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Big Brother Is Watching You… to make sure you don’t laugh

Friday, June 15th, 2012

It all started a couple of weeks ago with an e mail from a producer. This would be the fifth time I was being filmed for television as a laughter facilitator, although this time was on set. Previously it has been on location. The producer’s warm style was typical of the first contact that has been made each time regarding filming. She didn’t mention immediately what the filming was for, checking first that I was interested and then once I’d replied, suggesting that we spoke. On the phone she was very friendly, introducing herself as Chantal and chatting a little, initially skirting around telling me what the programme was. After checking me out for a few minutes and giving me a vague sense of what she was after she told me that the programme was Big Brother and that I would have to sign a confidentiality agreement, which she e mailed straight away. I asked her if I could be joined by another laughter facilitator, and she agreed. She explained that the housemates would be doing a task in which they had been challenged not to laugh, and that we would be waking the housemates up with a laugh and trying to get them laughing. We agreed that I would think about it for a day or two and then get back to her with ideas and the contact details of the person who would join me. I was pretty sure who I wanted to go with me into the house. I gave myself a day to sit on it all without thinking about it too much. I was in a slight state of shock. I did my usual in these situations and ran around the house laughing aloud. Everytime the thought came it made me chuckle. The impulse to tell people was overwhelming.

The next day I rang Kate Sharp to ask her if she would join me. I met Kate eighteen months ago, newly engaged to her lovely man, and the two of them decided that for their honeymoon they would do their laughter training in Greece with me. My laugh is always fairly close to the surface, and so is Kate’s. We are like two little underground bubbly spas. There is instant recognition when we meet each other: it is pretty much impossible for us not to roar with laughter in each other’s company. From the minute I spoke to Chantal I had Kate in mind as the perfect partner-in-crime, although I fleetingly considered inviting my dad, who also has a massive laugh. But bearing in mind his feeling about reality TV shows and his somewhat unpredictable maverick approach to life, I didn’t entertain that idea for long. I could picture him taking a quick dip in the pool on his way out.

I put together a set of exercises that I thought would be appropriate, had a practice session in front of my camera, another practice session on Skype with Kate, and then went to Chantal’s house to do a run through with her and her housemate. I am chuckling again now thinking of it: another utterly inspiring and unexpected day-in-the-life of a laughter yoga teacher. Turning up at a strange house with the remit of making two strangers laugh despite themselves. The look on their faces as they tried to resist the giggles is something I will treasure. They loved the session, and I repeated it so that Chantal could film it to show her senior producer. I left their house to go to a job interview, reflecting on the fact that it was possibly the best warm up I could have had for an interview. (Got to do something to earn the daily crust: laughter isn’t always something people wish to reach into their pockets for. Although having said that, a big thank you to Chantal as we both got a fee and travel expenses for doing Big Brother: not always the case for media). A wonderfully strange and joyful warm secret to be traveling across London with.

We were asked to be at Elstree Studios for a 7am call. Kate is a Guide leader, and was committed to being at Guides, in Cheltenham where she lives, the night before. She arrived at mine at around 1.30am. The car came to collect us at 5.45am. We were a little tired, but we did our usual round of laughter warm-ups on our way to the studio. The driver took us round the back to a a large building labelled ‘The George Lucas Stage’ and what looked like a construction site. None of it was what I expected. We were directed through a doorway in a simple wooden fence. To the left was a large construction that looked unfinished. In front of it and to the right were some Portakabins, neatly arranged in rows. No one seemed to know exactly where we should go, and we were reticent about saying too much as we had signed our confidentiality agreements.

The whole thing was genuinely Orwellian in its strange futurism and quirks, and I kept thinking that he would have been proud and fascinated by this mutant relation of 1984. Among the Portakabins was a white signpost which could have been taken straight out of one of his books, although to be fair it wouldn’t have been out of place in the Wizard of Oz either. The writing was painted in black. On top of the signpost it said ‘Big Brother Square’. The signs read: ‘De-branding’, ‘Reality’, ‘Chillax’, ‘Library’, ‘Stationery’, ‘Seniors’, ‘BB’s Bit on the Side’, and plenty more. The Portakabins were all marked with a printed label. Our first stop was the kitchen Portakabin, where we had our first cup of tea of the day. I was particularly taken with the Portakabin next door, labelled ‘de-branding’. My mind whirred in amazement and amusement. I had no need for de-branding, but along with her signature rainbow skirt, Kate was wearing a pair of Kermit the Frog socks. Kermit had to be covered for the occasion.

We were waited on all morning. We arrived at 6.30am for a 7am call, but the plan was not to take us into the house until 9.30am as long as none of the housemates stirred before then. We were called into the producers’ Portakabin to do a practice run-through of the session with the production team. The Portakabin was full of computers and desks and had a busy feel. The team (around eight people) pretended to be asleep (over their computers). We ‘woke them up’ with a full-on laugh for a few minutes, before cracking into the exercises we had prepared. I wasn’t sure if Kate would be able to slow her laughter-motor enough for me to be able to kick off the session. She is wonderful. The team loved the session, exclaiming that they could do with something similar every morning.

They brought us our uniform. Two ‘small’ white T shirts which looked at least a large, with the words ‘LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE’ printed on the front. I decided, erring on the side of caution, not to put mine on until I’d eaten my breakfast.

