation,” he says, adding that the media attention on mental health, well-being and meditation has expanded his target audience from mid-40s and 50s to include even 20-year- olds. “We have a broad range of people coming on retreats, but we certainly don’t attract much of the archetypal hippy, but more professional people looking to regain balance in their lives.” 

For Dr Buathon Thienarrom, a holistic healer who tours around first-class properties like One&Only and Mandarin Oriental and a degree-holder in counselling, psychology and health sociology, on the other hand, her patients come to solve more tangible issues: lack of concentration, sleep deprivation, panic attacks, and in extreme cases, mental illnesses and even chronic drug and alcohol addictions.  

“Overall, they are seeking to take a break from the physical and emotional imbalances and daily frustrations. They can’t manage their emotions or they have too many worries,” she says. “Silent therapies help them relieve these physical tensions via increasing vital energies and finding a connection with their own hearts to reach the state of peace and happiness, so they will have enough internal energy to face the difficult matters in their lives.” 

Secular or religious, silent retreats are about learning mindfulness, building mental strength and courage and mitigating issues, whether through tackling them face on (which is Thienarrom’s method) or rising above the situation (as practiced by Burgs and Tessa Watt, a seasoned London-based mindfulness teacher, consultant and author of titles including Introducing Mindfulness: A Practical Guide and Mindful London). 

“It’s about being awake and aware of your own emotions and thoughts, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t positive psychology: being human has a lot of difficult challenges. We need to get around those difficult paths rather than pushing them away, and we do that with courage and patience.” 

Depending on the course, Watt’s sessions begin with meditations that learn about and empower the body through working with the awareness of our breathing, mind control and heightening our senses. Then, she’ll shift the spotlight to the physical manifestations (ie aches and pains). 

“Normally, we get caught up in the problem, our mind goes round and round. Here, we try to let go of that narrative and pay more attention to how it feels in the body and the mind. We explore possibilities where it doesn’t and shouldn’t have the same control over you,” she says. “In meditation, we’re not working with thinking: instead, we’re solving problems in a mode of conceptualising, of sensing and being. We try to let go of the storyline or drama and focus on the present on how that feels.” 

Likewise, Thienarrom starts her sessions with a thorough self-realisation of our physical and mental capacities but moves onto building enough courage and strength to fight the problems instead. Her key, however, is to always visualise the struggles as coloured shapes and be sure to pair the mental act of pushing them out of your body with physical gestures. 

“It’s easier to tackle your problems when you’re facing an actual object and are actually removing it from your mental picture. We will really feel removed and more grounded as we learn how to slow down,” says Thienarrom, though she highlights the importance of private consultations to help individuals better recognise and move on from their issues over the length of the retreat. 

“It’s hard to be silent if you have unfinished business on your hands, and it would take some time to organise or dissect the information, which is why people who haven’t trained their minds well and are low in energy will see all of this information surfacing in their heads once they start practising to be silent,” she says. “So to overcome it, we need to identify the subjective against the objective parts of their problems, that’s where private consultations come in.” 

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Silence nirvana? Myth or truth? 

Though rare, many accounts of past-retreat goers allude to a “silence nirvana” that is “orgasmic” and “akin to the effects of taking ecstasy” on the eighth or ninth day, after the mind has calmed down from the initial raucous. 

Thienarrom says though this mental bliss is no myth and “feels like your soul has risen above the body”, it should never be the end-goal to silent retreats because “silence nirvanas” vary between people and their state of minds, especially when tested in such a short timeframe. 

“The retreat aims to provide experience. Silence nirvana is a good feeling, but it doesn’t mean everyone will be able to attain this experience all the time. The people who do may get addicted to it and try to reach this state all the time, and this is definitely the wrong concept. Rather, we should understand the state, train the mind and become more mindful in our daily lives.” 

Watt agrees, adding that it’s imperative to go into any retreat with an open mind: “The experiences are very personal, and it’s different for each retreat. At the end of the day, it really can be quite ordinary; there are no fireworks most of the time. So don’t go in with expectations because it really is about the perspective of mindfulness; it’s about being more pleasant and more genuine to who you are.”

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So if there is no eureka movement to look forward to, what’s the motivation to get past the first few lock-lipped days? 

For Burgs, it’s all about faith.“Once the visitors arrive and are able to enter into the process, they very quickly begin to see the benefits as their minds begin to settle, and they start to find some peace and concentration.” 

Similarly, Watt suggests to hang tight and hope for better days. “Look at it from a detox point of view: maybe bad emotions will come up for you, things in the past, challenges that you want to forget, but you just have to trust that that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen, to get it out of the system.” 

With all the media attention, attendance is far from the therapists’ fears; rather, it’s helping retreat-goers sustain the same mindfulness after they return to their daily hustle and bustle of long working hours, crowded subway rides and hard-to-please bosses, all in environments where complete silence is close to impossible. 

Aside from keeping up with meditation, Watt advises her clients to replicate one crucial element from each retreat; in her instance, it was the love of nature. “When we’re back at home and we’re spending several hours a day sending emails and doing things we don’t often feel like doing, it’s hard to be mindful. In my last retreat, I was reminded how much I enjoyed connecting with nature; so now, the first thing I do in the morning after I get up is get on the bicycle and ride to the park with ponds and greenery. I could connect with that freshness before my day turns in a very different direction.” 

But Burgs has an even more effective fix: reducing our exposure to electromagnetic frequencies. “get a headset for your mobile phone and turn off your Wi-Fi at night when you go to sleep, so your body can get some proper rest.” 

In a society where the definition of ‘efficiency’ is reinvented every day, mindfulness is a constant challenge, one that may best be remedied with 10 days of complete mum; but for those who are not yet ready to take the plunge, perhaps a trip to quiet Finland will do for now.