Silence is becoming such a precious commodity it’s nearly impossible to find it in the city. Spend long enough in London and you’ll forget what no noise even feels like. And I don’t just mean external noise – there is an inner racket playing out in each of us that sometimes becomes so loud and overwhelming we forget it is even there. Like an aeroplane engine, we tune out and into other sounds and just get on with it. Only when we land do we realise its deafening might; and what a wonder it is we managed to ignore it for so long.
In Costa Rica on our travels over Christmas, silence was at the very heart of our experience. Seven days on retreat, and 45 minutes every day. We all gave time and respect to this on a daily basis, and whatever doubt or fear regarding sitting still and shutting up was there when I began, it has been happily dispelled – silence gave us such a powerful means to dive a little deeper and it is something we all can find, with a little intention and focus, wherever we are. You don’t have to sit bolt upright and stare at a spot on the wall.
My own experience of looking inward has always been through yoga, shavasana, pranayama and their related meditations. I have always relished the direction and instruction from teachers and guides – their word overriding mine, my own thoughts scarpering to make way for their wisdom – a happy obedience. And it works beautifully, releasing the mind and focusing on another’s suggestions. So when, exhausted and burnt out from a gruelling year in London, I jumped into a silent retreat where much time was spent simply sitting in silence, I felt totally at sea and completely overwhelmed with exhaustion. We had complete freedom to face the silence as we wanted and the responsibility freaked me out and brought all sorts of reactions to the surface. No vipassana, no instructions, no framework in which to face this enormous void, just a chair or cushion and your own intention. The freedom was new to me, and I had to feel my way.
At first I was plagued by the usual incessant thoughts, searing back pain, jungle itches, a horrifying restlessness that seemed to go on an eternity. And Ben sat next to me so still, a little Bodhisatva, it spurred my ego and drove me nuts. In fact of course I later knew he was dealing with his own crazy mind too, just in less discomfort. But then I lay down. No one minded, and no one says you have to sit up. There is no right or wrong, just be comfortable. This is the key for me – no rules or methods or expectations to bring the mind racing back in, just freedom. And the back pain was gone, and thoughts lost their importance. And I made a vow never to judge myself on the quality of my silence – monkeys whooping, someone breathing, opinions, memories, projections – whatever. Our own intention and silence can be the constant underneath all the rest, and that is an amazing thing.
Back in London, this freedom and responsibility are so much harder to harness. Fifteen minutes a day seems near impossible. What a challenge we have set ourselves living in these concrete jungles with smartphones and computers in every room. No wonder we are all looking for some spiritual help. And so we make an altar, where we place our treasured trinkets and tools from the past, and know that we can bring their magic into the present and the future that will come from it. And whether I’m sitting straight as a grade-A student or sprawled lazily out on ten big cushions, tapping into that emptiness where to-do lists and menus and emails hold no sway, I find a constancy and calmness that somehow carry me through the windy tunnels of 24/7 city life.
Make an altar and give it a go. Ten minutes can turn your day around.