Silent retreats, silent eateries and even silent dating events are on the rise. Now a new film aims to quietly spread the word

Once the preserve of monastic retreats and hardcore meditators, simply being quiet is growing in appeal. Whole businesses have sprung up to meet a rising demand for quiet hour, from silent weekend getaways to silent dining, silent read parties and even silent dating. This month watches the release of documentary In Pursuit of Silence, a meditative film about our relationship with noise, promoted with a delicate two-minute trailer in which not a word is uttered.

Silence can, as the movie attests, mean different things to different people. It can be a space for quiet reflection or a nation fraught with discomfort. There is a certain intimacy inherent in being silent with other people we usually do so merely with those closest to us. So there is something almost radical about the recent trend for enjoying stillnes with strangers.

Mariel Symeonidou started a regular silent reading party in Dundee simply under a year ago, in a moment of uncharacteristic extroversion. Readers bring their books and meet in a bar, where they read together in silence for an hour or sometimes two, then put the books away to chat and have a drink.

Meditating in Australia. Photo: Fairfax Media/ Fairfax Media via Getty Images

The concept began in the dimly lighted, retro-furnished cafe and bars of Seattle. Devised as a literary hangout for those who dont like spoken-word nights or discussion groups, the premise was simple: show up, just shut up and read. The trend has spread to New York and since found a home in the UK, in London and Edinburgh as well as Dundee.

When the read starts, everything runs quiet, says Symeonidou. Its a little bit surreal, especially in what is usually a bustling bar. However, there is something special about sharing that silence with others. It offers an opportunity for escapism; everyone is so busy with work and with technology being ever present. An event like this gives people the opportunity to escape these things for a while.

While the readings are now tranquil and relaxed, Mariel confesses initial iterations were a little awkward. This discomfort is precisely where the radical power of stillnes lies, tells Matthew Adams, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Brighton. Silence is often something we experience as uncomfortable, as a rupture in the social fabric, an awkwardness we want to cover over with our voices.

Adams has a long-term interest in the social, cultural and psychological implication of stillnes, and particularly in shared silence and electing to share silence. Collective silence is about connecting with others in a way that gets underneath social conventions. It tackles us with what it feels like to be in the physical presence of other human beings without any games, strategies, reading or misreading of intentions. It is a temporary suspension of our reliance on talk.

The absence of chatter can have social advantages. Londons silent speed-dating event organisers Shhh! say that we are instinctively better at communicating and choosing the right partners when we have the chance to put aside words and consider one another as we really are.

Shhh! hosts regular speed-dating conferences and singles events, featuring non-verbal flirting games and eye-gazing; neatly side-stepping all the what-are-you-watching-on-Netflix topics. Claimed to be a favourite with creative professionals in their 20 s and 30 s, Shhh! boasts a busy its own programme of events until the end of the year. The conferences begin with games to break the ice, including jumping around in front of a potential mate and attaining paleolithic noises. Then goes a somewhat standard speed-dating set-up; attendees are paired off for a limited window of day, communicating merely with gestures, before engaging in 60 seconds of uninterrupted eye contact. After the event you are dutifully furnished with the contact details of interested parties and if youre lucky enough to land a second date, you can maintain the established embargo on chit-chat, whisking them off for a silent dinner date or a mute trip to the pictures.

Honi Ryan is an artist based in Berlin who began hosting silent dinners back in 2006. An otherwise ordinary dinner party setup, albeit with a ritzy vegan menu( regular dishes include baked almond soy mushrooms and Lebanese beans ), the rules of the dinner are: no talking , no employing your voice , no reading or writing, to continue efforts to make as little noise as is practicable, do not interact with technology, and bide for at least two hours.

Ryan describes the silent dinners as social statues engaging with the changing nature of communication and the space between people. So far she has taken her silent dining project to Mexico, the US, Australia, Lebanon and China. The global reach is fundamental to the project, as is the inclusive and international menu. Its evident that the age-old connections we make over food do not depend on the words around it. Silence creates the space for the people and places involved to fill with whatever is needed; it strips away our rehearsed social behaviours.

In Pursuit of Silence the art of seeing stillness within yourself. Photograph: PR Company Handout

Perhaps the most well-known silent social is the silent retreat. Recently featured in an episode of BBC comedy Fleabag, silent retreats vary in tone and intent, and are more popular than you might imagine. The retreats often have a religious or spiritual component, with Buddhist, Christian and Catholic retreats constructing up the majority. They can last anywhere between a couple of days to a few weeks, set in places that are usually fittingly pastoral, in old farm buildings or country piles.

Silent retreat regular Peter Cadney first discovered the power of stillnes on a 10 -day vipassana silent meditation course, in 2013. The technique emphasises developing a connection with stillnes and accessing the stillness within yourself.

There had been a number of events in my life that I hadnt been able to deal with very well; things like relationship breakups and the death of a close friend. Id spent years working at a computer and was feeling the effects of muscle tension, nervousnes and stress. I felt drawn to finding somewhere quiet to sit in order to discovery peace within myself.

Cadney tells silent meditation has helped to improve both his mental and physical health. When I first sat down in silence, it felt very peaceful. I started noticing just how many guess were coming and going in my mind, it was as if there had been no space for silence.

Cadney has since given up his office job and now runs as a holistic therapist. As soon as I sat down in that meditation hall I thought: this is where I am supposed to be.

Swiss Artist Salome Voegelin also detected a purpose in silence. However, rather than determining stillnes soothing or nulling somehow, it instead opened her intellect to the revolutionary potential of hearing. She describes stillnes , not as the is a lack of audio, but as the beginning of listening, though she has some reservations about the egotistical propensities of the current trend for silent getaways.

While these events are contemplative and respectful, I wonder how much of the silent listening is expended preoccupying about ones own silence rather than hearing others and the environment, she says.

Voeglins book, Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art posits stillnes and noise not as opposites but as different objectives of the same spectrum. “Were not receiving” true silence. Its a state that allows me to hear my breathing in tandem with yours, the rumbling of my belly, the gurgling of the radiator. It provides a time out. Its when we start to listen to each other.

Silence assumes a new meaning in an era in which we are consuming information and engaging in dialogue with one another endlessly, without ever opening our mouths. While we may watch The Pursuit of Silence and enjoy the absence of audio, how many of us will be seduced to check in with our emails, tweet our thoughts on the film? While we might find pleasure in those rare and cherished moments of peace and quiet, when it comes to stillnes and stillness, can we muster up the self-restraint at all?

In Pursuit of Silence is on release now .

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