In March 2012 I led a one-day workshop with the title “Living the Silence” in seven different environments (among them: a school, two monasteries and a Theatre Academy), where I explored many possible combinations of art and meditation, making use of analogic drawing, Ch’i Kung (Chinese breathing techniques developing inner energy) , T’ai Chi Ch’üan (the “Supreme Polarity” -boxing), Orazio Costa mimic method (an Italian method of body expressivity), writing and reading exercises, in order to understand how the participants experienced active silence. I collected their own written feedbacks, which became the main material of my analysis.
Here you are a brief summary of my research. Part of this report is included in my book: Active silence – reinventing spirituality through art-research – published by Mimesis in 2015.
Living the Silence
I take no action and people are reformed.
I enjoy peace and people become honest.
I do nothing and people become rich.
I have no desires and people return to the good and simple life.
(Tao Te Ching, 57)
While choosing silence as the topic of my teaching practice, I knew I was challenging one of my safety tools as a teacher: my speaking ability. I often use words to vehicle my own enthusiasm and to build a generative working atmosphere. During the one-day workshop “Living the Silence” (March 2012) I forced myself to reduce the explanations to short essential sentences. Then I had to let my pupils work, without any possibility from on my part to interfere during the exercitations. I realized in that way that the use of words was not exactly my strong point: my speech was shaping the creativity of my pupils into a structure I had in my mind, robbing them of the possibility to discover new surprising solutions. I previously used to talk during pupils’ exercitations, with the intention to lead them quickly to a better and more focused result. My words were actually affecting the pupils’ execution, leading them to my own personal goal, but preventing them from responsibly and freely exploring their own potential. I did not trust their own capacity of self-education.
Now I had a shocking surprise: the more I put myself apart, the more the inner teacher of each pupil started to awaken.
On some occasions, the working atmosphere became so focused that I joined the practice of my pupils. I was no longer a teacher, but a researcher with the others. I just put my energy together with my pupils’ energy, we worked in silence and that was all. Somehow, the same energy that I used to impart to the class by means of my words was now running free from my mental patterns. I was offering my pure presence. The teaching process, if there was any, was happening on a “spiritual” level in the form of a mutual silent sharing of being.
Externally, I think it was not possible to observe any remarkable sign, since all the activities, both the meditative and the creative ones, were quite minimalistic. But the intensity of the experience emerged clearly from the feedbacks of the participants: both the positive and the negative feelings (peace and difficulty of concentration, awareness and embarrassment, acceptance or irritation) were quite often related to their own life situation, expectations, will. The practice of silence became a useful tool to find a connection between the deep centre of the participants and their own everyday life.
I experienced a feeling of peace and the feeling was that of letting go of sorrow or anxiety, as in the silence they could be received “from on high”. In the dimension of “shared” silence, I had the feeling that the time was moving in another dimension. I would like always to have that sense of time, the rediscovered inner time.
(from a participant’s feedback, “Living the Silence”-workshop in Torino Spiritualità, Torino)
After the “Living the Silence”- workshop sessions, I analyzed the participants’ feedbacks in terms of perception of time and perception of silence. I collected three different typologies of feedback regarding the perception of the time-flow during the practice of active silence.
First typology. Some participants wrote that they lost the sense of time and that they had the relieving feeling of being in the moment. Atemporality is one of the basic qualities deriving from the operations of the right hemisphere of the brain, together with intuitional capacity, concrete perception of the things as they are in the present moment, spatiality, global and synthetic view of reality (Edwards 2011, 60). In this case, the participants had been able to step aside from the usually predominant hegemony of the rational side of the brain.
Second typology. Other participants wrote that for certain exercises the time was too long and demanding in terms of concentration, or challenging in terms of embarrassment, and on the other hand for other activities the time was too short for an exhaustive exploration. I think that in this case the participants could not find a way to release the rational control over themselves. Frustration may occur when the rational mind desperately attempts to lead processes such as meditating or drawing, where the brain’s activity is non-verbal and non-rational. Characteristics of the functions of the left side of the brain are an analytical and symbolical approach towards problems, abstract and logical elaboration of data, linear and temporal thinking (Edwards 2011, 60).
Third typology. A third kind of feedback indicated an agreeable status of awareness of the time-flow with a feeling of harmony between the proportion tasks-durations. In my opinion, this represented a condition of balance between the right faculties and the left faculties of the brain, in which they helped each other to transform the workshop’s practices in real time into a deep experience.
