Silence and/or Solitude?

My project ‘Seeking Silence in September’ has been inspired by writers who describe their own experiences of silence.

The first inspiration is Sarah Maitland’s great ‘Book of Silence’ from 2008. It was given great attention in the UK media and with amazing sales for a hard back was immediately reprinted .


Maitland describes how over several years, and moving house twice, she found ways to greatly increase the silence in her life.  She describes a 6 week experiment living totally alone in a remote Scottish cottage. She compared her  experience with extreme accounts of isolation and silence recorded solo sailors and mountaineers.

She also explores the different types and textures of silence found in the desert tradition of Christianity, in the silence of forests, and in the fascination of romantic poets with the awesome silence of mountains.

At the end of my first week looking for the silence spaces in my own life I remember that for Maitland silence and solitude came to mean almost the same thing. By simplifying her sound environment – living alone in a remote rural place and not using TV, radio or anything that pinged or bleeped – she created a deeper and more embracing solitude.

In the heart of the city and with a life shared with many people there are always sounds. It is not silent.No surprise. But there are a great number of deeper moments of quietness that I had not noticed before. And there is more solitude – a kind of solitude in the midst of crowds and communication.

This focused for me the difference between my inner silence – those rare moments of calm, conscious self-awareness – and the noise or silence around me.

So, if you are interested in silence – from any tradition or practice – I welcome your thoughts on the following questions.

How can we keep an inner silence with noise all around?

Can we have an inner silence and still be fully communicating?

When does being alone turn into silent solitude?


5 thoughts on “Silence and/or Solitude?

  1. nakularora September 10, 2013 / 11:46 am

    Even i tried an experiment of living in solitude. I lived alone in a cottage far away from any other human life for 4 days. I had a really great time but i kinda realized that the way forward for me was learning to be detached while living amongst the world. Kinda of the path of a Karma Yogi as explained beautifully by the Bhagvad Gita. 🙂

    • andrewwillson September 10, 2013 / 12:27 pm

      Nakularora – thanks for your comment. I like your note about ‘detachment’ while living with others. Having looked at your blog you are suggesting a detachment that allows engagement and involvement with others, causes and politics. Maybe this a common point between our kinds of Hindu and Christian spiritualities?

      • nakularora September 10, 2013 / 2:46 pm

        Hmmm.. Yes, that’s what it is in my case. However, i am still to find that balance between Bhakti(Devotion) and Karma(Action). You can read more about my confusion on my post on Vairagya.
        Also, i kinda don’t really believe that you can name different versions of spirituality as Hindu or Christian spirituality. Spirituality is an individual experience and i believe that its unique for each person. Christianity is based on the path that Christ followed and the realizations he had. Now, for any other person, the path might be different and the realizations at different point would be different, though the end would be same. The two paths might have some similarities but they can never ever be identical. 🙂

      • andrewwillson September 10, 2013 / 4:15 pm

        Thanks – I take your point about the uniqueness of each person’s spirituality. I do think that there are general patterns of spirituality that can be identified as coming from different religious traditions. There are also similarities in the differences – so in Christianity some traditions talk about Action and Contemplation – which could be looked at alongside your Bhakti and Karma.

  2. boyc0031 September 10, 2013 / 12:04 pm

    Andrew, I am reminded of an important chapter in Henri Nouwen’s classic ‘Reaching Out’ in which he explores the distinction between the epidemic of loneliness and solitude. (His later chapter on hospitality was seminal in my thinking about reshaping chaplaincy for a pluralist society). I think Nouwen contributes some important pieces in this jigsaw.

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