"Fish live in shoals, bees fly in swarms, bur some animals — domestic cats, for example — are solitary. Humans mix the two: we are both gregarious and solitary. We live in families, in tribes and in cities, yet at the same time we enjoy the comfort of sometimes being alone. We garden, we read or pray by ourselves. Even if we spend most of our time with others, there are periods when we enjoy our own company more. We choose to retreat from the bustle of the world to find our own 'space'. Here silence has a healing effect. Here solitude helps bring my fundamental sense of who I am into focus. In silence and solitude we find both the time and space to enjoy in tranquility, the timeless wonder of consciousness: the miracle of, say, a bank of wild garlic or a greater spotted woodpecker in flight. As Ronald Blythe observes, noise causes us to hear very little; silence makes us hear wonderful sounds.

"Silence was once valued. The quest for solitude dates back to ancient times, with roots in Chinese, Indian and Western philosophies. From Lao- Tse and Buddha, the Desert Fathers and the early Celtic hermits, through Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Merton to the present day, certain individuals have rejected the materialism of their societies in favour of simplicity and the quest for spiritual wisdom. They have travelled to find solitude. They have listened to silence and heard therein their own creative heartbeat. Exposed to stillness, they have learnt what lies deepest in themselves. Indeed, the person who dares to be alone can come to experience that which is unhindered by experience, craving or prejudice. The truth of this can only be found by the practice itself, and even then it cannot be expressed in words.

"Silence comes from the unseen, the beyond, and to experience it is to come into contact with the beginnings of things, to be made new. As Thomas Merton says, 'The solitary, far from enclosing himself in himself, becomes every man. He dwells in the solitude, the poverty, the indigence of every man.'

"In most of the pre-industrial past, silence was everywhere. Richard Rolle of Hampole (c.1300-1349), the father of English mysticism, wrote extolling its numerous virtues: 'Great liking I had in wilderness to sit, that I far from noise sweetlier might sing, and with quickness of heart likingest praising I might feel; the which doubtless of his gift I have taken, Whom all things wonderfully I have loved.'

"No longer is silence to be found everywhere. Our age is hostile to silence, and with it, to reverence for nature. Even in the part of Britain where I live, designated one of the country's least noisy areas, the clatter of quickening stimuli now overlays the older world of peace. The countryside of north Devon is rarely silent, and less dark than it used to be. The hum of transport, particularly of aeroplanes, the sound of machinery, provides a constant drone; in Exeter, the county town, it is deafening. In the shops, the restaurants, the bars, the streets, even the vets and opticians, amplified 'music' runs as uninterruptedly as a washerless tap. There is no silence any longer.

"People want noise and light; they abhor their absence. But that is not all; we also crave unceasing entertainment and stimulation. Alongside noise, moving pictures, news items, magazines, food, drink, clothing, drugs, anti-depressants, travel, sexual partners and, of course, money, are all consumed. To adapt some words of George Orwell: 'Ours is a restless, cultureless life, centering around convenience foods, the television set, the computer game and the mobile phone. It is a civilisation in which children grow up with an intimate knowledge of Star Wars and in complete ignorance of the Bible. To that civilisation belong the people who are most at home in, and most definitely of, the modern world: the technicians and the higher paid skilled workers, the experts in IT, rock stars, footballers, and compares of some of the most popular entertainment on television.'

"Orwell was describing a society in which we have become cogs in an out-of-control economic wheel, a value system that does not see people as human beings but as consumers of things. Everything declares it: the commercials on television, the huge billboards advertising cars, the junk mail promoting foreign travel, the adverts on the World Wide Web — words, images, sounds, conduct, all telling the same story. Interestingly enough, the Buddha reviled the very characteristics — sensual desire, craving, restlessness, discontent, longing for gain — which these commercials either seek to satisfy or extol. The classical deadly sins — avarice, envy, lust, gluttony, pride and sloth — have long ceased to be condemned; with the exception of anger, their practice is supportive of the market economy.

"Critics of capitalism are legion, but perhaps few have got closer to the truth than the eminent German-born social psychiatrist, Erich Fromm (1900-80). The average person, he argues, is now a stranger in the universe; at the deepest level he senses his depression and boredom, the emptiness that pervades his soul. It is this emptiness and dissaffection which demand satisfaction and filling by noise, possessions and entertainment. Yet, as we all know, noise and entertainment make us still emptier and needier. They do not make us happier.

"All our amusements serve the purpose of making it easy for him to run away from himself and from the threatening boredom by taking refuge in the many ways of escape which our culture offers him; yet covering up a symptom does not do away with the conditions which produce it. Aside from the fear of physical illness, or of being humiliated by the loss of status and prestige, the fear of boredom plays a paramount role among the fears of modern man. In a world of fun and amusement, he is afraid of boredom and glad when another day has passed without mishap, another hour has been killed without his having become aware of the lurking boredom.

"These words were written in the early sixties, at a time before the advent of global warming and the current vandalism of our earthly inheritance; before, that is, the despoliation of the planet of which we are becoming ever more conscious. So to Fromm's despair over the killing of the hours we can now add the killing of all life on Earth. Yet the extinction of the amphibians, mammals, birds and fish, our unfulfilled bid to abate our enormous hunger for stimulation and the enthusiasm for materialism are all related; they are a unity. As the Buddhist philosopher Dr. Daisaku Ikeda has written: "A barren destructive mind produces a barren, devastated environment. The desertification of the planet is created by the desertification of the human spirit."

"So silence and solitude have never been more important. They preserve us from exhaustion, from fanaticism, from restlessness — from excess. They remain the fertile ground of creation, the source of contemplation, the place of mindfulness and, between two lovers so at ease with one another that they don't need to fill the space around them with conversation, of intimate communion. It is only in solitude and silence that our life is really present, that we are truly responsive to the heartbeat of the universe and free to contemplate the miracle of existence. Not, perhaps, the world of the street but the world of the now.

"So let us begin this journey by looking at the astonishing wonder of creation and by listening to the subtle polyphony of the sounds which surround us — the sight of the clouds above the rooftop, the rustle of leaves on the pavement, the scrape of a spoon on the surface of a china bowl, the footstep of the cat climbing the stairs.

"Treading the path of solitude and silence can liberate us from a life of agitation and take us towards a serene awareness of the present moment. It can bring us from a life of indulgent consumerism and unreflective conformity to the springs of being: the naked realisation and acceptance of other people and things for what they are. "It is in solitude," writes Isabel Colgate, "that the self meets itself, or, if you like, its God, and from there that it goes out to join the communal dance. No amount of group therapy, study of interpersonal relationships, self-improvement exercises, personal training in the gym, can assuage the loneliness of those who cannot bear to be alone."

"Is it surprising that silence lies at the heart of all the great religions and, no less, the creation of so much thought, prayer, art, music and literature?”