Could you stay silent for eight days?

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Girls arguing

Turn off your mobile phone.

Switch off the television, forget about checking your computer (after reading this article of course), turn off the hi-fi, shut the windows and stop the dishwasher and the washing machine for a moment.

What do you hear?

Nothing? How uncomfortable has that made you feel?

From the noise of the text message alert to the Skype conversation, modern communication tools have made switching off nearly impossible. It seems as though every minute of every day is spent catching up with what other people are doing.

As an example, there are 130 working mobiles for every 100 people in the UK.

And the world seems to just be getting louder. Research done by Sheffield Hallam University showed that Sheffield City Centre was twice as loud in 2001 as it was in 1991.

When outside, the roads are getting busier - 3.5m more people are expected to own driving licences by 2020 according to the Department for Transport - and for those using public transport each evening, the rail traveller is told exactly where the train is destined for at each station, while the sound of someone else's music player invades the quiet of the carriage between stops.

There seems to be no escape.

Maybe then, it is no surprise that some people want to get away. Five people volunteered to be sent to a Jesuit retreat for eight days where they agreed to remain entirely silent except for a meeting lasting one hour each day.

"If you go back 200 years into a rural society, people would see being quiet as normal. Now, it's as if people have acquired an aversion to silence," says Father Christopher Jamison, who organises retreats at Worth Abbey in West Sussex.

"There's an element of fear about missing something if we're not plugged in."

And Father Christopher says it is a different world from the days before television and radio news when people had to wait for the morning paper to find out the news.

The volunteers were taken first to Worth Abbey for a weekend of reflection before being taken to the St Beuno's Jesuit Spirituality Centre in north Wales.

So who would choose to cut themselves off from the world?

"I worked in the media for 15 years, and was this television junkie," says Jon Treanor, one of the people taking part.

Twice-divorced Jon is 55 years old and runs his own business consultancy company. He rarely spent time on his own and was, in his own words, "anti-religious" when he started the project.

"The whole thing is frightening to start with, daunting and sometimes boring but it's like coming off a drug, coming down from something and you have to get used to it."

Noisy neighbours

Silence has for so long been linked to some form of spirituality - space which allows deeper thinking and reflection. Certain orders of monks show dedication to their faith by taking vows of silence. Other orders, such as Trappist monks, are discouraged from "idle chatter" and will only speak when it is deemed necessary.

At the retreat, absolutely no talking is allowed except for a one-hour counselling session a day, and recording a short diary on tape.

Perhaps understandably, with the increase in noise, more and more people are finding themselves on the receiving end of noise pollution.

According to a recent study by Electrolux, 10 million people in Europe move home each year because of problems with noise.

And the damage is not only to health, but to the economy as well. The Interdepartmental Group on Costs and Benefits report estimates that noise pollution costs the UK economy between £7bn and £10bn each year.

This figure comprises annoyance to the public, adverse health effects and loss of productivity.

And with everyone getting louder, this silence - or not communicating for any length of time - has become even more of a sacred commodity.

A recent study by Nielsen found that US teenagers are, on average, sending or receiving 3,339 text messages a month, more than six for every hour they are awake.

So it seems staying silent for eight minutes could be a challenge, never mind eight days.

"I actually thought I was going to spontaneously combust for about two days at the beginning," says Carrie Lloyd, another volunteer.

"I thought it would physically injure me being silent for that long."

Carrie is 29 and is on sabbatical from a job as head of PR for an advertising firm to write a film. She thinks she knows why so many of us fear silence.

"I found silence quite frightening because I didn't know what it was going to bring up," she says.

"We all knew we were going to face up to things we didn't want to face. I had massive belly cries, clinging-to-the-wall cries but they're actually quite cathartic. In the end, what we found out was it wasn't half as daunting as I thought it would be."

And Father Christopher believes that not having any time to yourself means that many are missing out on a vital - and maybe uncomfortable - part of life.

Image caption,
German research suggests that 4,000 heart attacks a year in the country are caused by traffic noise

"There are whole areas of life that people have cut ourselves off from," he says,

"When we go into silence, it can be very frightening because we find the darker side of ourselves."

But recent studies suggest that noise could even be dangerous, increasing stress levels and risk of illness - the word "noise" does derive from the Latin "nausea" after all.

German research from the Federal Environmental Agency indicates that traffic noise alone is responsible for 3% of all heart attacks each year.

Brian Kristensen, of the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, estimates that between 200 and 500 premature deaths each year in Denmark are due to noise.

This has led to the EU Environmental Noise Directive and the World Health Organisation developing guidelines for night noise. It is serious stuff.

Even in the music charts, a push for silence is gathering pace. The annual race for the Christmas number one could this year have John Cage's silent composition 4'33" among the running, with the help of a Facebook campaign.

But away from the musical politics, and the fiscal and health benefits, the volunteers went through a rather different transformation.

"From my point of view, stepping out of noise is just the most amazing experience you could possibly have," says Jon.

"I think, never mind the money it costs to the economy, it's what it does to you personally in your growth. It's about what happens to you as an individual that's absolutely huge.

"You grow spiritually, you have to face yourself. You have to face who you really are and that can be quite a shock."

And while Father Christopher believes it is difficult to maintain the same level of tranquillity in everyday life - he feels he's "cheating somewhat" by living in a monastery - the volunteers have been changed by the experience.

"I was left with this overwhelming feeling of strength," says Carrie.

"I felt absolutely fearless and by the end of it, none of us wanted to leave. I wanted to keep it and didn't want noise to destroy things all over again."

You can turn your phone on again now.

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