Discovering silence, solitude and night darkness in a world full of everything else

 

“Listen more often. To things than to beings. The fire’s voice is heard, hear the voice of water. Hear in the wind the bush sob: It is the ancestors’ breath.” Birago Diop, Senegalese poet and storyteller

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Sunset over the Appalachians and the prelude to an incredible dark night sky                                   (photo by Mark Ellison)

Silence. Solitude. Night darkness. They each offer a sense of peace as well as health benefits, but seemingly are shunned by a world too busy to appreciate them. To many, they may seem foreign after being bathed in noise, navigating through crowded cities and living in neighborhoods with lights on 24/7. When was the last time you truly experienced silence, solitude or darkness? Have you ever embraced them as part of who you are? If you haven’t, you are missing out on some of the best gifts that nature provides.

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The soothing sound of a creek in the late afternoon (photo by Mark Ellison)

It is difficult to be attentive to what nature has to share with our earbuds in and our smart phones captivating all of our attention. We often have a closer relationship with our phone than nature. Are we trying to distract ourselves from  a reality that includes constant waves of traffic noise, leaf blowers and ambient light that blurs the view of stars in the night sky. Just as sound permeates nearly every corner of the world, human created light protrudes deep into the wilderness as well.

In his book Silence: In the Age of Noise, Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge talks about the silence within us, around us and the silence we must create. Silence is a luxury for all creatures. Bird songs have even changed because of noise. The lower tones used by birds have disappeared,  replaced with higher tones to compete with human noise. This has made it more difficult for birds to attract a mate.  Kagge describes the opportunity to experience silence as a disparity that gives some people the opportunity to enjoy longer, healthier, richer lives than many others. Indeed, noise pollution is one of the biggest stressors in modern life.

How do we find the silence within us? In Japan, Shinrin-yoku, or forest therapy was introduced in the 1980’s and is now becoming popular in the United States, as a way for stressed out urbanites to improve their health. The path to this for me has always been through nature. It takes hours for me to filter out the thoughts, stress and garbage in my brain and spirit to arrive at this place. It requires being in a natural environment that is free of human created noise, light and buildings. Wilderness areas are a wonderful escape, as are trails that are off the beaten path, as well as just getting away from population centers. If you live in an urban area, it may not be possible to access this kind of nature regularly. However, you can find places that offer some escape from it all.

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The Japanese poet Bashō eloquently describes the power of listening in a haiku: An old pond. A frog jumps in. The sound of water! (photo by Mark Ellison)

Being alone in nature can have a transformative impact. Experiencing the silence of nature solo “can provide awareness, understanding and clarification of one’s place,  purpose and direction in life,” according to Clifford  Knapp and Thomas Smith in their book Exploring the power of solo, silence and solitude. They add that going outside into nature can help us go into our minds.

Just as silence and being alone seem foreign, so can being out in nature in darkness. Darkness  cradles mystery and the unknown. It magnifies sounds and intensifies imagination  because it limits what we can see. Darkness, like quiet and solitude, is a gift if we are open to embracing it. Freedom from the stimulation of human created light is beneficial for humans as well as animals. Wilderness offers us a cocoon from the unrelenting glare of modern life that disrupts sleep, causes stress and hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Human created light also has a negative impact on many animals.

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Tracking down the One Square Inch of Silence in Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park (photo by Mark Ellison)

Being able to experience wonder and awe are two huge benefits of silence, solitude and darkness in nature. In the book Surprise: Embrace the unpredictable and engineer the unexpected, Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger, Ph.D talk about the necessity of surprising yourself by turning on the sense of wonder.  The suggest doing this by slowing down and looking closer. This could be looking at a wildflower, listening to stream, gazing into the depth of a sky filled with hundreds of stars. Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass encourages us to recognize “the dazzling gifts of the world, and to respond to the world as a gift.” Don’t try to put a name on the wonder, just experience it.

Seeking out experiences of awe is also important. Awe is described by Luna and Renninger as a surprise that is stirred up by something unfathomably vast or complex. Nature is the most common trigger. Awe helps us reframe ourselves as small and the world as vast. Awe also makes us feel like we have more time… an “extended now.” Experiences of awe are rare. You have to actively seek them out.

For those who are not yet comfortable with the silence, solitude and darkness nurtured in nature, that can change. Perhaps taking a hint from the authors of Surprise, it might take putting yourself in a position to grow. “It’s the moments we surprise ourselves and grow our comfort zone that we find the most meaningful. We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they’re not. By stepping outside your comfort zone you grow your comfort zone.” That is the challenge. It might make you somewhat uncomfortable, but you will feel so much more ALIVE!

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Soaking in silence, solitude and soon to be darkness (photo by Mark Ellison)

Making time and taking the first step towards experiencing something outside your comfort zone can feel scary. On the other side of that is exhilaration and deep peace.

So go for it. Make time in your schedule this year to enjoy the silence, solitude and night darkness wrapped up for you as a gift in nature. And while you are there, be sure to thank the plants, animals, trees and stars for making it all possible.

 

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Nature Research in the News: Hiking Meetings & How Trees Impact Health

Sitting is the Smoking of Our Generation (Nilofer Merchant, Harvard Business Review)

Nilofer Merchant writes recently in the Harvard Business Review that sitting is the smoking of our generation, it is literally killing us. She proposes that meetings should be held walking, or even hiking. This concept corresponds with the ECO-Human Resource Development framework I have developed, that being outside, particularly in nature, offers many advantages to the workplace.

We sit an average of 9.3 hours a day, compared to 7.7 hours of sleep. The most prevalent aspect of work is sitting. Merchant states, “this lack of physical activity is directly tied to 6% of the impact for heart diseases, 7% for type 2 diabetes, and 10% for breast cancer, or colon cancer. You might already know that the death rate associated with obesity in the US is now 35 million. But do you know what it is in relationship to Tobacco? Just 3.5 million.” She reports that an Australian study found that each additional hour of television a person sat and watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11%. The quality of our life and health is directly related to living an active lifestyle.

Merchant suggests that we have walking or hiking meetings instead of sitting in a conference room. Exercise helps stimulate the brain, hiking has been found to enhance creativity, and being outside just makes us feel good. It is time to move our meetings outside and experience the benefits for our health, productivity, as well as morale. We need a “take your work outside day”, a new take on the “mobile meeting”.

When Trees Die People Die (Lindsay Abrams, The Atlantic)

Many people associate quality of life with the presence of nature. It turns out that the amount of trees in your neighborhood does more than just lift your spirits, they help you live longer. Lindsay Abrams reports in a recent article in The Atlantic that the emerald ash borer destroyed over 100 million trees in Michigan starting in 2002. “The U.S. Forest Service looked at mortality rates in counties affected by the emerald ash borer, and they found increased mortality rates. Specifically, more people were dying of cardiovascular and lower respiratory tract illness — the first and third most common causes of death in the U.S. As the infestation took over in each of these places, the connection to poor health strengthened.”

Research studies have associated spending time in nature with reduced stress, increases in natural killer cells which help prevent the formation of tumors, and heightened  mental health. This study shows that as we loss trees, it impacts health. Maintaining trees in our communities should be at the top of our local, state and national policy agendas. The benefits of trees and nearby nature directly impact so many facets of human health and economic well-being.