Experiment in not speaking, Charlotte Eaton

I didn’t speak for the whole of the month of November 2009. I carried a badge which said ‘experiment in non-verbal communication going on here’. This is what I wrote following that experience:

“As I come to the end of this experiment I feel moved to write something about it. It has been a time of little thought, few words written or spoken, much openness of being. Now it seems that the words and expression are pouring out. I went into this experiment without being clear why I was doing it, just following my heart. Thank you heart for these bizarre and wonderful places you lead me to.
I had an idea that I wanted to deepen the explorations into the expanded state of consciousness – state of ‘awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’ – the perception of the pure aliveness, nowness, dimensionality of everything. That’s been wonderful, expanding. I had less idea of what I would learn related to our more ‘ordinary’ perception, as it were, or seeing how these states interact. So here is a mixed bag of thoughts and impressions and things people have asked about.
As far as possible (although I haven’t been working) I’ve tried to do everything as I would have done usually. I have continued to take my granddad swimming a couple of mornings a week and visit him for tea or take him out, go to parties in the evening, out during the day to see mates/ family, pop into cafes/ pubs, teach piano, go to meditation group and socialise. Order drinks at the bar, communicate with neighbours, etc. I have also spent a lot of time walking in this beautiful autumn.
When I started I was curious about what it would be like to be in normal situations and not speak, but I hadn’t really considered that I was giving myself a disability. It has been humbling to realise quite what an asset speech is. Also humbling in the face of my own assumptions about other people’s reactions to my ‘disability’. Time after time I caught myself stalling from doing certain things due to an unease about how people would respond to me. A typical day-to-day example of this would be popping into cafes/pubs to order a drink or just to use the loo. I did face a negative reaction once – for some reason in the first couple of days people assumed I couldn’t speak English and one woman was fairly rude towards me, remarking I should learn to speak the language if I wanted to use the loo.
I felt shy to use my badge to start off with. As I went along mostly I used it for people I know and left people I had just met with their own ideas. I was surprised that only one person asked me about why I couldn’t speak. I was also surprised to learn how minimally people talk to one another. I also discovered that I never look for anything – I always ask where things are. Often I didn’t do the things that I had thought of due to difficulties in finding them or in relaying my ideas – I generally fell in with what other people were saying or doing. I found this to be enjoyable. Quite often there were misunderstandings in conversations – it never seemed important. Maybe the experience of this would have been different long term, although I find it unlikely. It seems more likely that it would be tough if I was a person coming to this without the perspective which has come through meditation - the allaying of desires, or recognising the desires but not feeling their grip in the same way as previously, seems to be part of the experience of living in a state of expanded consciousness or awakening.  
I realise now why it was so difficult when I was working with a young lad who had very little sign language and was special needs to know what his level of ‘intelligence’ was or how much he was understanding. I felt a little of what it was like from the inside to try and convey certain things – fairly simple ideas were complex to convey. I also had some sense of why deaf people may find it hard to learn to read – this written/ read language that we use does not naturally lend its structure to a language of signing. Word order and subjects offer themselves differently.
The lady who was unfriendly was a one-off. Time after time I was shown that my own assumptions and fears were incorrect. During this month I have been treated with warmth, kindness, respect – these not so unusual. But often a beautiful tenderness also - perhaps a sign of other people’s assumptions of my vulnerability. This was particularly lovely from a young bloke working in Burger King, so gentle and beautiful in his manner towards me and my gesturing at the sign for veggie burgers – uncovered my own bias that he might be jaded in respects of his job. I have had people make efforts to sign back at me – presumably assuming I am deaf, or just to take part in the experiment themselves – there was one young barmaid who remarked how much she was enjoying herself – I hadn’t shown her my badge either so I don’t know what she made of me and my requests.
I realised various things about myself – that usually I seek peoples eyes and smile in initial communication. Although I was keen to emulate my ordinary behaviour during this month I found that I often wasn’t inviting conversation as there was an instinct (based on assumptions again) to avoid other people’s possible/ assumed discomfort – or to feel that I was in some way misleading or winding people up. I felt very aware of the ‘disability’ I was carrying. A hesitancy to ‘burden’ others or require their patience – this is something I recognised from working with people with disabilities the last couple of years. It was interesting to feel it from the inside but also to push on through and find that the hesitancy was based on my own ignorance and assumptions of others – not on reality. It simply was not borne out in experience. Generally the reverse was true – it brought connection with or new experiences to others.
Last Monday I was in Hastings having a nap in the sun when a man walking his dog approached and started to chat. As it happened he only had one arm. When he realised I couldn’t speak he sat down to join me. He questioned me as to how I lost my voice - I answered no to a genetic condition, accident or illness. He said he would not probe further as perhaps I would find it upsetting. I hunted in my bag for my badge but didn’t have it. I was uncomfortable at his assumption that it was some kind of a permanent condition but as he went on I decided not to continue trying to explain. He told me about how he lost his arm and that since the accident he does not meet people, keeps himself to himself. He was impressed by the fact that I still went out meeting people, on day trips such as to Hastings, living with friends rather than family etc. As these are all things that I feel fairly certain I would do should I lose my power of speech I tried not to feel uncomfortable about not denying his assumption. He showed me how he has trained his dog, remarking that I would be unable to do so as I couldn’t speak. He told me what a great companion his dog is as he never answers back. He remarked that things were not so bad for himself after all. As he departed he asked for my number and then corrected himself – as clearly I would not be able to speak to him on the phone. (That was great I might try that one again) :)
