Thursday, 27 May 2010

Silence is....

Golden? Terrifying? Unfamiliar?

Personally I’d go with the last two. I am rarely silent. For those who don’t know me, I am little miss chatterbox and have been asked, at times, if I have an off-switch (the answer was always no). I can be just as chatty first thing in the morning as last thing at night, but more than just being a real talker, I am more often than not surrounded drowning in auditory input. If I kept a sound diary it might start off a bit like this:

Radio clicks on, followed shortly by the alarm. Take shower accompanied by radio.
Sit down to breakfast in front of the BBC news on TV
Out of the front-door, plug in ipod, travel to work.

You can guess the rest. Evenings when spent at home usually involve putting the TV on while I eat, and sometimes it stays on all evening just in the background while I do other things – there’s not much I actually watch, but I generally have it on. Failing that, I might play music while I cook, take a bath or talk on the phone. Of course yoga is the exception, it’s the chance to hear nothing but the sound of your own breath and the overheard suggestions or adjustment cues given to fellow practitioners, but going to a friendly shala with a unisex communal changing room means that there is usually friendly chat after practice (though of course it’s not compulsory). Socially, I have moved away from bars and clubs over the past few years and so catching up with friends usually means either dinner, or coffee & cake, with a huge side order of talking. So though-out the day, all day every day, if I’m not talking, I’m listening: either to music, to the radio, to the TV – there is always sound. I could argue that I often use it drown out something else – this is especially true on public transport where the hour I travel each way to work every day is greatly eased by the addition of music, but it still remains the fact that I am rarely surrounded by the sound of silence.
So it is very strange that in the past week I have twice found myself absolutely craving just that – silence. Maybe I had felt it before but not recognised it until now, I don’t know, and I have always relished having time in my own company to decompress during busy times, but I can’t say this specific need is something I’ve ever experienced before. The first time was on Saturday, after Cary’s lovely garden party (you can read about it and see pictures on Kevin or Susan’s blogs!). I spent the afternoon chatting with shala friends (not just yoga chat!) and eating lots of homemade goodies, and it was really lovely. When we were leaving I was considering heading to a kirtan class but on the way back to the station I realised that all I really really wanted was to go home and be quiet. I wondered if going and spending the evening chanting instead would take me to the same sort of place as a relaxed evening at home (involving, as it would, the 1 hour schlep each way to Primrose Hill), but I knew it wasn’t what my body and mind wanted. So I came straight home, went out into the early evening sunshine and lay on a lounger in my garden with a book, but found that after a few lines my mind didn’t even want the internal reading voice to disturb it. So I sat, closed my eyes and soaked up the sunshine.
Then last night after work, the same thing happened (only if anything, it was more marked). I’d had a great yoga practice in the morning and spent the whole day feeling simultaneously energetic and completely calm. It was generally a great day at work (which I should say is highly unusual!), things have changed a little lately and I am hoping that the new set-up will leave me feeling more fulfilled and involved in what I’m doing – in essence I couldn’t have been happier. Then at around 4pm it was as if someone flicked a switch and I felt hugely drained with a weird dragging sensation in my hips and legs, I was freezing cold, had pain in my lower back, and the biggest need to just get home. So when I got back I was happy to be home, but instead of putting the TV on as usual I made dinner, checked my email, read a few blogs, and then ran a bath. With my lodger away, and no phone calls, I spent the evening in complete silence, having recognised the craving from Saturday. 

And as I lay in the bath I experienced a moment of complete stillness of the mind. The sensation was profound. I don’t think I ever experienced it before that moment.

Because of course external noise is one thing, but what I realise now is that I have to think about how it’s affecting the internal noise too – the monkey mind and the inner chatterbox. In the past I know I have experienced more mental noise from what I haven’t said. The words “I love you” burned in my mind for months without ever reaching my lips, so I know how much I can torture myself with what I wish I could say. But these days I find myself able to say what I really feel more readily, I can be more honest, but I still suffer from a very busy mind. But last night’s experience makes me wonder if the external noise just makes the internal noise that much worse? I suppose there is only one way to find out, but I have always been terrified of the idea of being alone with my own brain. I mean honestly, what could be worse? Even on yoga retreats I have always spent a huge amount of the day chatting with fellow retreaters, so avoiding the possibility of making the most of the peace and quiet that is on offer. This is why I have so far shied away from meditation classes: although I want to try, I can put my reluctance down to straight-forward fear of what I will find when I am left alone with my thoughts. I suppose I’m scared that I will unravel completely, and that left alone with no external distraction my mind will uncover it’s deepest fears and regrets and serve them all up on a platter.

But what I never considered until now was the alternative: that perhaps something wonderful would maybe this is the next thing I need to explore. But if anyone says Vipassana I will scream – and that’s a promise!      


