In 2008, Finland’s Country Brand Delegation began brainstorming a new national label that could fully capture the country’s reputation for a stellar education system, stunning panoramic landscapes and enviable sustainability programmes. Two years later, it settled on silence – an invisible feature often woven into its architecture, the Finnish wilderness, child-rearing methods—and, of course, tourism campaigns.
Silence is a luxurious contrast to our noisy urban setting. Research shows that being in a noisy environment for prolonged period of time escalates stress hormones, blood pressure, heart rates and anxiety, while slumping our concentration and ability to relax and sleep. Quiet rest also gives the brain a chance to evaluate information. In 2013, Imke Kirste, a biologist at Duke University, found that two hours of silence a day promoted cell development in the hippocampus – the brain region responsible for memory formation. In her research, silence produced the most lasting effect compared to exposure to any other stimuli.
Earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones do the trick, but extreme quiet-seekers opt for increasingly popular silent retreats.
Credit: Springwater Centre in Springwater, New York, hosts Quiet Weeks whereby specific areas in the house are kept in silence.
Soundness of Silent Retreats
Ranging from two to 10 or more days, silent retreats are packed with sound-free meditation sessions or mundane activities like cleaning or long walks that usually run from the early hours of the morning to late afternoon, ending with individual or group discussions led by a guide to reflect upon the thoughts that surfaced during the day. Depending on the austerity of the retreats, practitioners may be advised to ignore itches and pains to gain self-control. Sometimes, communication, including writing and even sign language, are discouraged, as are swift movements. More relaxed programmes may allow for conversation during meals.
Despite the lack of data on silent retreats specifically, a late 2018 study by the US National Centre for Health Statistics revealed triple growth in Americans opting for meditation between 2012 (4.1%) and 2017 (14.2%). According a 2017 study by Marketwatch, meditation in the US alone is now a billion-dollar industry with 9.3 million Americans opting for regular spiritual awareness.
Credit: Bali Silent Retreat offers daily, weekly and monthly programmes and classes
The Silent Challenge
Founded 2,500 years ago by a Buddhist school of thought called Vipassana, a prolonged period of silence – or the noble silence – is thought to expunge suffering for spiritual enlightenment. The journey there, regardless of religious outlook, isn’t easy, with past retreat-goers reporting “excruciating boredom” until; some even undergo an emotional meltdown, after which the mind can make peace with its thoughts. Such a state, often referred to as “silence nirvana”, is described by past attendees to be “orgasmic” and “akin to the effects of taking ecstasy”.
Dr. Buathon Thienarrom, a holistic healer who frequently lends her skills to first-class properties like One&Only and Mandarin Oriental, says the key to overcoming the initial stages of silence is to first achieve self-realisation.
“It’s hard to be silent if you have unfinished business on your hands, and it would take some time to organize or dissect the information, which is why people who haven’t trained their minds well will see all of this information surfacing in their heads once they start practising to be silent,” she said. “To overcome it, we need to identify the subjective against the objective parts of their problems.”
Credit: Magic Bowls/Unsplash
Though she backs the supposed existence of silence nirvanas, Thienarrom says it’s not something everyone can attain and would be foolish to chase. “The people who attain silence nirvana may get addicted to it and try to reach this state all the time, and this is definitely the wrong concept.” In these retreats, she adds, the journey itself is truly the key.
Like a detox or juice cleanse, silent retreats purge all the mental ramblings from the mind and keeps digital gadgets at bay. It’s neither easy nor comes with an absolute guarantee of life-changing epiphanies; but perhaps that is the ultimate luxury – an experience for the sake of the experience.
Cover Credit: Jared Rice/Unsplash
Writer | Joyce Yip
Joyce is obsessed with dog videos and saving Pinterest crafts and Instagram workout videos she knows she’ll never do. Her foray into music began when she and her fiancé started cleaning to Chromeo’s Clorox Wipe during the pandemic.