The Big One

Ever tried to turn off the noise in your head? Try it for five minutes. Sit on a chair in a room with no external distraction and wait … The first thing you’ll experience is a thought, then another and another after that. That’s the problem with us human beings. Try as we might, we can’t turn off the machine.

BBC2’s recent documentary The Big Silence posed a similar question. Could five sceptical guinea pigs, drawn from a cross-section of society, endure eight days silent retreat in a monastary. No mobile phones, no iPods and strictly NO talking! The resulting experiment came up with a few surprises.

After four days wrestling demons and the overwhelming urge to phone a friend, the five guinea pigs settled into a routine. They ate their meals in silence and went for long solitary walks in the grounds of the monastery. Daily debriefing sessions with a spiritual advisor helped them make sense of their ordeal. But why put themselves through such a thing in the first place? What could they hope to gain from these long periods of silence? 

The purpose of meditation is to still the mind. With repeated practise, we experience a deep sense of peace within that has a dramatic effect on our daily lives. At least that’s what the text books say. The problem lies in our conditioning. We live in a society that promotes noise and disharmony at every level. Happiness, we’re told, equates frenzied activity. Sitting cross-legged in the lotus position with nothing to do but empty your mind would fill the average person with horror.

The Big Silence was a fascinating glimpse into the world of meditation. But the fact is we can all benefit from a little quality downtime. We don’t need to lock ourselves away in a monastery to get results. We simply need to adjust the level of noise pollution filling our lives.