Lockdown. Here We Go Again

As we enter lockdown again, I am reminded of the article David Dale wrote last year in the Sydney Morning Herald about Isaac Newton’s self-isolation during the plague year 1665-66 and how he passed the time.

‘Newton was 23, a student at Cambridge. When the black plague spread there from London, he retreated to his birthplace – Woolsthorpe Manor, near the town of Grantham (later the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher). During what he called his “annus mirabilis”, or wonderful year, at Woolsthorpe, Newton did three significant things:

He invented the mathematical system called calculus,

He drilled a hole in the shutter of his bedroom window and held a prism up to the beam of sunlight that came through it, discovering that white light is made up of every colour (and giving Pink Floyd an iconic album cover), and

He watched apples falling from the trees in his garden and theorised about a force called gravity, which keeps the moon revolving around planet Earth. (He later wrote: “I can calculate the movement of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”)’  

4 Reasons Why Silence Is Good For You

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Spending time in silence can improve your focus, productivity and creativity. Exceptional creativity often happens in solitude.

‘In a loud and distracting world, finding pockets of stillness can benefit your brain and body. Here are four science-backed reasons why.’ – Carolyn Gregoire, The Huffington Post:

1. Silence relieves stress and tension. 

Florence Nightingale, the 19th century British nurse and social activist, once wrote that “Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well.” Nightingale argued that needless sounds could cause distress, sleep loss and alarm for recovering patients.

It turns out that noise pollution has been found to lead to high blood pressure and heart attacks, as well as impairing hearing and overall health. Loud noises raise stress levels by activating the brain’s amygdala and causing the release of the stress hormone cortisol, according to research.

An unpublished 2004 paper by environmental psychologist Dr. Craig Zimring suggests that higher noise levels in neonatal intensive care units led to elevated blood pressure, increased heart rates and disrupted patient sleep patterns.

Just as too much noise can cause stress and tension, research has found that silence has the opposite effect, releasing tension in the brain and body.

2006 study published in the journal Heart found two minutes of silence to be more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music, based on changes in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.

2. Silence replenishes our mental resources.

In our everyday lives, sensory input is being thrown at us from every angle. When we can finally get away from these sonic disruptions, our brains’ attention centers have the opportunity to restore themselves.

The ceaseless attentional demands of modern life put a significant burden on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is involved in high-order thinking, decision-making and problem-solving.

As a result, our attentional resources become drained. When those attention resources are depleted, we become distracted and mentally fatigued, and may struggle to focus, solve problems and come up with new ideas.

But according to attention restoration theory, the brain can restore its finite cognitive resources when we’re in environments with lower levels of sensory input than usual. In silence ― for instance, the quiet stillness you find when walking alone in nature ― the brain can let down its sensory guard, so to speak.

3. In silence, we can tap into the brain’s default mode network. 

The default mode network of the brain is activated when we engage in what scientists refer to as “self-generated cognition,” such as daydreaming, meditating, fantasizing about the future or just letting our minds wander.

When the brain is idle and disengaged from external stimuli, we can finally tap into our inner stream of thoughts, emotions, memories and ideas. Engaging this network helps us to make meaning out of our experiences, empathize with others, be more creative and reflect on our own mental and emotional states.

In order to do this, it’s necessary to break away from the distractions that keep us lingering on the shallow surfaces of the mind. Silence is one way of getting there.

Default mode activity helps us think deeply and creatively. As Herman Melville once wrote, “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

4. Getting quiet can regenerate brain cells.

Silence can quite literally grow the brain.

2013 study on mice, published in the journal Brain, Structure, and Function, involved comparing the effects of ambient noise, white noise, pup calls and silence on the rodents’ brains. Although the researchers intended to use silence as a control in the study, they found that two hours of silence daily led to the development of new cells in the hippocampus, a key brain region associated with learning, memory and emotion.

While preliminary, the findings suggested that silence could be therapeutic for conditions like depression and Alzheimer’s, which are associated with decreased rates of neuron regeneration in the hippocampus.

Rest and regeneration are so important for all of us in this loud, fast moving world. There’s something especially valuable in being disciplined in switching off, tuning out, and making room for silence, solitude and tranquility.

Is There A Link Between Spirituality and Creativity?

photo of golden gautama buddha

What is the relationship between spirituality and creativity? The discipline and focused attention cultivated through meditation help us do one thing at a time, totally and absolutely, which greatly enhances our writing.

