Fleeing the cage of words

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you ever just stopped talking?

Not the usual way — pausing for a minute to draw breath or sip your drink or check your texts.

But decided, for a while, not to speak at all.

I did so in the summer of 2011, a few months before I married Jose, a man who is devoutly Buddhist and who decided, as a birthday gift, to whisk me off to an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat. (Yes, really.)

The only time speech was allowed was in our teaching sessions, or private meetings with the staff, to ask questions.

Golden Buddha Statue of Gold Buddhism Religion
Golden Buddha Statue of Gold Buddhism Religion (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Here’s my Marie Claire story about how it changed my life, and our relationship, and here’s one of my five blog posts, all from July 2011, about how great it felt to be quiet for a while.

We communicated mostly through Post-It notes and gestures, occasionally whispering in our room.

For the first few days, it felt like an impossible burden and every morning’s meditation revealed another empty chair or cushion left by those who had decided to flee.

Then it felt massively liberating.

To not be social.

To not make chit-chat.

To not fill the air with chatter so as to sound witty and smart and cool and employable and likeable.

To just…be silent.

To just…be.

When we returned to the noise and clamor of “normal”life — the blaring TVs in every bar, the ping of someone’s phone or an elevator or a doorbell, the honking of cars, the yammer of people shouting into their cellphones — we were shell-shocked by it all.

I miss that silence, and I really miss the powerful experience of community we had there, with 75 people of all ages from all over the world who had chosen to eschew words for a week.

In December, I started a weekly class in choreography, modern dance, a new adventure for me. There’s only one other student, a woman 13 years my junior. In a small studio, we spend 90 minutes moving, writing about movement and creating “insta-dances” which we perform and listen to feedback about.

It’s all a bit terrifying for someone whose audience — here and in my paid writing work — typically remains safely distant, invisible and mostly ignores what I produce. To look someone in the eye, and to see yourself in the mirror, and to express oneself without words, using only corporeal language are all deeply disorienting.

Not a bad thing. But a very new thing.

Deutsch: Modern Dance Company "Flatback a...
Deutsch: Modern Dance Company “Flatback and cry e.V.” Produktion: “patchwork on stage”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Your fingers, wrists, toes, elbows…all have something to say, I’ve discovered. The subtlety of a flick, a wiggle, a pause, a hop. It’s a wholly new way to express ideas and emotions without the tedium of diction.

It’s another way to tell a story, wordlessly. I’ve been surprised and grateful that the other dancer — who is thin, lithe and performs a lot — calls me graceful and expressive. I didn’t expect that at all. As someone whose body is aging and needs to shed 30+ pounds, I usually just see it as a tiresome battleground, not a source of pride and pleasure, sorry to say.

It’s also a little terrifying to have all that freedom, as writing journalism always means writing to a specific length, style and audience, like a tailor making a gray wool pinstriped suit in a 42tall. It’s always something made-to-order, rarely a pure expression of my own ideas and creativity.

It’s interesting indeed to open the cage of words and flutter into the air beyond.

41 thoughts on “Fleeing the cage of words

  1. When I hear too much silence (except for sleep) I feel anxious and I tend to talk until I can think of nothing more to say. As if I was saying I am too boring or that I am bad, wicked or whatever. Too much has happened that I want to say. I do not know if I say what I want. I fear not being heard.

  2. I went on a silent retreat as well. It was liberating, but the first day was torture, trying to find the rhythm of being in community but saying nothing. I love your comparison to dance here.

    1. Good for you for trying it. I wish more people would do it.

      The single answer I get from everyone: “Oh, I could never do that!”

      Why not? I loved being in community and in silence. So freeing.

  3. My mother is a Buddhist and I think she has been on a silent retreat. Personally, I’m not sure how I would feel about it. Introversion forms part of my INFJ personality type but I do enjoy meeting new people and I’m not shy in social situations. So I think it would be a challenge for me to remain silent amidst so many other people who I haven’t met before!

    However, I like spending some time each day in silence. My early morning routine of getting up, making a cup of green tea and sitting quietly while reading the latest posts from my favourite bloggers allows me to get the day off to a good start. 🙂

    1. It’d be interesting to hear how she felt about it. I was VERY resistant when we arrived, for sure. But after the first few days, it was so soothing. It takes a LOT of energy to be social — even if you’re fairly extroverted (I can never decide if I am or not.) We did “break silence” on the final evening and that was lovely to “meet” everyone at last. It shattered a variety of illusions we’d nurtured throughout the week — that, too, was a very valuable teaching.

      Love it. It’s so important to make time for oneself.

    1. It’s really a very powerful experience. It IS uncomfortable, and that’s exactly why I think it has such value…when, where and how do we EVER find/create silence, esp. in community? It is that combination I found really interesting. It really (re) tunes our ears and attention.

      I hope you’ll try it — and blog about it.

