What happens when you play with silence

I’ve been thinking about silence.

It comes from practicing silence. Closing doors as quietly as possible. Tip-toeing around in socks. Lifting your chair rather than just giving it a shove when you want to tuck it under the table. Stirring your milk into your tea without the spoon touching the sides of the mug. And not speaking.

I spent just under 10 days in such a silence as I learnt to meditate.

Silence of Thought

Whilst meditating, my thoughts were supposed to be silent too. My mind was supposed to be focused. But silencing your thoughts is hard. It’s a process of disengagement rather than shutting them up and it’s not something that comes naturally.

Hence, whilst feeling the subtle effects of my breath, my mind also reflected on the experience of silence.

Silence of Technology

As well as not speaking, I sent no messages through any electronic device. I had no access to a computer and my phone was in a locker in a locked locker room that was out of bounds. I wonder if I have had been away from a phone or computer for such a duration since my age reached double digits. I rather doubt it. Maybe on a long scout camp, but even then I imagine I had my mobile.

Despite only being in Hereford, I was more isolated from my family and friends than I’d been a few months previously when I’d been in Egypt.

Silence of Reading

‘Course boundary’, ‘Female course boundary’ and the signs telling you how to exit the buildings in case of a fire, were the only words I read. I didn’t write either. I had no pen and so was forced to remember what I wanted to write about on my escape.

Not writing was an interesting challenge because on a daily basis I write lots. I write for professional reasons, but I also write to organise my thoughts and my emotions. I do much of my reasoning on paper. Not writing meant that my thoughts hung around longer and kept running in repeating loops around my head.

The Power of Silence

After the silence had broken, a group of us gathered around a couple of tables, drank tea and reflected on the experience. One woman bravely leant back in her chair and said boldly, “Well I found that I’m much funnier than I thought.”

Eyes connected, and an acknowledgement of ‘me too’ went around the table. We all laughed at ourselves.

The woman who had spoken up had spent days of the course in floods of tears, but reflecting on the experience as a whole was much moved by the resilience of her mind. Now, cheerful and loud, she seemed far removed from an emotional breakdown.

I get the impression people expect silence to be boring or perhaps intimidating. Dare to give all those deeply hidden thoughts room to manoeuvre and perhaps they’ll take over. Of course thoughts surface. Faces and unkind or thoughtless comments from years ago battle for attention. Worries, to do lists and regrets are loud thoughts, dominating thoughts. We’re well practiced in giving them priority and forgetting our minds are actually creative, amusing and fun.

2 Comments
  • Clare Pooley
    Friday 8 April 2016

    Having never done anything like this I have no idea how I would cope. I long to spend some time in silence and alone (half a day would be a treat!) but ten days is quite a long time. I can imagine that unwelcome thoughts must come to mind unbidden and they would have to be dealt with instead of being ignored.

    • Catherine Oughtibridge
      Wednesday 20 April 2016

      I think you’d cope better than you imagine. Everyone who went through it (only 1 person gave up) seemed to feel it was worth it at the end, and there were a fair few faces that looked like they were having a hard time during the week.

      The whole environment feels very safe, the course managers are keeping an eye on you, a bit like a parent with a child, and you don’t have to think about anything in order to keep your physical self well. It’s also amazing how easy it is to stay in silence when there’s so many other people doing the same thing.

      Rather than ‘deal’ with unwelcome thoughts, the point with meditation is more to let them be. I found that some of the emotions were intense, but actually, in my thoughts I tended to be quite compassionate to myself. Plus the clarity and insight I gained into the patterns in my behaviour which leads to unwelcome experiences was worth the hardship.

      That said, everyone’s experience is very different.