Stillness, meditation, reflection, silence. Radio documentary maker Alan Hall goes in search of refuge from the noise and bustle of the modern world, looking for moments of peace amid the hurly-burly of daily life.
I was seeking still moments.
A friend had mentioned The Pause, an unlikely quiet time held at the start of each day in a London boys’ school.
Now I found myself perched next to the headmaster, David Boddy, on a stage in the main hall of St James Independent School, Twickenham. This was a school assembly, but not as I knew it.
“Balanced and upright” was the head’s gently coaxed instruction.
Three hundred boys fell into a well-rehearsed silence. Many closed their eyes. All ceased fidgeting.
“And settle… into the inner peace.” Within moments, the entire school had fallen into a collective stillness, The Pause.
What do we get from stillness – those moments of reverie, of daydreaming, in an ever more noisy, busy and stimulating world?
I was seeking the sensation of escaping – and being jolted back into – the unrelenting bustle of the everyday.
I had a suspicion – no more than that – that with the encroachment of digital technology into every private corner of our lives comes an erosion of a precious capacity to step aside from the hurly burly, “to stand and stare”.
“What is this life, if full of care, We have no time to stand and stare…”
WH Davies’ poem is 100 years old, written before mass ownership of the motor car, let alone the superhighway.
But in moments of stillness, now as then, we find opportunities for reflection, random association and creativity. Lose the gift of daydreaming and we lose that connection to our inner selves.
On the stage at St James school, I began to feel uncomfortable at the prospect of 10 full minutes of Pause, exposed as I was before 300 pairs of eyes.
But the dreaded eternity evaporated in a passing moment.
“In the midst of the 10 minutes you may get a couple of minutes of absolute inner quiet but the rest is sort of getting there,” Mr Boddy explained to me. “By comparison to where their minds have been, it is an oasis.”
He fears an “attention deficit syndrome” affects the majority of British schoolchildren. At St James the rules concerning iPods and Game Boys extend well beyond the classroom and the school gate. Boys are not allowed to “plug in” on the way to school.
Mr Boddy estimates that it takes almost two school periods, about 1½ hours, to re-attune any pupil who arrives at school listening to music, to get their ears clear and minds attentive.
“Particularly on Monday mornings, they come in and they’re very agitated… and you have to spend quite a long time just getting them to the point where they can attend on something.”
As well as the collective Pause, every individual class begins and ends with 30 seconds of silence. The boys think of it as an opportunity “not to think”, to “zone out”, to clear their heads of one subject and create space for the next.
One pupil talks about putting “things on shelves” in his mind. Another says it helps him see things more clearly.
This is not daydreaming. It’s more purposeful. More productive. It helps with academic performance. It is the practice of stillness in the midst of the madding crowd.
In the heart of the City of London at St Paul’s Cathedral, I went for a quiet chat with Canon Lucy Winkett, author of Our Sound Is Our Wound which explores contemplative listening.
She spent a month last summer pursuing complete silence on a retreat. She could speak for just 30 minutes a day.
And in this silence, sound took on a new profundity, reconnecting her to deep-lying emotion.
“Silence is absolutely vital to the flourishing of human sensibility, to the flourishing of ourselves as people,” she says.
“We’re people who want to try to communicate and we mostly do that by making noise but silence is not a negative, it’s a very rich and fruitful and creative part of our lives.”
‘In silence, death’
Eventually she found she’d progressed from not speaking to a new state of actively “doing silence”.
Her reflections, described as we sought out a quiet corner in the city centre cathedral – away from tourist visitors, hovering police helicopters and practising organists – brought her into a confrontation with mortality.
In silence resides our death. The frantic busy-ness and noisy-ness of a modern existence are distractions from meditating upon the eternal silence that is our fate.
Far from the bustling city in the peace of the Surrey suburbs, musician Kieran MacFeely has a very different use for stillness. As Simple Kid, he made a living making a racket.
Now he relishes the gentle hubbub of birdsong intermingled with passing trains, distant traffic and neighbours’ lawnmowers.
From the garden outside his music room, his mind can wander – often to be followed by his feet – down country lanes and creative pathways.
“If I tried to remember where my mind goes [when daydreaming] I bet I’d get it wrong.
“I think the reason is that you relax a little bit and you go off and you look at things from different angles.
“I presume it flits around all over the place, I think that’s the point of those moments is that you’re not monitoring yourself.”
Trained in music therapy practice, Mr MacFeely has found in still moments a new relationship between sound and silence, and an invitation to daydream…[Alan Hall, BBC News]