Since 2008, Finland’s Country Brand Delegation has been looking for a new national label: it was a difficult choice, given that it’s a country with an exceptional education system, jaw-dropping landscapes, vibrant culture and amusingly, spas in full nudity. Two years later, the Nordic strip went with silence, an invisible commodity that has not only been sharing the spotlight with kale and cold-pressed juices, but also a mighty cash cow for Finland, where tourists from around the world flock to spend weeks indulging in nothing but Mother Earth’s orchestra au naturale.
Aside from a desperation to unwind, noise pollution has long been a cause of life-long impairments in children in areas such as educational attainment, cognitive and language development as well as reading scores, according to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre.
Adults are not immune either: road and air traffic noise escalates stress hormones, blood pressure, heart rates and anxiety while sinking concentration and the ability to relax or sleep. In 2011, the WHO measured that the 340 million residents of Western Europe annually lost a million years of healthy life because of noise and further argued that at least 3,000 cardiovascular-related deaths stemmed from their surrounding high decibels.
So we know the deprivation of silence is bad, but does it actually help?
When given the chance to rest, the brain takes the time to evaluate information. In 2013, a biologist at Duke University, Imke Kirste, found that two hours of silence per day actually prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory, involving the senses. Interestingly, silence produced the most lasting effect compared to exposures to any other stimuli in her research.
So, even on a sub-national scale, silence sells. In retail, they are manifested into the form of expensive noise-cancelling headphones, and on the wellness front, weekend-long, to sometimes, month-long silent retreats.
Silent Retreats: What are they?
Usually ranging from two to 10 days, silent retreats are packed with sound-free meditation sessions starting from 4am. until the early evening and are usually interspersed with individual or group discussions with a guide to reflect upon the thoughts that surfaced during the quiet periods. While rules vary between each outlet (some suggest practitioners ignore itches and pains to build self-control, for example), all forms of communication – including writing and signing – as well as movements more extreme than walking in a swift pace are banned. For the less courageous, half-silent retreat courses, where conversation is allowed during meal times, are also available.
Though only receiving the spotlight in recent years, this practice of noise-free self-purification and observation was actually born 2,500 years ago from a Buddhist school of thought called Vipassana, which believes that spending days in what they call “the noble silence” can eradicate suffering, egos and life’s many tensions, and in turn, help achieve total spiritual liberation and full enlightenment. Currently, there are close to 300 Vipassana outlets around the world, all of which operate on a donation basis. Though Vipassana is usually free of worship or deities, its centres dictate much more stringent rules such as abstinence from lying, intoxicants, consumption after noon, sensual entertainment, wearing accessories, and sleeping on high or luxurious beds on top of the 10-day course of pure silence.
Sounds unbearable? That seems to be the account of many past silent-retreat goers, who describe the first few days of the experience to be “excruciating boring” and “like a monkey has been let loose in my head”. That is, until day seven or eight (or, for some, after a meltdown) when the mind finally learns to calm down, accepts the boredom and makes peace with its thoughts. Usually, the rocky path is worth it, seeing that the results include increased consciousness, controlled speech and a newfound appreciation for the beings around them – some even claimed a heightened sensitivity so extreme that the sight of raindrops on leaves was enough to bring tears to their eyes.
Guy Burgs, founder of Art of Meditation and one of the pioneers of secular silent retreats, says that his visitors have substantially increased in the past four years, looking for “deeper and longer practice”.
“People are not just content to have meditation as a coping tool in their everyday lives, but they are using it for deeper healing and genuine transformation,” he says, adding that the media attention on mental health, well-being and meditation has expanded his target audience from mid-40s and 50s to include even 20-year-olds. “We have a broad range of people coming on retreats, but we certainly don’t attract much of the archetypal hippy, but more professional people looking to regain balance in their lives.”
For Dr Buathon Thienarrom, a holistic healer who tours around first-class properties like One&Only and Mandarin Oriental and a degree-holder in counselling, psychology and health sociology, on the other hand, her patients come to solve more tangible issues: lack of concentration, sleep deprivation, panic attacks, and in extreme cases, mental illnesses and even chronic drug and alcohol addictions.
“Overall, they are seeking to take a break from the physical and emotional imbalances and daily frustrations. They can’t manage their emotions or they have too many worries,” she says. “Silent therapies help them relieve these physical tensions via increasing vital energies and finding a connection with their own hearts to reach the state of peace and happiness, so they will have enough internal energy to face the difficult matters in their lives.”