The usefulness of the useless

Reading’s Public Quiet Spaces

A contribution from Richard Bently

“Everyone knows the usefulness of the useful,
but no one knows the usefulness of the useless.”
(Chuang Tzu, late 4th Century B.C.E.)

In the story of ‘The Woodcutter’ Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu replies to the charge that his teaching is “large and useless” by bringing our attention to the value of the useless. He uses the metaphor of a gnarled tree, ignored by woodcutters, but which provides rest under its shady branches and possesses a sacred and venerable beauty. Quiet spaces, whether under a tree, by a river or in a sacred building can similarly be regarded as useless, unproductive or difficult to manage.

While neurobiologists, psychologists and health professionals are establishing the value of quiet for our mental and physical health, many of us will need no convincing of its importance. Interior and exterior quiet is integral to our different faith traditions; fostering community; supporting our experience of the world as sacred; laying the ground for insights and nurturing our spiritual lives in many other ways. Nevertheless, finding quiet spots for prayer, meditation, reading or, simply escaping the hubbub of life in urban areas, such as Reading, can be incredibly difficult, perhaps increasingly difficult. The reasons behind this are many and varied. So, using Reading as a case study, I am embarking on a project to explore, map and gain a better understanding of the role of quiet spaces in our community. The first stage of the project focuses on two questions:

  1. Where are Reading’s quiet spaces and what is the nature of the ‘silence’ found there?
    This is being explored through sound recordings, meter readings and reflecting upon the experience of quiet in these spaces. It also draws on crowdsourced data from the ‘Hush City’ app which lets local people use their GPS equipped smart phones and tablets to locate and log quiet spaces. The app and website can then be used to share local quiet spaces with others. Forty-six quiet spaces recommended by local people have already been mapped.

  2. What is the experience of those that manage and oversee sacred public quiet spaces?
    To answer this question, I have been chatting to and interviewing faith leaders, caretakers and other members of faith communities that contribute to the running of a sacred space. Questions being explored include:
  • Are quiet spaces used regularly? Is there a demand for public quiet spaces?
  • How do people use our local sacred quiet spaces e.g. prayer, meditation, reflection, reading, checking their phone, having a chat?
  • What is the value of ‘quiet’ to members of the various faith traditions represented in Reading?
  • What is it that attracts people to religious buildings as places of quiet?
  • Are there physical, emotional, religious or cultural barriers to people wishing to use religious quiet spaces?
  • What are the pressures facing those managing and running sacred spaces e.g. the need to generate income, provide services to congregations and the local community, attract new members, ensure security, provide staff and volunteers etc.
  • Given that periods of quiet are beneficial to human health and wellbeing, what may attract more people to use spaces of quiet?
  • What information, guidance and support might people need to access in order to benefit from Reading’s quiet spaces?

Responses to these two questions should provide a strong foundation from which to explore the many other aspects of quiet space use that need to be investigated. Over the next two years, with support from members of Reading Interfaith Group, I hope to develop a resource that helps people to access quiet spaces around Reading. Initial conversations suggest that many in our community recognise the need for ‘silence’ in their lives, but that a range of obstacles make it hard for them to access quiet. I have met many members from Reading’s various faith traditions who embody this stillness and solidity. It is a very beautiful gift.

If you feel you would like to support this project, you can currently do so in the following two ways:

  1. Download the Hush City app and log your favourite public quiet space so that it can be shared with others. This could be your place of worship, another interior or exterior sacred space or any public place that you visit for quiet. After downloading the app (iOS and Android), the process of logging a quiet space takes just a few minutes: taking a 30 second sound recording on your phone, taking a picture and answering a few simple questions about your experience of quiet there. You can download the free app here: www.opensourcesoundscapes.org or search ‘Hush City’ in your app store. If you’d prefer not to log the quiet spot yourself, simply email me details of the location and I will log it for you (email address below).

  2. Contact me with your experiences of using or overseeing quiet spaces in Reading or share your reasons for not opening a building as a public quiet space. This could be done by emailing me your thoughts and experiences perhaps using the questions above, giving me a call, or organising a time to meet and discuss them. You can contact me using the details below.

With your encouragement and support we can find practical and workable ways of facilitating access to quiet spaces, giving local people the opportunity to touch silence deeply and appreciate anew the usefulness of the useless.

Thank you for listening. With a bow,

Richard Bentley.
Convenor Two Rivers (Buddhist) Sangha, Reading.
e. bentleyr[a]me.com
m. 07526 768288.