Silence III: Intention

The Scientist and I have done another experiment. A twenty-four hour vow of silence. We began at noon on a Tuesday and finished at noon on Wednesday. The agreement was no spoken communication, but we would text if something urgent arose.

The first couple of hours were odd. I’ve never been intentionally silent simply to see what would happen. I’m comfortable with silence, but I felt like I was having to internalize a new rule, which made me a little tense. Also, there was the factor of the unknown. What would happen? Would we be able to sustain 24 hours of not talking?

After the first few hours, I felt myself start to settle internally. I love the sense of quiet that comes over me when I don’t have to speak or process spoken language for an extended period of time. It allows my internal processes to run uninterrupted. On a practical level, I’m more focused. Emotionally, I feel peaceful.

As the day wore on, I realized a few things:

  1. A lot of what we say in the course of a day isn’t especially necessary. We speak as a touchstone or on impulse or without even thinking.

  2. Without spoken communication, you have to pay a lot closer attention to the person you’re with. I thought it would be the opposite, that we’d feel disconnected. It turns out that not being able to shout from one room to the next about something forces you to be more intentional and aware.

  3. I’m much more naturally inclined to silence than The Scientist is. That’s not surprising.

  4. Being silent created a feeling of being present, focused and energized. I felt more mindful of my actions during the day.

  5. Not being able to communicate complex ideas would get frustrating if I did this for more than a day. We managed to communicate simple things with gestures: time to walk the dog, meet you on the couch in five minutes to watch TV. Beyond that, I had little idea what The Scientist was thinking, which was strange and a bit disorienting.

We managed to make it the full twenty-four hours. Sort of. The Scientist had to take a work-related phone call and he volunteered to go pick up a package at our apartment building’s office. I slipped once and exclaimed “oh” when a man appeared out of the dark beside us as we were walking the dog at night.

All of those felt like reasonable exceptions to the experiment. We never did have to text each other about anything.

leaves

I now understand why monasteries that limit or prohibit talking have strict routines. We relied a lot on routine to navigate the day without speech. We always walk the dog after dinner. We always go to the gym on Wednesday morning. If not for those routines, it would have been harder to get on the same page about all the simple activities that fill up our days.

A caveat if you’re thinking about trying this at home: twenty-four hours of silence can drive you deeply inside yourself. The Scientist and I both agreed that we liked this part of the experience a lot. However, two days later I found myself experiencing some intense feelings that had surfaced as a result. If you decide to take your own 24-hour vow of silence, it’s a good idea to be sure you have a support network in place, in the event that you find yourself having a similar experience.

Like our other experiments, this one has taken on a permanent nature. We’ve decided that from now on, Mondays will be silent. I’m looking forward to seeing what the long-term effects of having one nonspeaking day a week will be. And, of course, I’ll be back to share the details.

36 thoughts on “Silence III: Intention”

  1. I love this post! What a wonderful, brave and creative experiment – and how interesting your reflections are. I really like that you were able to see the contribution which routine can make to communication during a period of silence. Because I live alone with my virtually non-verbal son, our time together is mostly spent in silence. However, it lacks the intentionality which your experiment had and in some ways perhaps your silence benefitted from the choice you were making. As a result of reading your post I might try to resist my natural impulse to try and punctuate the silence between my son and I so often. And I just love those oak leaves pegged on the washing line! I tried to figure out a metaphor at first but ended simply enjoying the unusual image. I suppose if we shut up for a while we might be blessed by the sound of leaves drying in the wind. Thank you!

    1. I think it would be really interesting to see how your son reacts to you being less verbal. I felt a very deep intentional bond with my husband in the silence. It’s difficult to describe, but we found other ways to communicate that I think we sometimes overlook amidst all the talking.

      The photo – I didn’t really have a metaphor in mind. It was a such a beautiful fall image and it reminded of the wonderful silence I find in the woods these days when I’m running among the falling leaves.

  2. My dad, who I believe was an undiagnosed autistic, spent the last few years of his life in a Buddhist monastery, after a very difficult life. Right before he died his monastery had ten days of complete silence, which was extremely hard for him, he struggled with it and it ended up making him deeply depressed. I think it was too intense for him, and probably too painful. I like silence, and would be willing to institute chunks of time to it (once the kids are grown, heh) but I’m not even sure I could do an entire day. Do you feel that you gain more clarity in general about things without all the talking?

    1. My husband spent a time living in a monastery when he was younger. He did a long period of fasting and silence and has suggested that we try three days at some point because he says it will feel different. We just need to find 3 days when neither of us has any outside obligations.