If the first and the third typology of answers manifest feelings of pleasure and openness, the second one is the voice of discomfort. I have tested different durations with the same kind of tasks, along the course of my teaching practice, and I have noticed that the discomfort areas seemed to be disconnected from the timing factor, even though the participants were stressing that time was the problem. For example, I proposed the exercise of looking into a partner’s eyes with variations of timing: sometimes the task lasted twenty minutes, others ten or five, according to the different places where I held the workshop. The discomfort-answers were always related to the difficulty of looking into another person’s eyes for a “such a long time”. So, I began to think that the discomfort was related more to the exercise in itself rather than to its duration. But the analysis of the feedbacks showed that positive and negative feelings were actually equally distributed in every kind of task and the same person could experience the same task differently, when it was repeated twice. I argued consequently that the real cause of these different ways of perceiving the experience of silence should be connected with the inner attitude of every person. How to help it? How to awaken an inner attitude of openness and acceptance, without forcing it?
Already from the beginning of the workshop the silence was quite deep and deepened towards the end. I found it a very different kind of silence when we spent 20 minutes looking into each other’s eyes. The silence itself was the same but one was very deeply aware of an other individual. The presence of her made the silence, I think not deeper, but somehow it was on two levels: in me and between her and me. When we were in the chapel I was very aware of the presence of the others, and again in the beginning of that meditation the silence was on two levels: in me and among us all. Then there was only the silence, nothing more, no feeling or awareness of the others.
(from a participant’s feedback, “Living the Silence”-workshop in Tammisalo Church, Helsinki)
Observing the evolution of the quality of the participants’ presence during each workshop, and comparing it with their own feedbacks, I have noticed that time has been the protagonist of internal positive changes. The gradual lengthening of the duration of silence and the repetition of some exercises offered the participants the opportunity to find an internal source, which helped them to handle the discomfort. I found a clear resonance with the Zen provocation: “if something is boring after five minutes, try after one hour!”.
Perception of silence
I’ve experienced the silence as a moment of peace, in which I had no worries; it’s very unusual that my class is concentrated on being quiet and I’ve discovered it gives a feeling of pleasure. It has been a new experience which has enriched me from the point of view of self-control, because I’ve realized better that being in silence doesn’t just mean closing your mouth.
(from a thirteen-year-old participant’s feedback, “Living the Silence”-workshop in primary school, Gassino)
This is a representative feedback of a participant of the “Living the Silence”-workshop, where it emerges how silence in itself has been experienced as a natural generator of peace and positive feelings. “Pleasure”, “natural” and most of all “peace” are recurrent words in participants’ feedbacks. In many cases these feelings are described in terms of surprise or discovery of something precious and necessary. The participants have often expressed the wish to make the practice of silence become a part of their daily life, often making use of poetic images, such as in the following feedback:
The workshop was interesting, useful and I shall continue on this path. After the workshop I felt really good both days and felt that I am a tree (a common idea for me but I tend to forget it) and most significantly started to feel more conscious.
(from a participant’s feedback, “Living the Silence”-workshop in NÄTY, Tampere)
They have usually described the silence by means of short expressions, adjectives or words, as if they were attempting at the same time to let the silence “be in silence”, such as in the following definitions.
– peaceful and light
– a reservoir of peace
– the space between me and my problem
– interruption to the daily noise
Among the participants who already had the practice of silence in their own background (meditation, T’ai Chi, Yoga, silent prayer), the structure of the proposed exercitations offered them the possibility to explore silence from new perspectives or to deepen their own self-awareness.
Some of them enjoyed comparing their own meditation methodologies with those of the workshop, finding analogies and differences. In some cases, they felt relief when they could meet something apparently distant from the context of spirituality, such as drawing, which was experienced more as an exercise of self-expression, shaping emotions and at the same time allowing the participants to take distance from them.
The practice of silence aroused thoughts connected with participants’ personal life situations. They often wrote that they could look at their problems more objectively and they could find something new and helpful to deal with them. Some of the participants manifested frustration because they could not be focused without being disturbed by their own thoughts. Especially the thirteen-year-old participants had a demanding attitude towards themselves concerning the concentration.
Many thoughts were expressing the need for silence in the world and in daily life. Some participants underlined the importance of silence as a tool for inner balance and for peace in society. Even though the activities of the workshop did not provide moments of verbal sharing, I observed a progressive attunement among the participants, and their written feedbacks manifested a spontaneous impulse of opening their personal discoveries to the rest of the world.
- Edwards, B. 2011. Disegnare ascoltando l’artista che è in noi. Gravellona Toce: Longanesi.