where trouble was needed

January 1, 2016

500 days of silence … then and now

Filed under: Afterthoughts — Aravinda @ 8:00 pm

For fourteen years I was silent on Mondays.  I had no blog then.  When people would ask me about it, I had to think each time and answer.   If it was Monday my answer might just be a smile or thoughtful look, after which my interlocutor would venture an answer.  After a decade,  I thought of writing something called “500 days of silence.” 

Why?

When I started the practice, I think it was partly out of curiosity, partly to experience quiet at a deeper level than daily life normally allows, while remaining engaged in routine activities, i.e. without going on some special retreat for the purpose.

Why Monday?

I don’t know if I had any reason to choose Monday, but it did turn out to be the best day.  Weekends tend to have events or social occasions.  Weekdays are more similar to one another and if there is something that comes up on Monday that requires speaking, then the rest of the week is available for getting it done.   In the event that I cannot postpone it, then I have the rest of the week to reschedule the silent day.  Finally, Monday was nicely nestled between the weekend and weekdays.

 

From when to when?

The day of silence begins when I wake up and ends when the next day begins.  Half-days end in the evening.

What If? 

If I had a Monday lecture class I could remain silent but if I had a Monday section or seminar I worked around it either by changing to Tuesday for that semester or making an exception for that class period only.   As I recall, discussion-oriented classes rarely met on Mondays.

When working, at BBN and other places, I adapted according to the job.

In trains and buses, I found that conductors were not surprised by people handing then slips of paper with the name of their destination and were  ready to issue tickets accordingly.

There were some weeks when I skipped it or abbreviated it.  Maybe 10% of the time.  Once I did both Monday and Tuesday just because.

What is allowed?

“Still confining ourselves,” as J.L. Austin said, “for simplicity to spoken utterance,” my only rule when I practiced silence was that I did not talk.  People could talk to me.  I listened.  I responded with action, expression or gesture.  I also wrote and typed.

Today I would do the above and I would also stay off the mobile phone and social media, which did not exist in the earlier period (1989-2003).  

 

Is it like fasting?

I noticed some similarity to fasting.  The first few hours are easy.  In the middle of the day it can get progressively harder, especially if people around you are talking about a topic of interest.  Sometimes all I think about is what I want to say.  By evening I no longer focus on it and the next morning I feel light.  Every word is sweet.

What is the point? 

This I learned only after doing it, and continued discovering new things as the years went on.  Some highlights:

There are many things I can do as well or better without speaking.

Conscious silence allows me to practice the art of listening.

We often remind ourselves to think before we speak.  Sometimes if we think and do not speak we realize that what we thought of saying no longer needs saying.  For talkative people, this not only saves energy but it also helps in certain other strategic ways.  When others suggest something and you like it, they tend to feel happier and take more responsibility than if it had happened in the reverse.  Not talking creates space for this to happen.

In a group, we participate differently when we are listening only.  We listen differently when we are not waiting for our turn to speak.  We think differently when we know we are not expected to say what we think, at least not right away.  Others participate differently when a greater share of the conversation depends on them and when our silence does not imply that we have nothing to say.

And let us not leave out the obvious: I can think of so many things I wish I hadn’t said.  Being silent for a whole day prevents me from saying ignorant things at least 1 / 7 of the time.

Finally, a point Ravi made: it reminds others of what day of the week it is.  So often people say, when I don’t talk, “Oh!  It’s Monday!”

Interesting Moments 

On my first silent Monday I went to my advisor to get an add/drop form signed.  I had no plan for communicating this without speaking, and may have resorted to pointing to the signature line or writing my request on a separate piece of paper and given it to him first but as it happens the conversation went as follows:

Prof. Ziff: What’s this?  Dropping a class?  All right.  Here.

(signs form)

Me:  Smile

Prof. Ziff:  What is this, your silent day?

Me: Nod.

Prof. Ziff: Oh, ok.

He signed the form without waiting for me to say a word.  I did not need to explain why I was there, what I was requesting, or why I was not talking.

Literature professors are great that way.  It is actually not so hard to understand why that was so easy.  It was that time of year when students bring in add/drop forms.  There was no other reason for me to come to his office that day.

It was the Signature-Event-Context, and not my decision to be silent that  determined that I need not speak.

In 1991 I taught middle school in Ellayapalle.  I didn’t talk on Mondays.  I walked into the classroom and smiled at my students.  They looked at me expectantly.  While waiting for me to say something they did what they already knew they were supposed to do – they took out their books, notebooks and pens.  When I saw that one of them had the page open to the assignment I pointed at him and he asked, “should I read it?”  I nodded.  He read.  I then pointed to the next person.  She answered the question.  I looked questioningly at the class.  Did they agree?  Others raised their hands to offer their views.  I pointed at the board.   They obliged.  Since they knew I could not talk, they applied their minds and conducted my end of the conversation for me.  They would even suggest their own homework assignments, to which I had merely to nod in approval or revise by writing on the board.   They too remained a little quieter, a little more focused.  And since it happened only once a week the novelty did not wear off.  In fact they thought there was something special about having a class with a teacher who did not talk.

One time, a friend was confiding in me about a personal problem he was having.  As people often do, he apologized for talking to me when he remembered, “Oh it is Monday!”  But I scribbled on a paper, “I can listen.”  So he talked and I listened, periodically nodding or pursing my lips in lieu of saying “hmm,” and sometimes expressing confusion, or surprise or concern through facial expression.    At one point he remarked that my not talking pushed him to reflect further on his problem.

That is how I learned that listening without intending to speak is a qualitatively different kind of listening.

And so I found that my day of silence helped me to practice the art of listening, which not only helped me hear and understand more, but perhaps also offered those who were speaking a deeper quality of listening.

In group meetings there are some people who tend to stay in the background and let others do the talking.  Sometimes it is because they are shy or need encouragement to speak, sometimes it because they think of themselves more as “doers” and would prefer not to prolong the discussions, sometimes they say that others have already said whatever they would want to say so they are saving their energy as well as the time of the group as a whole.  Regardless of their reason, the group may be missing out on their input if they are content to let others do the talking.  In situations where one is normally talkative, shuffling the dynamics a bit by remaining quiet invites others to take a greater share of the responsibility of speaking up.

Limitations

Not everyone likes talking to someone who won’t reply verbally.  Some find it annoying to wait for an answer.  One person even shouted angrily at me, “why should you have all the power?”

Etiquette would oblige one to avoid social situations where one’s silence would inconvenience others.  No point accepting a dinner invitation if your hosts would feel awkward having a silent listener at the table.  But if they would not, no need to decline.  My day of silence was not necessarily a day of solitude.

Finally, I did not think I could pull it off after our daughter  was born, so I stopped.  I still tried to practice what I had learned, with respect to creating space for others to speak.  There were some unforgettable moments early in her speaking life, for which I will always be grateful, where I got to hear what she was thinking only because I consciously refrained from speaking.

Is it a Vow of Silence?

No vow.  It is a practice, like exercise or journal-writing, that I find is good for me.

I am restarting this in 2016.

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