  1. That's funny, I'm the opposite. I like to watch, think, be silent. I need lots of time alone or I feel off-kilter. I love how honest you've been here, especially, "I suppose I'm scared that I will unravel mind will uncover its deepest fears..." I think you're right about the alternative, that you will discover something beautiful and new, different. I'm looking forward to hearing the next steps of your journey into silence. :)

  2. Vipassana (please don't scream).

    I too am a self-confessed chatterbox and couldn't imagine being silent for 10 days, coupled with a fear of facing my own thoughts. Won't lie, it ain't easy, but it has made me a bit more aware of how rare and precious complete silence and stillness is. If you are even vaguely tempted......

  3. I love silence, but others don't seem to understand my need for it after days of "blah blah" at work. Doing yoga somehow allows me to shut out external noise, even if my internal dialogue continues, its creating a mental space with nothing coming in. Complete silence is a rare event.

  4. Y - don't get me wrong, although I'm quite outgoing when I'm around people, if I don't get my prerequisite quiet time in my own company I lose my mind. Being away for work and sharing a room with a co-worker was a hideous case in point - I *need* that time by myself after I close the door at night. A friend actually told me a few weeks ago about doing a 1 day (!) silent retreat and in her own words "I knew it would be hard, but I didn't expect the joy". She spent the morning in meltdown but by lunchtime was told off by one of the buddhist monks for beaming at everyone (she wasn't supposed to communicate in any way!). I loved this story as it started to open my eyes to the possibilities. I will keep you posted :)

    Anonymous - can I do a silent scream? ;) I have great admiration for those who have done this, and often think that it's those who would benefit most who shy away from it (i.e. me). I think it would probably be a baptism of fire right now but I am really keen to explore this area. Honestly, it doesn't seem like a choice, it seems like my body and mind needs and demands this quiet state now, so I can't really argue.

    Kevin - yes I think the asana practice really helps even when the chatter is ongoing! But I don't believe that it's impossible to find a place in your day for complete silence if that's what you want...

  5. There is just so much external noise however hard you try to escape it, sirens, traffic, aircraft,lawnmowers, children. There is nowhere that's quite in an urban environment. Its why I love Deserts, sand, stars and true silence.

  6. Interesting post Mel,

    I'm a bit like Kevin when it comes to silence. I wonder whether it's a guy thing? I'm also an only child and spent a fair bit of time on my own when growing up - well mainly when there were no other kids to play with!

    After practice I generally sit for a while and assimilate my practice and drink coffee. (I sound a bit like a borg don't I?)

    One of the things I love about the practice is the stillness it brings especially when one is surrounded by constant chaos.

    I've also not owned a TV for 9 years out of choice but do listen to loads of music and watch lots of films and then there's the internet! :0)

  7. Thanks G :) Maybe I'm so noisy because I come from a family where if you didn't shout loudest, you didn't get heard!

    Unfortunately I have to run off after practice so there's not much time to cultivate silence there. I do always make sure I take proper savasana and sit for a moment afterwards, and going in the shower gives me time to decompress before I have to speak to anyone :) I definitely think living in London as I do, the stillness you can find in the practice is an essential survival tool!
    So are you telling me you never watch tv programmes on the internet hmm...? I find the web worse in terms of mental distraction than TV to be honest, although I know it's my overuse of it rather than the internet itself which is to blame! It might be time for a twitter timeout...

  8. Great post Mel! This is kind of along the lines of what we were discussing about being over-communicators. I think i'm learning that i don't need to share my every thought and feeling with people and that sometimes it's better just to keep it to myself and embrace it for myself (looking at that in a positive light and not in the light that people don't care/feel overwhelmed with my communication!). It's really important to remove yourself from all that 'noise' and stand back, smell the roses or think about what could be better in life.

    When Helen was late for my wax this week (totally worth the wait!) i was forced to sit and just WAIT. Like i am now actually. This makes me realize - what's the hurry? Especially, when you consider that everything is already perfect ;)

    See you at yoga on Tuesday?


  9. Thanks love :) Yes, this is what we talked about and more...we're definitely on the same page with this over-communicating thing. over the past week or two I have deleted many a comment I wrote impulsively rather than hitting you say, everybody doesn't need to hear exactly how you think and feel every moment of the day, do they? It's hard because the internet is such a wonderful tool for creating communities (none of us would be *here* without it, and I mean on this page...) but it's also hard to use it in a balanced way.
    Also you're right in that sometimes the space created for us by circumstance - a late train, a missed appointment, a cancelled mysore practice - gives us the chance to just stop. I've noticed recently that I rush even when I don't need to - barging past people en route to the tube platform - and so I've been practicing walking more slowly. I'm seeing it all as part and parcel of the same thing.
    And yes, I will definitely be there Tuesday, just try and stop me! xx