To be honest in many respects not speaking has not felt so different. I have still been chatted up – the no-speaking seems to have been seen as an asset. Even the postie wanted to know was it my husband who looks after me :) I have had people share wonderful stories and space. I have been spared my own opinions and bunked straight out of typical conversation pieces into gentle fun and humour. As Sofia pointed out so beautifully – it brought to light that what we share is so much deeper than what we talk about – and on a lot of levels has nothing to do with it. I have experienced this often with Albert (grandfather). As he muddles in and out of memories and memory loss it is mostly irrelevent what we talk about. It is the company we are sharing and the depth of love that is felt, repeating the same comments back and forth. On a deep level it feels like that is what we are all doing anyway. It has been beautiful to share that experience more widely. It has also been humbling to realise how powerful the little acts of kindness or humour are – I remember when I first started working watching one of my colleagues repeatedly make the same simple, joyfully received jokes with a man who is paralysed and without speech. I watched her with admiration then but now realise more deeply quite how much it means to have people be willing to play and communicate with you despite their own possible discomfort or the apparent pointlessness. Its not pointless! Patience and openness mean so much.
There were times when it felt daunting and I felt such a great wash of love and gratitude towards people reaching out to me. Perhaps it is strange to feel this so keenly as I knew it was not permanent. Yet I have tried to make it as authentic as possible – not putting anything off til december (after the month of silence was over), and not even speaking to myself in order to have an idea how it might feel to anyone else not to hear me. At times I felt something of the shock and desolation of that voice being gone, of an irreparable change of life – both the good and the bad of this. It has felt real – although the long term of it of course cannot be known, nor the experience of knowing that there is never any way back (although, rational or not I felt that very keenly a couple of times also - that it was indefinite and that there was no way back). 
Just like the experience of being in Sri Lanka following the tsunami, it feels profound and twisted and deep and intense. I have not ‘shed’ that experience; it seems I will always be able to move into the strange and rich places that it took me to. I feel in some way the same about this one. Just as with that, it has taken a great deal of mental strength and although this may sound odd perhaps is something that can only really be shared through firsthand experience, regardless of what I now try to share about it. It is not just to be without speech. There is something energetic that is/ has taken place also. People have asked has it changed me. Yes, it feels very much that it has, but just as with after the tsunami that probably won’t be entirely clear yet, or predictable. And maybe it will be less so than it feels now, here on the very tail-end of it. I do not know what it is like to be returned to speech yet!
I felt very powerfully your kindness, generosity, patience – not only in your responses to me but also just through being quieter in myself and feeling the depth of connection, not words. I also now feel deeply in my heart that should any of those in my friendship group experience anything such as a stroke or an accident – which is highly likely, between the group of us – that we would manage it between us. That is in itself a powerful and grounding experience to have had. I remember a friend once saying to me that she felt were she to have an accident, her husband would leave her. I feel deeply blessed in my friends and family - there are many who do not or are unable to offer a level of support, or do not have it for themselves in the face of such a situation.
Having said that I did experience a stressful rocky patch about halfway through. This was interesting also - as someone who has always taken for granted the ability to explain or advance another point of view. I realised quite how powerful a tool this is. I knew it to a degree – but always from the other side – for instance as an advocate at work in the disabilities resource centre, and at tsunami-time. It was fascinating to be on the other end. A couple of things fed into this – not being able to reach out to friends having had a falling out, not being able to comfort someone effectively, (as I felt it anyway), at a difficult time, having my intentions misunderstood. Not being able to easily make a joke and laugh things away as I am used to.
All compounded by the fact of not working I guess, around two weeks in my mind moved into a kind of crazy paranoia. It was interesting and intense. It seemed to be a spinning, negative, repetetive pattern. I say spinning as it seemed to draw more and more things into it. It heightened the intensity of the experience, opening the door to something new. Where I would usually speak up to help sort things out I was forced to stay out and sit with other people’s points of view untouched by anything that I might think or wish to contribute. To realise in some respects my own unimportance – ie to be privy to the fact that everyone could manage fine without me. Riding that was powerful. I feel strengths which may support me should I choose to travel alone: the ability to sidestep or face down social pressures regardless of what other people’s perceptions might be of me. To know that I can get by without answering someone, and to have the ability and space to think before I speak. Very helpful when trying to keep safe as a person on their own. – Although having said that I did speak by accident a couple of times – once to a baby and a couple of times when I was watching telly paying no attention to the speaker, on auto-pilot.
I have really enjoyed the types of conversation and the experience of company that I’ve had. I couldn’t be exact in what was said, that’s been a pleasure. Donna rumbled me at the party when she asked why my gestures hadn’t seemed to improve over the month, I admitted that I didn’t really want them to :) Having said that, people have often seemed almost uncanny in their understanding when I have been looking to be specific. This has generally been with people who know me well rather than those who don’t, although not always. As one friend said after we had spent a day together baking – it felt like we had been conversing all day. I agree, it did. It is hard to believe I have been a month without speaking (I did have a couple of occasions when I spoke – these were planned beforehand – seemed I shouldn’t add to any stresses on these occasions. So it isn’t entirely a month without speaking. Also, I have been writing a little, it would have been even more intense had I left this aside also).

