These are the common rhythms and sounds of life in an urban city perpetually under construction.
At least it’s been so in my city for as long as I can remember. Of late, however, it feels like it’s worsening!
The Noisy Rhythms Of My Habitat
I live close to the equator on a tropical island city-state without four seasons. Her weather patterns, climate change notwithstanding, remain fairly constant year-round. We have a population of over seven million (including nearly 2 million non-citizens), packed onto a land mass of slightly over 700 square kilometers. So it’s really hard not to feel claustrophobic at times. If you don’t believe me, board a public train any hour of the day (but especially the rush hour). Just be sure you’re not doing it on a day you’re feeling stressed or unwell!
Besides weather and claustrophobia, salty seawater surrounds my country too. It indirectly contributes to the heat, humidity, and heavy tropical thunderstorms from the start to the end of each year. In other words, things rust, decompose, and wear and tear at an alarming rate. This explains why, at any time of the year, constructions, renovations, and road works go on perpetually almost every 200 meters of buildings and motorways, in nearly every direction the naked eye can see as one travels across the island.
In particular, the road works in these last couple of years have literally mushroomed seemingly every 100 meters of asphalt concrete you find. From laying new tarmac to resurface roads to digging tunnels to lay underground optic fiber cables. From building new expressway links to widening roads from two to four carriageways. The list goes on and on.
This also means the requisite drilling and heavy machinery noises along with workers shouting every so often go on ad nauseam during all daylight hours (and even some night ones).
Are you getting the picture? Or, should I say, hearing the cacophony?
A Cacophony Of Jarring Urban Rhythms
It’s hard sometimes not to lose it, even though on most days many have accepted these sounds as the necessary evils to keep this first-world economy humming. Yes, my little island city-state is often the envy of many countries for achieving first-world economic status within 50 years of independence. (She’s now 58 years young)
But you have to wonder, what’s the intangible cost to our citizenry’s peace and stable rhythms with all this hammering and excavating?
These environmental and population factors combine daily to bang out jarring urban rhythms. Rhythms that will overwhelm any first-time visitor to a city that seems never satisfied and is always a work in progress.
But the bigger problem is that long-time residents like me are so used to these rhythms, we have come to accept them without question. We’ve lost the sensitivity to recognize the toll this island’s disruptive and pulsating beats have taken on our inner lives!
This realization came to me after one silent retreat I recently took.
My First Solo Silent Spiritual Retreat
Last week I took my very first solo silent spiritual retreat.
The first time I participated in such a retreat was way back in the early 1990s when I joined a group of fellow undergraduates on a mountain getaway in Malaysia. During the week-long spiritual retreat, we had to spend a couple of hours a day away from one another to refresh, recharge, and meditate. The idea was to reconnect with our inner selves. To sense what God might say without the world’s endless, competing noises and distractions.
Truth be told, many of us ended up napping when we should be reading or pondering our retreat leaders’ spiritual sharings and teachings! Thankfully, our leaders were understanding. As it turns out, napping is a common response for first-timers to such silent retreats.
Fast forward to a few months ago when I first heard from friends about a silent retreat venue in the western part of my country. They had stayed there at various times and found the whole experience invigorating in a mountaintop kind of way.
Having felt for some time the need to step away from the hustle and bustle of city living, I needed little persuasion to sign up for a retreat there.
Fast forward again, this time to last week, when I too was privileged to feel what could truly be described as akin to that mountaintop experience my friends had. Ironic, given that my country has no mountains!
The feeling happened soon after I arrived at the retreat.
The Rhythms Less Felt
Nestled serenely on a hillock opposite a large nature reserve, this retreat, or spirituality center as it was called, took in groups or individuals for a few days at a time for some peaceful, silent contemplation.
I was struck by how quiet it was. Granted, it still couldn’t totally avoid all urban sounds (road works every 100 meters remember?). But at the very least, here there was sufficient elevation and distance away from those sounds for me to “hear” more of the silence this time.
I had forgotten that silence too has its own ‘sound’, a kind of palpable stillness, like someone enveloping me in a tight hug, but not in a horror movie kind of way. More a warm blanket that snuggles and reassures. This was also possible because, to my surprise and relief, I found out upon arrival that I was the spirituality center’s only guest for the week!
As I settled down for my silent retreat, there was a growing sense that very different rhythms were at play.
Over the next three days, I spent quality time listening to bird songs and the occasional gentle breeze. I also reconnected with my inner thoughts undistracted (yes I had my phone, but for some inexplicable reason, felt little compunction to reach for it as I normally do). At the same time, I could sense God’s inner promptings as I took extended time to pray, ponder, and put down spiritual impressions in my pocket journal.
In the end, I concluded there was no way to find inner peace and hear these serene rhythms unless I disconnected from my city’s daily jarring urban rhythms.
The Truth About Urban Living And The Need To Pause It
City life can be mentally and spiritually exhausting. Surrounded by constant traffic, people, and machines in relentless motion, we can easily, rapidly, and imperceptibly be swept along like a mighty river by the city’s incessant and punishing flow.
This is borne out by a report in today’s major local daily. It describes a new lab set up in an empty apartment block for visitors to experience the impact of noise in high-rise, compact residences. Visitors can sign up for free to role play either listening to or producing sounds in adjacent apartments. All in the spirit of learning how to minimize inconveniences to neighbors caused by noises.
Why you ask?
The Covid years had exacerbated neighborly tensions here, as household noises escalated, with everyone working or studying from home. From loud Zoom calls to dragging furniture. From bouncing balls to pounding spices. Disruptive sounds and rhythms are literally just a retaining wall away for many in this land!
Let’s face it. Even low-level stimuli, like the idle humming of a stationary car’s engine, can unsettle one unconsciously. Our minds and bodies are constantly responding to external stimuli, even if we’re not aware we’re reacting. It explains why many of us in urban cities often find ourselves regularly harried, impatient, and irritable but can’t pinpoint the source or trigger.
The only solution is to seek a place free from these draining urban demands on our time and attention. To reconnect with ourselves and mend our frayed and tattered nerves in order to regain our composure and sanity.
So, if like me, you’ve been feeling burnt out and exhausted for some time now, perhaps it’s time you step away from urban living and seek out a mountaintop experience.
Then, instead of rumbles, thumps, and grrrrs that rankle, you might instead pause and hear ____
And, like me last week, feel refreshed and settled again!