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The Uses of Silence

by Beata Bishop(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 79 - August 2002

Let me start with some sobering facts:

  • Young people suffer alarming hearing loss as a result of listening regularly to very loud music. By their early twenties they may have lost as much hearing acuity as a normally ageing person of sixty-plus;
  • Persistent irritating noise – deafening music, endlessly barking dogs, constant drunken partying next door – can drive even mild-mannered sufferers to homicidal rage, often with tragic consequences;
  • Noise is now officially recognized as a form of pollution; habitual offenders can be prosecuted;
  • Even a foetus can differentiate between noise and sound. It likes Vivaldi and Mozart (and will recognize with obvious pleasure their music after birth), but reacts with restlessness and strong kicks in the womb when exposed to rock music and especially to heavy metal.

We live in a noisy world where one of the scarcest commodities is silence. It's both scarce and unfashionable, and for some people even scary: they are the ones who have barely got inside their front doors when they switch on the radio, the TV, the CD player, whatever is available, to act as a background of noise, an antidote to silence, which they can't stand. (This is a remarkably common attitude. I recall working with several psychotherapy clients who would burst into rapid chattering about nothing in particular, rather than allow a moment of silence for necessary reflection and recollection.) It seems to me that this addiction to noise, or rather to 'un-silence', is a kind of consumerism via the ears, greedily taking in more and more of what goes on in the outside world, listening outwards as a defence, perhaps against loneliness, or against the need to listen inwards, to oneself.

Now the most important thing about silence is that it's more than the absence of noise, just as peace is a great deal more than the absence of war. I link the two deliberately, since silence is peaceful while war is noisy, often murderously so. And I don't just mean real shooting wars fought by opposing armies, but also the inner wars most of us have to wage within ourselves time and again as we go through life.

Silence is never total, once we learn to listen to its many voices. I happen to live in an enchanted corner of West London near the River Thames, very close to main roads carrying heavy traffic, yet this small area is amazingly peaceful and quiet. Now, too, as I am writing, it's very silent all around me, but within that silence I can hear some faint birdsong from the garden, the soft 'woosh-woosh' of a train crossing a remote bridge, and the laughter of a child outside in the road – the sounds of life, which I would miss, together with a great sense of peace, if I didn't allow myself the luxury of working in silence.

Then there are other by-products of silence which you only discover if you spend some time in stillness. You notice your own breath which you may not experience normally, except when you huff and puff upstairs with a heavy load. You become aware of the small drum in your chest, namely your heartbeat (a good moment to say thanks to that remarkable muscle that keeps you going year after year), of the rhythmic beat of a pulse on your wrist, and even of the discreet rumblings of your stomach. In other words, you get in touch with your body in a gentle but unmistakable way: you and it engage in a kind of dialogue, and, while that is going on, you are practising the endangered art of just being, instead of engaging in frantic activity, and using your body as if it were a flesh-and-blood taxi to be driven relentlessly – a common sin of busy people. The body is constantly sending us messages, but we need a dose of silence to be able to hear them.

Yet even that is only a beginning. Silence also opens up your inner horizon, so that thoughts, images and daydreams begin to float across your awareness at a leisurely pace. There is nothing to divert your attention, no outer noise to obscure the inner scene. You can pick and choose what to allow into your awareness. It is as if you were watching, with eyes closed, a performance in a private cinema where you choose the programme. Surrendering to silence gives you the freedom to release your creativity and free up your intuition, which is normally suppressed by the bossy, bullying brain. It also promotes the so-called 'Aha!' moments, when a sudden insight provides the answer to a long-standing problem.

Silence is not a void but a welcoming space that can accommodate a rich variety of experiences. It's a good idea to smile as you enter that space. Carl Simonton, who pioneered the use of visualization as a tool of healing in life-threatening illness way back in the 1980s, said in one of his lectures, "I don't smile because I'm happy, I'm happy because I smile". He added that the physical action of smiling, the movement of the facial muscles, released endorphins, the body's natural 'happy hormones' that immediately raised his spirits and improved his mood. Combining silence and smiling will keep out negative thoughts and bad memories that are always ready to intrude. It will also provide an entrance to a symbolic inner oasis and refuge where you can hide from 'all the usual suspects' that fill the noisy world – stress, tension, anxiety and the endless demands of everyday life.

It works. I know – I use it every day. There's just one harmful side effect: an increased dislike of harsh, mindless and unnecessary noise.

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About Beata Bishop

Beata Bishop is a writer, lecturer and psychotherapist in private practice, working along Jungian and transpersonal lines. Her special interests include the role of the spiritual dimension in all kinds of healing, and the body-mind link in sickness and health. Her book, A Time to Heal (First Stone Publishing, 2010), describes her journey from life-threatening cancer to robust health using an unorthodox nutritional therapy. She can be contacted on e-mail: beatabishop@fastnet.co.uk.

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