Can you remember the last time you were in silence?
From your bed you hear the cars swooshing down the streets and the sirens of the police. In the morning, on the bus to work, you see the whizzing of the trucks and the blurry figures of pedestrians. Walking to work, the skyscrapers and cranes loom over you. You block out the world with your latest Spotify playlist and you sit down by your computer screen all day.
We are constantly on the go, constantly in movement. We love instant messaging just as much as we love instant food. We get exotic fruit all year round and modern technology is constantly developing to make our lives as efficient as possible. Whatever you want, whenever you want, as quickly as you want. We are obsessed with time. Everything is scheduled, structured and routine, it is not a matter of daytime or nighttime but rather a matter of intervals that you need to fill.
Imagine now, that you are in the desert.
You have no Netflix to watch, no laptop to gleam into and no output to charge your phone. You are alone.
Your only sources of light are natural. You sit and watch the sunset and see the moon rise. All of these cycles happen in silence. Besides the howling of the wind, you are the loudest being around.
So often we feel condemned by silence. Modern life means we spend most of our time blocking things out rather than letting them in. So we create barriers and obstructions to protect ourselves from the noise and constant change that occurs around and within us.
In the desert you are the noise. You have the time to wonder and get lost within yourself. No shelter is easily found to protect you from the scorching sun. There is sand but no cooling water to delve into; there are no grassy lands to roll on. There are no grand mountains to claim as your own, no Instagram pictures to take. There are no distractions.
This is what I learnt during my time living in the Negev Desert in Israel.
When I was preparing for my journey, people would often give me a confusing side-glance. Why was a 23 year old Black British Londoner uprooting her life to move to the desert? When I arrived in Israel, I would receive the same strange glance. Many would kindly remind me that Tel-Aviv was only a few hours away. They worried that I would be bored but I could tell that it appeared to many that I was running away when in fact I was leaving something, which is undoubtedly a harder concept to grasp. The notion that I needed silence seemed strange to many but instinctual to me.
After finishing my degree, there was so much pressure to decide my future. It felt like I had just finished running a race only to be asked to run a marathon. All the attention seemed to be on what I should do rather than who I wanted to become. Everything was moving too fast. I wanted to catch my breath.
As a teenager, who grew up in the west- my biggest stress was whether I would get invited to the ‘cool party’ or whether my clothing style was really as cutting edge as I wanted to appear. It was not until I left the bubble of home, and travelled and saw girls younger than me with babies’ at their hips and boys with dimples in their cheeks making their way illegally to the United States that I realised that world had a long way to go. I had a long way to go. We all experience the same emotions but some of us get to simmer in security and privilege. In order to make a difference, we need to look at our selfishness and our beauty. Yet to do this, we must first understand who we are rather than what job position we are most suited for.
The need to be active and produce something, to be captured and appreciated by others – this is the overwhelming concern of our time. Instead I believe we should contemplate. We can use our time, our choice and our idleness to cultivate a future that allows us to be, rather than to seem. We simply need to give ourselves the space, the time and the freedom to explore ourselves without borders and expectations.
In 2011 the World Health Organization labelled noise pollution as a ‘modern plague’. Incessant noise plays on our bodies as well our ears. There is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health and places substantial stress on the prefrontal cortex of the brain that helps us with problem solving, directing attention, decision making and meditative thinking. Noise pollution helps us hide from ourselves. Instead of listening to our thoughts, we fill our minds with the newest single or podcast. When we finally escape from the sonic disruptions of technological life, we can get back to restoring and healing ourselves.
In silence, I could finally look within my mind and experience a euphoric state of stillness and peace. It was simply a matter of tuning my attention and perception to myself, without disruption and suppression.
The desert is a blank canvas. You can hear yourself. Be yourself. Listen to yourself. You will hear your beauty and you will see your dark truths. Similar to the clouds and light that compose our sky, we are a mixture of light and dark. The fears and urges that we shelter within us must be known and soothed. It often feels like a luxury in modern society to take time out.
How often do we breathe and ask ourselves how we are? How often do we give ourselves time to think? We demand an escape because we take no time to exhale and experience ourselves. Silence is hounded but rarely found, for it is not a place but a rather a state of being.
In the silence of your own being, you hear the voice of the divine. I was the observer and the observed, my mind, the thesis. I wished to delicately lower a tea light within the well of myself, inspecting and peering at the walls that held me together, until I could go no further. Instead I found the well of myself similar to a kaleidoscope, angling and twisting to create new patterns, with beauty and mystification taking centerfold.
To be mystified by your own being is to be entranced by life. You are what you perceive and thus your reality becomes more than just verifiable truths but rather a bewilderment of narratives. This understanding of life is seen in many non-western cultures. African, Celtic and Indigenous people intertwine themselves with their surroundings, creating worlds that are magical, ethereal and awe-inspiring. Instead of existing within isolation, the individual and community exist within a web of relationships and interactions. This gives meaning to reality, but most importantly it brings you into reality. The individual becomes part of the web of synchronicities and movements of life. We can never separate ourselves from this web but we can live under the illusion that we have.
When European colonizers and missionaries came to Africa they branded it the ‘dark continent’. They saw the sacred and diverse cultures as primitive and backward compared to their western landscape. Village life became uncivilized and barbaric. Rituals performed by priestesses and healers became witchcraft and voodoo. History was written and taught by men who came to continent and saw merchandise instead of people. The sacred ways of the African people were tarnished and soiled under the disguise of wealth and progress.
The technological and economical power of the west has its own rituals and cultural myths that have become intertwined with our identity. In abiding to the myths and rules that live within the capitalist system, the African mentality became congested with foreign ideals that only saw them as objects.
Growing up in England, I understood myself as Black British, which left me boxed within a notion of assimilation rather than progression. It was only through exploring my own being, with no borders and no boxes that I finally felt comfortable to bloom into myself. Neither Nigeria nor England are my home. If I wanted to be comfortable, if I wanted to find a place to belong, I would have to find it in myself. In my poetry, in my writing, in my singing, in my dancing – in all forms of my creativity I could be comprehended and understood, on my terms. It has been a slow road, in understanding my being and forgiving myself. I still have a long way to go but now I am saying ‘YAS’ to myself.
We are constantly barraged and followed by advertisements and dogmas that dictate how we understand our being. If we do not understand what we wish to be, or understand the vastness of what we are, then we will get lost.
The greatest trick of time is that it creates borders, when in fact this journey is one without end. Life is eternal movement and we are the land dancing. In the desert, no matter how slow or quiet change is always happening. Time and space no longer become constraints on your spirit but rather one finally has the space to rise within and find one’s best self. Finally you can hear. You can listen. You can venture within the new space of yourself without the constraints of what you believed to be true, but rather you wonder within your infiniteness. You are home. You are accepted. You are free. You are at peace.
We never learnt how to explore our inward lives. There is no TED talk long enough, no book big enough to help you with the practical matters of your self. However, if we enter silence and begin to listen we can hear the truth we utter.
With all the noise we maintain in our lives, it is easy to forget where we can find silence. We must take responsibility for both our lives and our space. We need only mute the space we inhabit so we can hear ourselves.
Imagine yourself, cleaning away all that is unnecessary. What remains?