There have been times when I felt something of what it might be like for me not to be somewhere – ie to be a fly on the wall in some sense. Difficult to explain that one exactly, but very powerful. Not even a fly on the wall – the silence wasn’t just outward but inward also. Very spacious. Did any of you feel that at any times? There were occasions when it felt like it was emanating outwards. No me, no division between myself and world, myself and other. I have felt this deeply at other times when I have been silent - it is the ‘enlightenment’ experience – for instance meditation, being ‘alone’, out clubbing or at concerts,- it has been less often or less easily known in conversational company – perhaps because conversation continually makes us all into someone. Into ‘a person’ – separate from others. It has been a pleasure to be without having to express opinions, or even to hold opinions. To be gently unmade, to become simply life living itself, enjoying, observing, taking part. To see how beautifully other expressions of life get on and do things, in their own beautiful way.
I appreciated having a single gesture (a kind of open-handed shrug) for ‘question’. There is no word for that - to ask a question, language seems to be specific – ‘what’ ‘why’ etc. This gesture has been lovely, like asking ‘tell me more’ but without feeling any intrusiveness or the heaviness that may have. Just kind of leaving the floor open for whatever the teller fancied sharing. There has been a great sense of freedom and space in much of this. With most people there was an initial period of awkwardness and then a settling. It has been a particular pleasure with people who I saw a number of times – watching language evolve, knowing the words we shared, the subjects we might visit easily or in some way how an individual’s understanding unfolds. – Like teaching the piano – a different way of knowing a person – a different window, new experience of people. Like dancing with people – bodies talking to each other, movements being learnt. Beautiful. Lovely also to just be quiet in company.
In a practical way I found that if I wanted to respond to something I had to do it fairly quickly or the focus of the conversation would move on and no one could know what I was referring to anymore. I was more aware of the movement and dance of conversation, and of the part that I might usually play in the dance. Also of how lovely it is not to let ideas interrupt where the subject is going – although it is great to contribute, it was really enjoyable to listen a lot more also, without feeling obliged to contribute – or at least not to building the conversation, just contributing to its flow.
Some things in particular it was really enjoyable to act rather than speak - like explaining to Steph why I had got out of the bath after only washing half of my legs :)
Throughout I had the experience of aspects of ‘deaf culture’ – the central place of physical contact and of eye contact. I did a night of woodcraft with Flo and found it less of an effort gently nudging children into place or gesturing for quiet than using my voice – which would have added to the noise levels. I was also aware of their responses to this – some surprise perhaps, but also simple and warm. I found generally over the month that I was quicker to respond physically to people, giving a pat or a hug etc. That was lovely as the impulse is nearly always there but there was less inhibition.
Losing inhibitions was one of the reasons for doing this and it has been great. All those weird and wonderful subtle inhibitors that make up a culture, ways of doing things. Yes, people thought I was odd, didn’t understand, may have felt irritable or at a loss. Yes sometimes I felt shy. But it helped burn off any more sense of self importance that could be found. Burning off self-importance/ ego-identification – whatever you wish to term it – is part of various spiritual practices – for instance Zen Buddhism, it also seems to be central to Carlos Castaneda’s sorcery training, etc. It cuts through the individual personality to the huge vastness and expression of life which we all are. The place that we share. The equality which we speak so much about which is more profound and deeper than the talents/ skills/ abilities/ wealth/ looks people have which are not equal.

