Silence is Golden: An Antidote to Stress and Hurry Sickness

Donald NorfolkMany people today feel the need to escape the rat race. ‘Stop the world I want to get off’, is their common cry. This is no new response, for it was experienced by St Benedict, nearly two thousand years ago. Benedict was born of a wealthy Italian family, and as a young man felt impelled to leave Rome to escape its materialistic values and dissolute lifestyle. Like many modern city workers, he wanted to escape the metropolitan hurly burly and find solitude and peace by being in closer communion with the world of nature. For three years he lived in

a cave on the lower slopes of Monte Cassino, a sacred mountain eighty miles from Rome where there had long been a pagan temple dedicated to the god Apollo. Benedict destroyed the altar and the sculptured image of the god, and in its place erected what became the first Benedictine monastery. Here he spent the remainder of his life.

Nowadays it’s customary to divide monks into ‘cenobites’, who live in communities, and the ‘eremites’ or hermits who dwell in isolation. This distinction is somewhat arbitrary, for the members of every monastic order are expected to spend time in silence and solitary meditation. That’s the very meaning of the word monk, which is derived from the Greek ‘monos’ meaning ‘alone’. Whether we’re agnostics, humanists or members of an established religious order, we all have a biological need for times of solitude and quiet reflection. This is reflected in the simple set of rules which Benedict laid down for his monks. Anyone who observes the Benedictine Order is instructed to lead an uncomplicated life style, in which purposeful work is regarded as a valuable activity in its own right. They’re expected to follow a vegetarian diet, accompanied by wine, with meat added if necessary during spells of illness. But the central points of every day are regular periods of solitude and silence, including seven times of prayer and several interludes of reflective reading.

Moving forward nearly two thousand years we can follow the career of another young man, known today as Sri Ramana Maharishi, who was born of an upper class Brahmin family in India. He too had a Road to Damascus experience when he was sixteen, and felt inspired to retire to a cave in the sacred mountain of Arunachala. Here he quickly gained the reputation of a sage, which meant that his solitary retreat quickly became a Hindu ashram, visited by disciples from all over the globe. (Somerset Maugham sat at his feet for a while, and used him as the model for the spiritual guru in his novel ‘The Razor’s Edge’.) Devotees were struck by the powerful silence which radiated from his presence. He hoped that that by radiating this quietness and calm he could imbue others with the same inner strength. But most of them were desperate for verbal instruction. So he was eventually forced to put his fundamental message on paper. ‘Throw your worries to the wind,’ he wrote, ‘turn within and find peace.’

This simple instruction is hard to follow today, in a world which seems to have developed an active dislike of silence. The moment there’s a gap in the conversation we feel obliged to fill it with senseless babble. One study of more than eighty hours conversation revealed that a tenth of our speech is made up of meaningless, filler words like ‘um’, er’ and ‘you know’.  When we’re emotionally disturbed, we don’t turn to the oracle within but seek the advice of counsellors and agony aunts. The eminent British psychoanalyst Anthony Storr, in his book ‘Feet of Clay’, tells of a time when he was treating a woman who lay on his couch for fifty minutes without saying a single word. ‘Partly out of curiosity, partly out of a sense that something important was taking place, I said nothing. The atmosphere was peaceful and happy. At the end of the session, she said that this had been the best of all our meetings so far.’

There are many times when silence can be far more eloquent than words, and far more difficult to refute than logical argument. One must agree with Walter Bagehot, the nineteenth century British economist, who said. ‘An inability to stay quiet is one of the most conspicuous failings of mankind.’ There are times when we want to pursue our own thoughts rather than chatter inanely with cab drivers and hair dressers. Maybe we should take a bold stand, like Enoch Powell the British parliamentarian who when asked by his barber how he would like his hair cut replied: ‘In silence.’ No one should speak unless they can enhance the silence, for it’s only when we’re quiet that we can hear the whispers of the primeval life force. That was the fervent belief of Mother Theresa who said: ‘We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence.’

© Donald Norfolk 2010

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