  4. I’m quite comfortable with silence but I can see that often other people around me are not, although it depends who are with, I suppose. I find it irritating when people talk for the sake of talking, and don’t think about what they are saying, but then I know sometimes people find my silence and thoughtfulness unnerving, so I talk more now because I see it is the socially acceptable thing to do. In my job I have to talk A LOT and I find it extremely draining – I am happy to come home after a day of talking to let my children’s lively post school chatter drift over me. I work with a little girl who is selected mute, though, and it constantly amazes me the amount of self-control she displays not to allow herself to talk or respond to me in any way (even physically much of the time) throughout the whole of the school day. I think it’s partly a cultural thing (apparently quite common amongst Asian girls) and she is also partially-sighted, but still, she is just five… an interesting post! I think a lot of people I know would benefit from some time on a silent retreat!

    1. “I know sometimes people find my silence and thoughtfulness unnerving, so I talk more now because I see it is the socially acceptable thing to do.”

      I’ve also learned this — and it’s a very good tool in the journalist’s toolbox when conducting an interview. Just go silent. Most people freak out and fill it up with some revelation.

      I have a friend who says little. It used to scare me to death. Now I realize she is often more comfortable listening. I think we get used to be ignored or tuned out so we jabber on…

  5. I think, “I could never do it,” go silent. Then I remember the days after Sept. 11, when planes stopped flying, and I was in the Great American Desert, far down the Colorado River where there really is nothing else. Without the planes occasionally breaking the natural silence, the wonder of being “out in nature” came back. But the reason for it trumped all else and made it not wonderful, but eerie.

    1. What an extraordinary memory….thanks for sharing that.

      I was in Maryland on 9/11 and drove back a few days later to a notably subdued NYC. It was very very odd, as though someone had turned down the volume on the whole city. I think we were all shocked, terrified and grieving — so it also had a communal feel to it.

  6. That Buddhist retreat sounds like an experience I’d enjoy. So cool that you’re discovering dancing, too. A word without words sounds like it’d be a special kind of nasty for writers, but the truth is, at least for me, that finding that peace of Just Being is much more important to the development of depth in ourselves–and thus in our fiction. Viva la wordlessness!

    1. It is really interesting to not use words — yet express emotion, ideas, thoughts — through other media. I also draw, paint and take photos.
      Words are fine, but it’s great to give them a rest, too.

  7. Rich

    I was thinking about doing it….this reminds me of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts. I just may take this up….nice post..

  8. I find it restful and exceptionally recharging spending a couple of weeks (or even only a few days) not speaking at all. It’s extremely hard to do on a day to day basis though – even if you live alone. In the workplace or simply seeing to your basic needs when out and about, speech is imperative to get things done at all, or at the very least, efficiently.

    Hmmmmm, giving that a go that might be a most interesting project to start, some point soon!

    1. That’s the great power of a communal retreat — everyone knows the deal and has agreed to it. That alone is very interesting. It is very freeing and you leave with real nostalgia (I did) for that rare experience.

  9. I don’t think I’ll have any problems in a retreat like that. I often a quiet, at home, at work, even when going out. I was abroad last year for a month and I barely spoke that month and I didn’t feel it was hard or anything.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks! Good to hear from you again…

      I traveled alone for four months when I was 22, and for two weeks in Portugal found NO one who spoke English. That was very hard and very lonely. I wonder how I might feel about that today.

  10. Great post. I think the longest I’ve gone without speaking was 72 hours during an initiation ceremony which involved 72 hours of quiet public service. As you stated, difficult at first but by the end it felt , somehow natural.

  11. This post is a lovely reminder of what gifts words and being able to communicate are. Your response about Portugal and not being ‘able’ to speak English with anyone is interesting and very different from ‘choosing’ not to speak. Very powerful, that choice.

    One of the things I like most about my husband is his ability to be self-contained. We can work at home all day, his office directly above mine, and not speak. I am aware of him moving across the floor and I know he is there, but the quiet of our own thoughts remains.

    I went to a retreat sometime ago where an important part was to go alone to the mountaintop before dawn to contemplate the sunrise each day. As an extrovert and a night person, this was a heavy assignment at first. But I learned then to appreciate the silence and the joy of the world waking up. (It also made breakfast more special!)

    At night, around a campfire we shared our impressions of the day and invariably, the journals were poignant and insightful. I think silence and quiet sharpen my day- like matting a beautiful photograph.

    Thanks for sharing this perspective on the value of our words.

    1. Thanks, Jonelle…

      You, being multi-lingual, know how powerful that is, and how impotent you can feel when you just don’t have any vocabulary at all. Scary and very isolating. I got a terrible migraine one night in Lisbon, alone, and it was very difficult to try and communicate that — to buy aspirin — with no phrasebook and without words!

      Me, too. Jose and I often spend a very companionable day in mostly silence.

      Your retreat sounds really neat…

  12. Reblogged this on Counseling TidBits and commented:
    “Have you ever just stopped talking?

    Not the usual way — pausing for a minute to draw breath or sip your drink or check your texts.

    But decided, for a while, not to speak at all….. interesting indeed to open the cage of words and flutter into the air beyond.”

  13. My sister has tried a shorter silent meditation retreat experience and a similar reaction. I’m tempted. As for dealing with the daily bombardment of information and noise, I’ve decided to start all of my classes out with a four minute breathing meditation. This morning, when I said we might skip it, at least three kids blurted out “no” at the same time. I’m glad they are seeing the value of just being, which can be such a rare state, especially for young people tethered to social issues and phones. I’ll let you know if I take the plunge and try a silent retreat myself:)

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