Lori Anderson: Silence might be golden, but it’s also death

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In a cacophonous age, the benefits of solitude are manifold … but they are not for 
me, writes Lori Anderson

In 1909 Harry Gordon Selfridge created a silent room in his eponymous London department store to allow customers to “retire from the whirl of bargains and build up their energy”.

Today, 104 years later, silence has once again descended upon the lower ground floor of Selfridges. Shoppers seeking Zen-like calm are now invited to walk down a darkened corridor, remove their shoes and all of their the jingly-jangly modern day electronic gizmos and enter into the cream felt-lined space, which is part padded cell, part secular sacrum. The famous store has recently introduced a special offer for shoppers: the sound of silence.

The spectral space partly resembles the ghostly white room from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and the architect John Pawson’s Cistercian monastery in Burgundy. The designer’s brief was to create a space for shoppers to find peace and quiet amid the bustling emporium.

As well as being a silent nod to their founder, the current management of Selfridges instigated the new room as part of their “No Noise” campaign which has seen them selling iconic products such as Heinz, Marmite, Levis and Creme De La Mer in limited editions with their brand names removed. Naomi Klein’s No Logo has finally been realised in a temple to consumerism.

As a spokesman explained: “as we become increasingly bombarded with information and stimulation, the world is becoming a noisier place. In an initiative that goes beyond retail, we invite you to celebrate the power of quiet, see the beauty in function and find calm among the clouds.” Since the launch, people have now been going to one of the world’s largest department stores to sleep, meditate and pray. Oh, and shop.

Why shouldn’t it be on offer in a department store, for silence is doing good business. Attendance at silent retreats across Britain is on the rise, partly due to the success of two BBC documentary series, The Monastery and The Great Silence, which followed groups of individuals through the turbulent emotional experience of shutting up for, in the first series, 40 days and nights. Whilst over the past few years, A Book Of Silence, Sara Maitland’s memoir about seeking solitude amongst such places as a cottage on Skye and a hermitage in Galloway, has led many new readers through the richness to be found in a quiet place.

For thousands of years, men and women have sought solace in silence. The major religions have long claimed that God speaks in silence. The eremite practices of the Essenes were later embraced by Christian orders such as the Benedictines. In the stillness and quiet, man can hear the whisper of his conscience and can figure out what to do next. The phrase that “silence is golden” has been rolling in some form or tongue since Ancient Egypt, but it was Thomas Carlyle who first used the phrase in English, having first read it in German in Sartor Resartus where a character extols what silence means to him: “Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are thenceforth to rule.”

So where do I sit with silence and meditation? Honestly, as far away as possible. If you were ever to find me sitting in the lotus position with my palms resting gently on my thighs, then glance at my ears for hidden headphones thrumming the soothing plain chants of Kid Rock’s Let’s Ride or AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. To me, silence is death and so to be avoided. I know that there are those who compare silent meditation to sinking down beneath stormy waves towards the stillness of the deep, but it’s a metaphor that serves only to back up my perception that silence is The End, especially as I can’t swim.

Sit me down in a silent room and thoughts will quickly pour over me, flood on to the floor and slop up the wall until I’m in over my head. I would no sooner embark on a silent retreat than swim with sharks. My thoughts have sharp teeth.

But just because it’s not a practice with which I’m comfortable, that is not to say that I don’t appreciate the value of it for others. Meditation has been clinically proven to reduce levels of stress, high blood pressure and heart rates, it can sand the sharp edges off depression and leaves regular devotees with a sense of greater wellbeing. It should be encouraged, it is just strange to see that the latest advocate of silence and meditation is a corporate department store.

Ever since the law was changed to permit Sunday shopping and we skipped church to shop, there has been talk of “shopping as the new religion”. At the time critics were concerned lest we worship Mammon and the consumer culture, as if we would bow down before the cash register. But Selfridges’ new silent room has the potential to press stop on that thought. Customers who settle in for a brief silent retreat in Selfridges are unlikely to emerge having decided that the secret to happiness is to be found on the third floor designer room. Or is that a little naive? Perhaps Selfridges is banking on just such a response, especially as the store has these new “no noise” products to hawk?

On one hand I think they are to be applauded for cultivating a public space where people are liable to develop a spiritual or at least a holistic outlook. Then again, what does it say about contemporary society if we start seeking actual spiritual solace, as opposed to the usual retail therapy, in a department store? What would the Grace Brothers of Are You Being Served? have made of a silent room set aside for cultivating the “inner me”? They would probably have approved if it boosted publicity and sales, and just so long as the local church didn’t introduce a lingerie department.