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This article was written by Tim Parks, for The Guardian on Saturday 13th November 2010 00.00 UTC
There is nothing noisier than silence, if your head is full of words. Escape the clamour of the city and at once an excited voice enthuses about the quiet. “How wonderful,” you tell yourself getting out of the car, “to have made it up to the Highlands, to have fled the traffic and the TV and the strident voices round the dinner table. Fantastic!” You strike off along a path through pine trees – isn’t the hush extraordinary! – and before you know it yesterday’s argument with your wife is playing out in your head. How could she have said that! “You’re lucky you still have someone to insult.” That would have been the smart answer. Why didn’t I think of it? Wait a minute, is my phone getting a signal? Damn.
When my father died I discovered, sorting out his papers, that he donated to the Noise Abatement Society. Dad was always hyper-sensitive to sound. Me too. I’m the kind of guy who keeps fresh earplugs in every coat pocket, to cut out the phone babble on the train, the buzz of announcements at the airport, or the beating music from an adjacent room. So when I hear about the Facebook campaign to make John Cage’s 4’33″ Christmas No 1, I’m immediately on board. When I see titles such as Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence, or George Foy’s Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence, I order them at once. The hunger for silence is growing, I tell myself. Great! Just that the quieter it is outside, the more noise there seems to be inside my head.
A couple of years ago I discovered what real silence was. I wasn’t looking for it. I’d found a book that told me I could heal my chronic abdominal pains, or at least learn to live with them, using a method called “paradoxical relaxation”. I’d reached that point where you’ll try anything. Lie down, this book said, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, focus on some tense part of the body and don’t try to relax it. Just observe. That was the paradox: the body would only relax if I really didn’t try to relax it. But there was also this instruction: “Avoid all verbal thought: scientific research has shown that it is impossible to relax the body deeply while words are running through the mind.”
I inserted my earplugs to dampen my daughter’s guitar-playing and lay on the bed. Now all I had to do was stop this voice inside my head. All!
The thoughts rose like bubbles in soda water. They would not stop.
So, where are these tense muscles, I’m supposed to be paying attention to, I asked myself. Attention tension! Nice pun. Sorry, stop verbalising. Listen, it hardly helps to tell yourself to stop, does it, since that involves further verbalising. But how can I stop, if I can’t tell myself to stop?
It was humiliating. Wide awake behind closed eyes, struggling to focus on tensions I couldn’t find, the words went on and on. Now I was remembering a bad review from years before. Word for word! I writhed. Until finally, the obvious occurred to me: all that noise in the world outside serves precisely to drown out the noise in our heads. To reach any deep silence we must tackle this inner noisiness first.
The key with paradoxical relaxation seemed to be to locate that tension in the body and fasten on to it, or just to find any physical sensation that you could concentrate on. Then your brain might stop blathering to itself. Breathing was the easiest thing; just observe your breathing. Observe, observe, observe. Without thinking. At last I got it.
I would manage a whole minute, or even two, or even three, with no words in my head. Lying on my back, eyes closed, I would be hyper alert, aware of my breathing and very aware that there were no words in my head, but without having to say, ‘Hey Tim, there are no words in your head.’ One day, wordless, to my immense surprise, a huge wave of relaxation flooded over my body, leaving me, if only for a few moments, pain-free. From that moment on I was hooked.
Language splits the world up in ways that aren’t entirely helpful. I began to realise that to achieve an inner silence, mind and body have to remember they are not entries on separate pages of the dictionary but the same thing; awareness has to plunge into the flesh, then the mental chatter that is always hurrying off to the past or the future, the next email or the last text, can finally go quiet. Focus 100% on the animal present and the blabber stops, you have real silence, and, what’s more, a word I hadn’t used for years, peace.
“What you’re doing is a form of meditation,” a friend told me. The hell! If there is one thing I pride myself on it is my common sense, my complete imperviousness to all things zany and Nnew age. “Go on a retreat,” he said “and you’ll see.”
So a year later, because that’s how long it takes me to accept I have been wrong about something, I closed a gate behind me and read the sign: “Participants must not leave the grounds for the duration of the retreat.” At the door, I handed over my phone, laptop, books, pens and paper. I stripped myself of words.
Then for 10 days, with 50 other people, I lived in silence, ate in silence, spent hours upon hours sitting in silence, learning to focus first on the breathing, then on the body, every inch of it. It’s such hard work. Silence is hard work. Because it’s not just a question of the absence of sound. In the end, there is always a dog barking somewhere, a fellow meditator sighing, a bird scratching on the roof. Silence is your ability not to react with irritation, but to soak up these sounds into an intense inner stillness.
You’d have thought living and eating together without speaking there’d be little sense of who your companions are. Instead the opposite is true. I became intensely aware of each different person I sat beside and far more courteous than I normally am. Meantime the natural world, the grass, the trees, the sky, seemed nearer and clearer, as if a greasy windowpane had been replaced with something absolutely transparent. When there was noise – a clatter of dishes maybe , or just wind soughing in the trees – it seemed somehow part of a greater silence. On the train going home I discovered I didn’t need my earplugs.
This Remembrance Sunday we’ll be asked to observe a minute’s silence. It may not seem the time to empty your mind of all thoughts, but, just as an experiment, at some point in the day, try focusing your attention on your breathing, on the wordless here and now where mental and physical experience fuse, if only to remember exactly what it was those servicemen sacrificed: life.
Teach Us to Sit Still, A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks is published by Harvill Secker (£12.99)
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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Free Trial About Me It is well known that men are much less likely than women to seek basic or routine preventative medical care. But actually, there are more common men''s health problems compare to woman that are can be permanently debilitating, devastating or even fatal if they are not detected until symptoms make themselves known. Common issues of this type include (from simple to live threatening health problem ) like Stammer, Acne and Fat, Hair Loss, Erectile Dysfunction and prostate problems. Hi, My name is Andi, I am 38 Years old. Until now I have experienced all the common men''s health problems such as stammer, acne, hair loss and now erectile dysfunction. So with this blog, I want to share my experiences in finding the cause and possible treatments that are both effective and affordable.Category Acne and Fat (23)
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