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In Pursuit of Silence


‘Silence is a journey into the wilderness and into the dark. You can’t be sure what you’re going to encounter there, and I think many people are rightly wary of silence, because we use noise as a distraction and an evasion. Silence is a journey, right into the heart of your being.’
Pico Iyer
Film: In Pursuit of Silence

On Earth Day, 22 April 2005, Gordon Hempton placed a small red stone on a log in the middle of the Hoh Rainforest, at the Olympic National Park in Washington State, USA. He called it ‘one square inch of silence’.

In an increasingly noisy world, Hempton, an acoustic ecologist and sound recordist, is seeking to preserve places of natural quiet. Over the years that Hempton has been recording natural soundscapes, he has noticed that in many naturally quiet areas, the noises of machines and technology have become increasingly intrusive. So much so, that the natural sounds of the wildlife in such areas have decreased.

Many animals live and survive by their sense of hearing – it alerts them to danger. Finding a place of safety or escaping a predator depends on them being able to hear the smallest of sounds in their environment. But the increasing presence of 21st century noise is affecting this ability, through changing the natural soundscapes of their habitats.

In creating the ‘one square inch of silence’, Hempton’s reasoning is that a loud noise can affect many square miles; so in order to preserve a place of natural quiet such as the Hoh Forest, it’s necessary to push the origins of noise, especially manmade noise, further away. By designating one square inch of silence, the impact will be to reduce noise levels over a much larger area.

Hempton is not alone in his quest for preserving quiet places. At Finn’s Place, we recently had a showing of the film In Pursuit of Silence, where theologians, environmentalists, sociologists, educators and medical doctors, among others, all lament the increasing levels of noise that many of us live with on a daily basis. Studies have shown that long-term exposure to high levels of noise (especially in cities) creates chronic levels of stress in the human body, that seems to lead to increased levels of dementia and other health problems, especially cardio-vascular conditions.

Long-term exposure to high levels of noise creates chronic levels of stress in the human body, that seems to lead to increased levels of dementia and other health problems.
Ruth Forsythe, Finn’s Place

Some people are becoming aware of their own need to reduce their exposure to such levels of noise. Pico Iyer, in an article in the New York Times, talks of people who will pay extra to holiday in a place where there is no internet, phone or TV access. Sara Maitland moved from a noisy and busy life to a remote home in Galloway, in her quest for the ‘pleasures and powers of silence’. Dr Yoshifumi Miyazaki has created forest therapy in Japan, where patients sit for a period of time in the natural silence of a forest environment. Results show that general health is improved and immune systems are strengthened.

But silence is more than just the absence or reduction of external noise. It’s also the reduction of the internal noise that goes on in our minds every day. Having a practice that enables us to access and develop interior silence is something that is absent from our lives these days.

Early Christian theologians insisted that the ultimate worship of God is silence, and that God dwells in the silence of eternity. Maggie Ross, author of Silence: A User’s Guide, gives a history of how this understanding of silence in Christianity was itself side-lined by institutions that existed through power and coercion.

The ‘work of silence’, that is, the practice of silence and the effects that it has on us, is, Ross suggests, more important today than ever. The early desert fathers and mothers knew that ‘life and truth are to be found in the work of silence’. We are, she says, ‘disconnected from the wellspring of silence and stillness that is necessary for human beings to thrive’.

Making time for silence is the challenge that we face today in our busy, chaotic and increasingly noisy world. But silence is available to us. ‘If you really want to learn the work of silence, then you will use your ingenuity to find a place and a time for that silence’, says Ross. In doing so, we will learn to be silent, and then ‘to draw on the wellspring of silence when the environment isn’t conducive to silence’.

In 1905, German physician and pioneer microbiologist Robert Koch said, ‘The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague’. What a prescient insight, that has certainly come true.

Ruth Forsythe
Project Coordinator, Finn’s Place

About Finn’s Place

Finn’s Place is a Go For It funded wellbeing project, based in Langside Church in Glasgow, providing activities including meditation, art, retreats and gardening. For further information, please email Ruth or like their Facebook page.

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