Whole-school assembly delivered on Friday, 2nd February
(Silence for 30 seconds)
For many of us the last few seconds were awkward, uncomfortable even. We don’t like quiet and we find it difficult to hold back the urge to break the silence by whispering to our neighbour, or coughing, or attempting to fill the silence by taking out our phone so that we become less aware of it.
In the past silence was normal, but now it has become almost non-existent. Noise pollution is a companion to modern life, with traffic, ringtones and other people’s conversations providing the soundtrack to our daily routines. Block out these sounds and our minds are still noisy with our attention constantly pulled in all directions: continuous feeds from social media, ever changing fashions, news stories from every part of the world, multiple conversations happening all at once on text, phone, whatsapp…. We are constantly on the go; multitasking in a multimedia world.
Those moments when we are immersed in quietness are all too rare in today’s world. One of the best moments in my day is when I actually get that calm and stillness as I walk across Tooting Common in the morning and enjoy the world as it is waking up. It is chance to admire the beauty of the sun rising, listen to the cacophony of birdsong, watch the swans as they glide across the pond, notice the first spring flowers starting to push up through the sodden earth.
On my walks across the Common, I was particularly taken with the super blue moon the other night when the moon appeared about 7% larger and 15% brighter than usual. It was such a clear night that I was able to make out even some of the craters on its pock-marked surface. I wouldn’t have achieved the same wonder at the awesomeness of the universe if I was texting my wife about what I should make for dinner.
Holly, who left us last year to read Music at Oxford, gave a very interesting musical performance at a Socratic Society where she played us some of John Cage’s most famous work, entitled 4’33.
She picked up the bow of her cello and then nothing, no notes, just silence. In fact, 4’33 is made up of three movements where the musicians are instructed not to play their instruments at all.
Obviously Cage wasn’t just being lazy by not producing a score, but indeed composed the piece as a stark contrast to the noise of modern urban life.
However, in the piece what we are listening to isn’t silence, it’s the everyday noise around us and Cage is asking us to focus on it rather than ignoring it as unimportant. He understood that moments of quiet are important for us to allow us to pay attention to the smallest of details whether it is your breath, the scrape of a chair or the fold of the curtain on the stage.
Keeping silence is not about creating an absence of noise, but providing us with the chance to be reflective, thoughtful, curious. When I looked up at the super blue moon the other night, I thought about the relation of the moon to the earth, the length of time it had been in existence, how it would have changed its appearance as it was struck by successive meteorites, the universe beyond the moon and the place of us in it.
The importance of silence as an opportunity for deep reflection has long been recognised by a number of religious orders and indeed certain orders of monks, such as the Trappists, only speak when it is deemed necessary.
However, psychologists now know that these monks were onto a good thing as self-reflection is important to human development and learning. Giving us a time to reflect allows us to weave meaning from the threads of our various experiences. The function of self-reflection is to make meaning, and the creation of meaning is at the heart of what it means to be human.
But, how are we going to give ourselves more time for reflection?
One answer is simply to ‘get away from it all’: leave behind the noises and stresses of London life. The Cambodia expedition team will be doing exactly that as they travel to South-East Asia this summer. They will have plenty of opportunity for stillness and quiet as they wander among the evocative ruins of the Angkor Wat temple-complex, trek through the peace and serenity of the Cambodian countryside and sleep in hammocks in the jungle.
However, this is a once in a lifetime experience, so how can we build in time for reflection every day as we go about our daily lives?
The easiest thing is walking. Next time, you are tempted to take the bus one stop, try walking it instead. However, avoid having your headphones in your ears so that you can actually take stock of the world around you. Going for a walk is particularly useful when you are revising for a test or exam as going for a walk causes brain growth in the hippocampus region, resulting in better memory. Taking a walk gives the brain uninterrupted focus and helps with memory consolidation.
In our Learning 2 Learn lessons, we have talked about using learning logs to aid reflection. Reflecting and writing down what we have been experiencing and learning is a good way to pull together the threads of what we have been doing. Even keeping a diary of our thoughts and feelings can be helpful.
Thinking about how and when we use digital technology is also very important. Wimbledon High School, part of our GDST family, has come up with digital rules to help create some much needed space in our digital lives, for example putting our phones away at meals and leaving our phone downstairs at bedtime. You have all heard of FOMO (fear of missing out) and FOMO often means that it is difficult to switch off social media. Well, pupils at Wimbledon want us to reject FOMO and replace it with JOMO (the joy of missing out) and revel in not being invited to parties or tagged in photos online. If we embraced JOMO, we would find it easier to take time off from social media. Let’s all have some ‘JOMO time’.
We could also just sit in silence, not talking. The brain is the most complex and powerful organ, and like muscles, benefits from rest. Research shows that regular times set aside to disengage, sit in silence and mentally rest boosts our ability to process information.
By shutting off speech, it heightens awareness in other areas and we become much more aware of the sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and emotions. In particular, immersing ourselves in music is another good way to enable us to focus and concentrate on the here and now. In a moment, Joely is going to play for us Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1. As you sit in silence, I want you to concentrate on the present and avoid thinking about what is to come in the day ahead whether it is the anxieties of a test or your plans for the weekend. I want you to focus on the music, how it makes you feel, what emotions you notice, the sensations that arise. If your mind wanders, then bring it back to the music and enjoy this moment of peace, quiet and serenity. Remember, silence has an immense power, if we only stopped to listen.