Vow of Silence

The rule.

On May 1st, 2009 I’ve vowed to observe silence for 24hours once a week. I have allowed flexibility in choosing the actual 24hrs period within the week. The preferred day is Friday (I have no work commitments, no labs or lectures).

In May 2010, after 12 months of practice, I was ready to make the rule more strict. The weekly silence must start within 24hrs of every Thursday. There is therefore only 24 hours window (on Thursday) to start the silent 24-hour day. And it means that the 24hours finishes always on Friday.

Motivation.

I’ve been interested in Zen and Buddhism since my early teens. Fascinated by the supposed irrationality of some of the monk’s practices aligned perfectly with their totally crisp and thoroughly unpretentious grip on reality. Vow of silence is often made by the to-be buddhists practitioners as part of their preparation before, or shortly after becoming a monk. The main initial motivation was to observe of how silence influences me and my perception of the world around me. To gain first-hand experience. I have been somewhat inspired by the pilgrimage of Heng Sure, and also by the strong will of a 3-year old boy. Recently, I read more about silence in other religious groups, eg. Trappists monks.

Observing silence has highlighted aspects of my personality: the solitude and the company of people became more pronounced. I am sure it will work differently with different people.

The vow has helped in sharpening my focus and generally becoming more observant and receptive to the world around me. It is similar to the feeling of “clearing one’s head”, running, hiking, or to meditation. Fridays now are more self-reflective because of that. Keeping the vow continues to be hard, but on some level, I think I enjoy the silence and uninhibited presence among people and the world. Presence, in which I do not have to take an active role, but rather passively participate, and observe. There is little I can do, and the feeling of “letting go” appears, making it somewhat easy and enjoyable to be in the world. Just to observe. To be present. Unable not to influence.

I do feel the practice makes me “a better person”, at least in a sense of being able to listen. I can think more of what is being spoken, and on Saturday (or later) I can remember and answer questions that normally I would not even notice.

Some thoughts.

2009: I have had 1 week without the silence (the 5th week after initial monthly trial). I have had few lapses where words were spoken, and to my surprise I could recall clearly each and every of those moments. Friends and co-workers were supportive, and I have managed to resist the temptations to break the vow. I’ve learned patience, and I learned to be comfortable with others without talking. It became clear that the ability to speak is much more important to what I thought and that I took it much for granted in the past. Without being able to speak, one becomes much more inward-looking, and unable to influence the surroundings. It helps being humble and observant.

2010: Typically I stop talking when going to sleep on Thursday, and start talking on the matching time on Friday. In 2010 observing silence meant no talking on Christmas Eve, New Years Eve, and on my father’s birthday, which made the practice more intense and rather difficult. I have observed the silence every Thursday/Friday, although on 3 cases I’ve started talking in less than full 24hours. It became more difficult to break the pattern, and I appreciate the mental conditioning that the practice enforces. I think I can understand better why it was difficult for this boy to start speaking with everyone, even though he was speaking with his brother throughout his silent 10 years. One of the hardest parts this year was the fact that New Years Eve and Christmas Eve were both on Friday. Being the most family-based celebration, and the fact that it was the first larger family gathering in 12 years, made it rather hard to keep the vow.

2011: While on research and study leave it was considerably more difficult to keep the vow and interact with people while traveling. People are often not accustomed with the practice of silence. So far the experiences are all positive, and people are generally accepting, and supportive. Many are interested to understand the rationale of the practice of observing the silence. Yet, I do not have much to tell, other than they should try for themselves.

1st of May, 2011: A small mental reflective celebration of lasting 2 years with the vow of silence. 5 more years to go and I’ll clock one full year of silence.

2012: Last year Himalayan expedition made it a bit tricky to keep the vow, and the burden of communication felt on my brother during our expedition. I had to speak on Friday during the CSIS seminar – I took an hour out of the silent day and I’ve presented the talk. Two weeks later, I had a meeting with Grant in Auckland, and because we had to fly on Thursday, I actually did not hold the vow for that week. It was the first week after celebrating 3years of the vow. A mental celebration coincided with the eve of taking the “holidays” from the vow.

Apart that, there were no major events on Fridays in the first half of the year. The longer the practice lasts, the more I think people around are understanding and treat it more with curiosity. I think the practice does change me in a way that I’ve not anticipated in the past – it makes me aware that going against the flow sometimes is a good thing, even though, in a short term, it may seem the opposite.

2013: I had to speak to Emilia’s teacher twice during Friday, when picking up Emilia from school. I have also bumped into a friend, Marcin T. whom I have not seen for 4 or 6 years on Friday. I chatted for few minutes, almost whispering. When coding with my brother during our April hackathon, I have decided to shorten the silent day to 20 hours. I felt I do not need silent day at all — 3 days with minimal talking and only seeing my brother. This experience led to an observation. After allowing the 20-hours “exception”, keeping the rule was harder. In other words, keeping the rule is easier if there are no exceptions. Once I have allowed an exception, my mind tries to justify making further exceptions later, and keeping true to the vow is harder. Perhaps going “cold turkey” is a good and easier route into establishing a new or changing an existing habit.

I have talked to many people on Friday, June 7th, during Polish British Workshop in Srebrna Góra. It seems as if keeping the rule in the middle of a workshop would be a violation of the middle path. Or so I thought would be a good excuse to break the rule.

Friday, June 14th, last day of Emilia at school. I started talking at 14:30, when picking Emilia up from school. I said goodbyes to her teachers and so on.  Friday, 21st of June, first day of Emilia school back in Dunedin. I have not hold the rule. It was the first day back home after over 3 months break. Meeting teachers, friends, and all that. This is the first time when breaking the rule felt good and I have not felt as if I have violated something sacred. Talking on that day felt sacred.

Friday, 12th of July, CSIS seminar. I’ve spoken on staff meeting at 12:00, and then on the seminar at 13:00. Carried on talking to about 14:30 with Carl and Christopher after the seminar.

Friday, 2nd of August. Last Friday in New Zealand. Day-off from silence. Talking with friends.

Friday, 9th of August. First day in Norway. Partially spent in travel. Talking with bus driver, then with Simon and Rachael upon arriving to Gjovik.

I have lectures and meetings with students every single day of the week, hard not to talk on Fridays. Fridays are also a day of board gameplaying and socializing with students. For the next 6 weeks I’ll not talk on different days.

Friday, 23rd of August – not talking on Saturday 24th instead. Friday, 30th of August – not talking on Saturday 31st instead. Friday 6th of September – exception. We were running first game jam and I had meetings with students.