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January 4, 2007

Is silence addictive?


That was the question that occurred to Dominic Swords as he conducted an "experiment with silence."

He just stopped talking.

Everything else in his life remained the same; when addressed, he held out an index card saying, "I'm not speaking at the moment."

He found his quiet state refreshing, as if he'd hit a sort of "reset" button, and wrote about it in an article which appeared in the December 30/31, 2006 Financial Times.

The piece follows.

    Silence treatment

    It's day five and the way I feel now I may never speak again. Inside my head there's a great, welling calm, a roaring without sound. It's like a pleasurable secret and I want it to go on and on. My mind is free of chatter but when I do think, the thoughts are pellucid.

    This is my experiment with silence. I don't say a word and I haven't for days. Apart from that, I'm going about my normal daily life.

    I slipped once. I was cycling. A bus whooshed past my ears, too close. I lapsed into vocality. Other than that it has been easy.

    When addressed, I hold out an index card that says: "I'm not speaking at the moment."

    A few people roll their eyes and ask: "Why?" I am tempted to reply "I'm not saying." But of course I don't. And they leave me alone.

    It's possible to speed up this process. With a little practice, the slightest shrug can communicate: "But enough about me. How are you?"

    It's like noticing what people are really like for the first time. Listening becomes intimate - more than that, reciprocal. The world slowly - quietly - reveals its secrets.

    Something else happens when you stop adding to the noise. Everything goes quiet, even noise is quiet.

    Large questions loom. Is silence the last frontier? Is it addictive? And why am I doing this?

    When my experiment ends, I look for answers from Professor John Teasdale, a retired research psychologist. Although quietly spoken, he doesn't profess to be an expert on silence but on stillness.

    There are two aspects to silence: there's being quiet or not speaking; and there's being in silence, where nothing around you makes noise.

    These are mirrored in the two traditional paths to meditation, as Prof Teasdale explains them. In one approach, you're meant to hold the mind still by shutting out thoughts and sensations. Mantras can be used to block other stimuli. "Eventually the mind becomes more tractable and peaceful."

    The other way is mindfulness meditation. Here you don't block things out, you open up to them. "This is more expansive in the sense that it's trying to help people be aware of the moment, of whatever they're experiencing."

    This sounds to me like not talking. Rather than blocking out the noise, as I did when I installed secondary glazing in my bedroom, I'm opening up to it. "It's not about being lost in thought," cautions Teasdale. "You're right here, fully present, seeing and hearing what's going on."

    But what about the other route: being in total silence? I head to a local flotation tank centre.

    I get to Floatworks and lie buoyantly in the salty bath. After 10 minutes of whale music, I am immersed in impressively total silence. At one point I think I hear an egret squawking for its mother in a remote eyrie. It's actually air wheezing through my nose.

    Afterwards, I meet Tim Strudwick, co-owner of Floatworks. He used to be a foreign exchange trader in the City of London. He recalls how frantic it was. "When you entered the room, you were pinned to the wall with the racket."

    He gave it all up to float. For Strudwick, silence is key. "In life, you are bombarded with information. Take that away and you get a chance to process things for yourself."

    What do people process? "They come out and feel like their mind's had a spring clean, or someone's hit the reset button. They know exactly what to do next in life."

    After my float, I decide to go to business school. Michael Chaskalson, a Buddhist business expert, is teaching MBAs and businessmen to dip into the silence at the campus in Regent's Park. Chaskalson does not ask his clients to forgo speech for long. "We start with a really simple instruction: just follow your breath for five minutes." It is surprising who finds this difficult.

    "I was working with a chief executive of a global financial services company," says Chaskalson, "his mind was hopping round like a monkey in a tree."

    It's as if the ability to predict scenarios, so prized by business people, is also in a sense a liability. Chaskalson calls this "spinning narratives".

    "Executives tell themselves they know what's going on. But then you walk into a room and everybody falls silent. 'They're talking about me,' you think. 'How do they know?' You see, it's quite consequential."

    Now I'm reluctantly speaking again. I tell Chaskalson about the strange, vivid dreams I had when I wasn't — the abnormally distant horizons and low meaningful mountains.

    "I think there's a very still space that it's possible to experience, which can't be described with any accuracy in terms of the world of concepts," he says. "We call it a space of unknowing, of openness, of radiant emptiness."

    He regards the search for silence, inner or outer, as "doomed". It's a quest he's followed diligently. "I do a month's solitary retreat each year, eight hours of meditation a day. I used to look for somewhere very, very quiet."

    He rented a place in the Pyrénées for a month and was plagued by French dormice "like three-quarter-sized squirrels". When he took a caravan on the Norfolk coast, "a farmer started pumping out a reservoir with a diesel pump 24 hours a day". And in Wales, for Christmas, his cottage became infested with flies as the place warmed up.

    "I have given up on silence. The world is alive. It's important to reorient yourself to that vibrancy."

    He's asked me to join him for a mindfulness course but we haven't arranged it yet. Now that I'm speaking again, I'm too busy.


The exploration of silence by Swords brings to mind Herman Melville's wonderful character, Bartleby the scrivener, in the 1853 story of the same name.

Just magnificent is Bartleby who one day simply decides to reply, "I would prefer not to," to each and every request, no matter by whom and regarding what.

But don't take my word for it: read the story for yourself.

January 4, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Wonder if I can persuade the kids to try it...

Posted by: Skipweasel | Jan 9, 2007 5:54:02 PM

John Francis wrote 'Planetwalker : how to change your world one step at a time'. The book is about his not speaking and his walking.

Posted by: Lem | Jan 5, 2007 9:30:15 PM

I would prefer not to. Just checking to see if your awake of not.

I like silence from not talking. Although I do not give myself that pleasure of just shutting up, paying attention and listening. I think that will be my next quest. Just shut up. I prefer not to. Wonderful advice. I have noticed though that the more things or conversations get silly it gets worse WITH more talk. Always remember words are only words. They do not make sense until feelings mix in.

Ok with that said I think I am taking a break now. =)

Posted by: Rhonda | Jan 5, 2007 10:28:27 AM

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