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.