‘Contemplative practice, daily nature walks, and still, silent listening can be among the best natural meditations. They help clarify our minds and uplift the heart, dissolving our ordinary preoccupations and mental states that dissipate the fertile spirit within. Such daily disciplines are also excellent tonics for our agitated, febrile brains and weary bodies. When we ease into the realm of non-doing–what Chinese Buddhists called wu wei–there is more room for our mysterious, unfabricated inner self to naturally emerge.’ – Lama Surya Das

It’s tough being a writer. Very tough. As Thomas Mann says, A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

Dinty Moore, in his book The Mindful Writer, Noble Truths of the Writing Life, says his lifelong pursuit of writing and creativity has helped to open him to the path of Buddhism:

‘Find inspiration and insight on writing as a spiritual practice through astute quotes, thoughtful advice, and productive exercises on both mindfulness and craft.  This isn’t your typical “how to write” book. Author Dinty W. Moore, a well-respected writing coach and teacher, thoughtfully illuminates the creative process: where writing and creativity originate, how mindfulness plays into work, how to cultivate good writing habits and grow as a person, and what it means to live a life dedicated to writing.’ – The Mindful Writer

Here’s to Mindfulness and Meditation to help us on our way through our roller coaster lives as creative writers.

 

Does solitude enrich creative work?

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I’ve been living for two weeks now in Villefranche sur Mer a small fishing village on the French Riviera. This is the fourth year I’ve rented an apartment here and had a month to  myself to read and to write and go for long walks around the stunning coastline of the Cote d’Azur.

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I’ve had my ups and downs, but what’s new? I love being in this magnificent part of the world but find it challenging being alone in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language. I have tried to learn French, but languages aren’t my forte. It’s certainly a good opportunity to dig deep in silence.

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Check out this article in the Huffington Post on Why Silence Is So Good For Your Brain.

As our internal and external environments become louder and louder, more people are beginning to seek out silence, whether through a practice of sitting quietly for 10 minutes every morning or heading off to a 10-day silent retreat.

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It’s mild early winter here on the Mediterranean and on sunny days people still swim and sunbake on the beach. The Bay of Villefranche, reputed as one of the five most beautiful bays in the world, is anchored by two major cities – Nice and Monaco – on either side. Villefranche is still a traditional Nicoise fishing village, pedestrians-only in the Old Town.

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Twice a week there is a fabulous fresh market in the garden square. I especially like the cheese man on a Saturday where I buy Roquefort and Camembert. On Wednesdays I buy Italian Parmesan from the Italian man. Villefranche is close to the border with Italy, so we are able to enjoy a few special Italian treats like pizza and capuccinos. The Wednesday Italian man sells charcuterie and fresh pasta too. Another man cooks and sells socca and pissaladiere, two traditonal favourites of this area. And then there’s the man selling tapinades. The black olive tapinade is my favourite. And, of course, being a fishing village, there’s the fish monger with his freshly caught catch of the day.

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fisherman

Surrounding Villefranche’s large bay are cliffs and steep hillsides, brimming with olive and citrus trees, Mediterranean pines, bougainvillea and flowering plants. The lush vegetation meets the water’s edge where the shades of blue are dazzling.

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The stunning light levels here on the French Riviera have long attracted the artist and writer community (Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, Renoir, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chanel, Cocteau and Nietzsche, to name a few).

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I’ve gone a bit overboard on the sunrise and sunset shots as seen from my apartment Sur le Toit (under the roof), but the colours are so stunning they are one of the highlights of my time here. Inspirational.

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‘In the neutral state of aloneness, the psychoemotional line between solitude and loneliness can be as thin as a razor’s edge and as lacerating to the soul. How to draw it skillfully in orienting ourselves to the world, exterior and interior, is what poet, novelist, and memoirist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores in a beautiful poem she penned ten days after her twenty-sixth birthday, decades before she came to contemplate solitude in stunning prose. Originally titled “Considerations,” the poem was slightly revised and published the following year as “Canticle 6” in Sarton’s second poetry collection, the altogether sublime Inner Landscape (public library).’ – Maria Popova

 

CANTICLE 6
by May Sarton

Alone one is never lonely: the spirit
adventures, waking
In a quiet garden, in a cool house, abiding single there;
The spirit adventures in sleep, the sweet thirst-slaking
When only the moon’s reflection touches the wild hair.
There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone:
It finds a lovely certainty in the evening and the morning.
It is only where two have come together bone against bone
That those alonenesses take place, when, without warning
The sky opens over their heads to an infinite hole in space;
It is only turning at night to a lover that one learns
He is set apart like a star forever and that sleeping face
(For whom the heart has cried, for whom the frail hand burns)
Is swung out in the night alone, so luminous and still,
The waking spirit attends, the loving spirit gazes
Without communion, without touch, and comes to know at last
Out of a silence only and never when the body blazes
That love is present, that always burns alone, however steadfast.

I’ve brought with me to France on this writing-retreat-for-one the first 40 pages of my novel-in-progress and am working on the story, line by line, to add depth and characterisation. Am having difficulty concentrating on my manuscript though as I struggle with the emotional rollercoaster of jetlag and then a leaking apartment. Feel more settled today since I moved out of Sur le Toit and down to the waterfront. A good night’s sleep helps.

I returned to my manuscript and wrote a new sentence 🙂