      Your story about your dad is interesting. I wonder if the depression is common in that situation? I hadn’t considered that as a possible outcome. I did find that I felt much more focused and clear headed during the day of silence, but two days later I was thrown into a deep emotional turmoil and kind of “snapped” emotionally. I think I gained access to some feelings that had been lurking below the surface and finally found the clarity to put them into words.

  3. I used to play a game as a child and see how long I could go without talking. No one else was playing but me and if someone asked me a question, I would answer promptly. I wanted to see if people would notice. It became a habit and I loved the contemplation. Some people noticed and would say, “you’re very quiet”. I would always say, “Just thinking” and they would leave me alone.

    You can go to silent retreats if you want a deeper experience of silence. I always thought it would be very relaxing. I think they run over the course of a weekend, lasting about three days.

    1. I was quiet by nature as a kid, but that game sounds like something I would have enjoyed. πŸ™‚ I loved having secret, make believe games in my head.

      Oh, apparently silent retreats are a “travel trend” this year. I googled it and found a HufPo article on the top 10 silent retreat travel destinations. Unfortunately they all seemed to tied to a religious or spiritual practice which isn’t what I’m going for. Maybe I could do a Buddhist/Zen one but ideally I’m just in it for the quiet.

  4. Sounds awesome. Though I don’t know if I would be able to go through a whole day without talking. Some hours usually are fine, but then in the evening I can’t hold in all the words and thoughts ^^”
    Three days … maybe you could go on vacation, e.g. rent some cottage or something like that out of town? Let us know if you follow up with the intentional silence.

    1. We’ve done 2 Silent Mondays since the original experiment and I’m enjoying them. By Tuesday morning we’re both bursting with news to share, which is fun. I’m going to write a follow up post at some point because making this a regular practice is creating some additional realizations that I want to share.

      It’s also possible to do 24 hours of silence starting in the middle of the day, like we did the first time, so that you can talk each day but also have a big chunk of quiet too.

  5. Because I live alone, my days are usually spent without talking. The silence is very soothing. The only real problem is that small noises become even more irritating. And so I often find myself talking to my cats or singing to myself to punctuate the silence. But that’s not really talking, because I don’t need to pay attention to feedback. πŸ˜›

    I wonder if silence feels different if you’re doing it alone or together?

    1. I think it does feel different. There have been a lot of times when my husband is away on business for days or weeks and that kind of silence feels more . . . isolated. Or maybe internalized is a better word for it.

      Whenever my husband comes home, he comments on how at peace I look. πŸ™‚ I guess both kinds suit me.

  6. My question is what would happen if you took away not only speaking but TV/radio/any unnatural noise?

    No talking, no tv, no music unless you make it yourself. When there is truly silence, would you be able to handle it or would it cause a mental break? I’ve always wanted to try a sensory deprivation tank for exactly this reason. I want to know if I can handle the lack of input from outside my body.

    Very interesting experiment. I wish I could get by with this at my house. Kids kinda make that harder. Maybe I’ll try just speaking only when I need to for a day. Hmmm

    1. Complete silence is actually very loud. I lived for 7 years in a place that very little unnatural noise. The first days of living there, I actually had trouble sleeping because it was too quiet. πŸ™‚ I got used to it, but it made me realize how much ambient noise we’re accustomed to.

      Having kids would definitely make this type of experiment impossible but perhaps you could do a modified version. I didn’t notice that I seem to talk a lot for no good reason.

    2. Many years ago I did a retreat. Spent 24 hours outdoors: no tent,no food no water no radio/T.V, no books, magazines, pens or paper. Was the LONGEST 24 hour hours of my life! Painful, physically and mentally. Uncomfortable, physically and mentally. Wanted to sleep my way through it although that was not allowed in the rules. One of the biggest lessons was just how much time we really do have in our life but how much of it we waste in trivia

      1. I think I’m more naturally inclined to silence that most people, but yes, there is definitely an element of discomfort at times because the silence forces you to be with yourself. It sounds like that retreat was a really extreme form of silence and in some ways of general deprivation of comforts. I’m not sure I’d be up for that either.

  7. I would like to try sensory deprivation, too. But there is no true silence as a hearing being. Even in the world’s quietest room, if you have hearing, you can hear your own blood moving through your body. I have had silent days in meditation and I can quite happily go without talking, for extended periods of time, when I’m on my own. I think silent Mondays is a great idea.

  8. Shouting from room to room is one of my pet hates, and something I avoid at all costs. On the other hand it never occurs to my wife that it might be more appropriate to close the distance between us before starting a conversation. As a consequence, I get a lot of exercise πŸ™‚

    My wife is one of those people that seem to have a need to talk. I don’t think she could keep silent for an hour if there is someone within earshot. In fact, if she thinks no one can hear, she’ll do her thinking out loud. I often feel guilty that I’m hearing information I shouldn’t be privy to.