Throughout all of this there has been the settling of a profound experience of what I can only call expanded awareness – which meditation helps me to enter into. In some respect it is a profound realisation of the expression of life that each of us is and everything around us is. That we are deeply and intimately connected. That we all have life, or vital energy, or God - in us, moving through us. This is an incredible deep experience, a recognition in some way of prooundly what we are, what life is. Watching the interplay of energy, the collections of particles that we all are, being these particles, this interplay, this space, this beauty. I guess this is where the motivation to seek out these experiences comes from – to know this earth, these cells, this vital energy all the more intimately. Another thing I hadn’t expected was to recognise how beautifully everything has its place – that speaking and not speaking, miming, music, silence, all are utterly beautiful. That there are so many different spaces/ dimensions that we can occupy and they all have something different to offer. Their own welcome place. That they can all feed expanded awareness, joy, beauty, nowness.
Reading back on this I feel how poorly communicated any of this is – but perhaps no surprises there. Speech/ words/ thinking seem to be only a reflection, a poor imitation of the vastness, richness, fullness of experience. A page of scribbley code is not an experience. Yet is there also transmission beyond this page of scribbley code? I believe there is. We grow together, we grow each other all the time. How much that has to do with speech I really couldn’t say, although I suspect it is in different ways than we think it is.
Thank you all for your patience, love, beauty, humour – these seemed to shine even more without the words in the way. I love to explore and experiment and it has been wonderful to share that with you – to some degree I have shared my meditation and work with you through this and it has been wonderful to share things close to the heart. Word that I missed the most? Thank you. I hope you felt it in my smile and my heart and my thumbs up. There was no easy translation for it – when I patted my heart it often seemed that people thought I was just referring to myself. I cheated occasionally and whispered it when I was on my own.
And, woopeee! It will be fun to be speaking again. Although, as life always has it – I have a sore throat tonight.
Thank you all! Thank you and bless you!”

Charlotte Eaton, November 2009

One Response to “Experiment in not speaking, Charlotte Eaton”

  1. Joe Sharp says:

    Amazing Charlotte, I love how deeply you explored this strange experiment. It’s impressive that you investigate these things in ‘first person’. It seems to add such a lot of value to your findings. Joe x :-D

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