Silence and words

Erling Kagge at the British Library
“Life is long if we listen to ourselves often enough, and look up” says Erling Kagge

Term 5

Erling Kagge, the Norwegian explorer and publisher, took fifty days to walk alone in silence to the South Pole. He describes the end of his journey:

“It was more difficult to start talking again than it had been to get up early all of those fifty mornings.  Being on the journey is almost always more satisfying than reaching the goal.  We prefer the hunt for the rabbit over its capture.”

I went to hear him talk about his experience of silence on this and other expeditions, and how he now makes space for silence in his everyday life.  He described the noise of his thoughts on the first couple of days in the Antarctic. It was only when this calmed down that he began to appreciate the depth and richness of the silence around him.  At first he perceived the landscape as entirely white and flat.  But as his senses awakened and re-calibrated to the new environment he began to see different colours and perspective in the snow, ice and sky.

“Only when I first understood that I had a primal need for silence, was I able to begin my search for it – and there, deep beneath a cacophony of traffic noise and thoughts, music and machinery, iPhones and snowploughs, it lay in wait for me.  Silence.

…. I had to use my legs to go far away in order to discover this, but I now know it is possible to reach silence anywhere.  One only need subtract.”

I’m half-way through my Alexander training now, and it seems I’m learning how to subtract.  I’m taking away the habitual busy-ness from my thoughts and movements leaving a welcome capacity for inner quiet and silence.  When everything is still I become more receptive to the messages teachers give me with their words and hands.  By calming my internal chatter and excess muscle tension, my senses are opening up and I’m starting to hear, see and feel the world more accurately and in more depth.  The landscape is no longer just flat and white.

Within the silence I’m starting to formulate words.  I’m a linguist by background, so for me the Alexander training is like learning a language.  To start with I wanted rules, grammar, vocabulary, building blocks. Then I made simple sentences. I couldn’t say much. Now I’m running ahead of myself, wanting to speak and understand before I really know how.  But sometimes I become fluent, and I can listen, think, move, speak, make sense. Not altogether, not all the time, not for very long but often enough that I want to keep going.  I’m quietly finding the silence and out of that I’m slowly finding the words.

Erling Kagge’s book is called Silence in the Age of Noise.



Pause for thought

ClockTerm 5

This week I went looking for words.  I found hundreds of them, at the cashpoint, on buses, in shop windows and open spaces.  A chorus of adverts and notices shouted for my attention and instant action:

Touch screen to begin
Start the adventure
Get the app
Swipe right
Go binge

Find your new job
Do something you love
Please say hello
Call our team today

Press up
Sit up
Drink up

Now available here
Open all day
Open every day
Same day service
Available now

Buy one get one free
Have you swiped your Nectar card?
Clean up after your dog

I don’t have a dog, but came home overwhelmed by possibilities. The next day I went out again, on the lookout for things not to do:

No ball games
No parking
No entry

No stopping
No smoking
No dumping
No dogs

I couldn’t find as many of them, and I didn’t have to (not) do them immediately. Instead this was about keeping me in my place, ensuring my behaviour and my body stayed within boundaries. I had less freedom in the outside world than I thought. Still no dog.

The Alexander word for ‘not doing’ is inhibition.  I’ve struggled with it and find it hard to put into practice or describe, but it’s central to becoming a teacher. I think it’s about habit and choice.  If we automatically obey an instruction or react to a stimulus, we’re more likely to do it in our habitual way.  Habits are what we want to move away from, because they encourage us to act or move unthinkingly, without paying attention.

By ‘not doing’ we allow ourselves breathing space between stimulus and response.  This gives us time to choose how to react: we can do nothing, carry on with what we intended, or do something else altogether.  But in the pause for thought we’ve allowed a moment to make a conscious choice, and that’s the key.

My sample of words on the street is just a fraction of the shout-outs for action we come across each day.  ‘Doing’ is seen as positive, natural, a necessary part of everyday life – otherwise how would we ever achieve anything?  It’s also time-bound, deadline-driven, urgent.  The idea of ‘non-doing’ seems largely negative and constraining, even lazy and out of step.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s difficult to explain or understand Alexander’s ideas, because they run so counter to prevailing thinking. There seems little room for the Alexander concept of not reacting, stopping and pausing or for seeing ‘non-doing’ as a welcome chance to catch our habits on the hop before they take over.

The only instruction I came across where the mainstream and the Alexander world were in unison was a road safety slogan. The three words made me smile, breathe and pause:

Stop.  Think.  Live.