    I cherish nonverbal periods, and seldom speak unless it’s necessary (unless a favourite topic has been brought up), but I’m not sure how I could cope with forced silence. It would be an interesting exercise to try.

    1. I’m guilty of the shouting from room to room thing. :-/ And then having to repeat myself. I should probably work on that. Get some exercise myself.

      The forced silence felt unnatural at first but I grew to like it a lot once I internalized the no speaking rule.

    2. My husband does this thing where he’s in another room and I hear him say, “What’s this?” At first I would get out of my chair and go where he was and answer his question. Then I thought he was being a little rude, so I’d call out, “Are my eyeballs on stalks today?” Then I thought that if he really wanted me to answer he’d come where I was; and he never did; so finally I realized (duh) he wasn’t really asking me, he was just voicing a question to the universe before he answered it for himself.

  9. I’d never be able to do it… unless there were some danger on the other end (Remember the final episode of M*A*S*H* where they had to remain silent on a bus so as not to be discovered?). It would actually be easier for me to remain silent in the presence of others (my wife, family or strangers β€”probably not so among friends though) than for me to remain silent when I’m alone… which is most of the time. I talk to myself, argue with the radio, converse with my dogs, sing for no reason, talk to my birds and otherwise babble nearly nonstop. πŸ™‚

    1. Being a huge M*A*S*H fan, I do remember that episode. πŸ™‚

      I know what you mean about the random talking when alone. My dog has been very puzzled and somewhat distressed by Silent Mondays. I babble a lot to her and I guess she’s become used to it or uses it to gauge my mood.

  10. I prefer as little noise as possible. I don’t even like to have the air conditioner blower on. My husband is kind enough to use headphones if he watches TV so I don’t have to hear it. And we both are pretty comfortable not talking. It helps that we’re both introverts. We both need our space, and we understand that in each other.

    Our daughter went through a silent period when she was a teenager. I think she was at the stage when it really came home to her that her thoughts were hers and she didn’t have to share them. She was emotionally separating from us. I remembered that feeling, how heady it was to really feel I owned myself, but sometimes we had to guess what she was thinking and that got a little tedious. I was talking to my husband one day about the kind of man she’d need for a life partner, he’d need to be like this and like that, and my husband blurted out, “He’ll have to be a g-d- telepath.” But then she got past that and started talking to us again.

    The problem now is that both of us have tinnitus so it’s never truly quiet, ever. That really bums me out sometimes.

    1. I think all teens go through that silent period. My daughter did too and it was distressing but she started talking to us again after a couple of years.

      Tinnitus sounds distressing, especially if you like minimal noise. I’m sensitive to ambient noise too, particularly machine noise. This morning while I was in little gym in my apartment building, I had to turn off the ceiling fans because one of them was spinning too loudly. And of course my husband was like “huh?” because he didn’t even notice they were turned on, let alone “too loud.” πŸ™‚

  11. Due to an injury, I have voice problems. For two years I had a very bad voice and sometimes no voice. Our home became a very quiet place – my husband isn’t much of a talker and, unlike me, he doesn’t do monologues. Face-to-face communication was not a problem – phone was a problem. As a result of my injury, I am home – most of the time alone. I don’t mind the silence. But, when I get the opportunity to sit down and talk with people, I turn into a motormouth πŸ™‚

    1. That sounds like a challenging situation, to lose your voice unexpectedly like that. It sounds like you’ve adjusted to it though. Did you miss being about talk on the phone? I can where that would have serious practical drawbacks.

      1. As with any limitation, we adapt and compensate.
        I live across the country from my family so phone was my connection. Most times I had a very soft, raspy voice so if conditions were right I could carry on a short phone conversation. Voice recognition voicemail systems (like many businesses have) were a nightmare. I had to try and get a real person and some systems never got me to a real person. My husband would have to make those calls for me.

  12. I’ve never kept track, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I’ve gone nearly that long without talking before. I know I definitely went entire days in high school without saying anything to anyone, but of course I’d talk at home. And then I got interested in stealth and camouflage for a long time…

  13. i can easily go through a day of silence or more, and i’m already deep inside myself by nature and cant have it any other way.
    my communication with the outer world is just a way of buying food, “so, how much does it cost?” at work, asking the supervisor what to do now. it’s not born out of a need to communicate, but simply because i want something.
    as a child, i hated talking because it was hard to find the words to go with the pictures in my head, and because i suffered social phobias. by now i pretty much gotten over it, but i dont think talking is that important. let me talk to my nieces and to animals all day. i dont need to talk to anyone else.
    and i dont like small talk anyway.

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