We were taken to have a look around the House. This was by far the most intriguing and imagination-capturing part of the experience. We went through a Portakabin, signed in, and passed inside the outer wall. Once inside we had to be quiet, as the inner walls were not sound-proofed. There was a wide corridor between the inner and outer walls that ran all the way around the house. Everything was painted in black, and it was difficult to see until our eyes had adjusted to the darkness. There were wires running across the floors, and one-way windows (mirrors from the inside) which we could look through into the garden and sections of the house that are not being used this year, but for some reason had their lights switched on. Undecorated storage spaces with a couple of chairs and odd bits of junk inside. The most amazing sight was the cameramen. Every so often, as we walked around the periphery of the house, we would come across a cameraman sitting on a big moveable chair with a camera set up on a big moveable device at one of the one-way windows. It was cold in the corridor, as it was shaded and not heated, and the cameramen were wearing big coats. The effect seemed to me to be like half-human, half-mechanical creatures, tilting and moving and sweeping smoothly in actions that were neither entirely machine nor entirely animal. The camera equipment was all black, with the cameras poking underneath black curtains at the windows. The runners who were showing us around moved the curtains aside so we could see into the house. The house itself looks fairly spacious and luxurious on television. In reality it is tiny, and viewed through a window which is surrounded by black boards it has the feel of being anything but luxurious. We peeped into the bedroom where the housemates were asleep. It was so strange to be inches away from them, these sleeping beauties, and inches away from a space that is so minutely focused on. Like standing on the periphery of an entirely different world or another dimension. Perhaps a little like the miracle of a picture of a baby in the womb: the picture itself, and the equipment and technology that took it are so far removed from the baby’s knowledge or experience. I prayed they wouldn’t wake up for at least another half an hour as I had breakfast on the way.

Back in our Portakabin a full English arrived in a polystyrene box. It was another delightful moment. It was like riding in a yellow cab in New York. People really eat meals out of polystyrene boxes on set. I supped my tea in its paper cup and laughed again with the unexpected wonder of the experience. I am a person who cannot resist exploring every experience that life has to offer, but this one, with its undeniably strange quirks and charms, will be truly unforgettable.
Next into the Portakabin tumbled a number of people who were going into the house after us as ‘Super Fans’. They seemed fairly hazy on what exactly this was due to entail, although we caught a few titbits of conversation about chanting the housemates names, and the right way to do it.

At around 9am we went to another Portakabin to be miked up. This one was full of recording equipment, a huge mixing desk looking onto a room beyond through a large two-way glass window. This was what I had been expecting, although in retrospect I’m not sure why, as that had been my experience on radio but I didn’t know what to expect for television. Kate and I were both fitted with microphones, and I had a wizzycom put in my ear. I laughed heartily when they told me that was what it was called, but it is obviously so well-used in the business that any humour at its name is long-gone. It couldn’t have fitted in better with the Wizard of Oz-esque feel of the set-up. It whistled and fuzzed in my ear, but I was assured that it would stop doing that as we approached the House.
Nerves didn’t really kick in until we were making our way around the inner corridor again. This time we stopped by the door that said ‘bedroom’. It was an A4 printed sheet, stuck to the black boards with yellow and black stripy tape. A step beyond it was the glamorous inside of the House itself. The juxtaposition was, again, striking.

We had been carefully prepped for what was to come next. The lights were flicked on in the bedroom, and an announcement was made over the House speakers: ‘This is Big Brother. Would all housemates please switch on their microphones.’ I lifted the curtain next to the camera again and watched the shapes in the beds begin to move. Lots of rumpled hair and faces. I had been told to wait for the cue in my ear. I would be signalled when to go in to the bedroom, and signalled when to stop simply laughing and start the exercises. Kate was behind me cackling away. She looked at me and said ‘I just keep thinking of how it will feel to them from where they are looking at these,’ and she indicated her own lit-up, laughing face and pointed at mine. I was unbelievably grateful that she was there with me. She laughed us both through our nerves. I don’t remember opening the door, although I remember very distinctly the feel of the thick soft rug underneath my trainers. We stood back and let our best laughs rip, surrounded by a sea of bemused faces. The producers let it run for what felt like an age. Internally I was thanking my lucky stars that I have done so many laughter sessions, many of them to surly teenagers or at events where people are, at least initially, entirely unconvinced at the exercise. We laughed on regardless of the stony faces around us. I was also thankful that Kate was in there to keep me going, and that I had watched Big Brother the night before. The thought of housemates Ashleigh and Luke exchanging whispered confidences about their boob and ball sizes was the perfect nerves-antidote.

The session involved introductions followed by bursts of laughter, the same introductions again but this time in gibberish followed by a burst of laughter, the laughter box and metre, and then everyone making a tight circle and sitting ‘one, two, three’ on each other’s laps. The exercises were chosen to ensure the best camera angles, and unfortunately this did not include any lying down, which would have been my preference. After a few minutes Arron, perplexed, asked ‘why does their fake laughter sound so much like real laughter?’ Fabulous. I just kept hoping that one of my teachers from school, so tortured by my explosions of uncontrollable laughter in lessons, would see that it did have some value after all, in the right context. My personal favourite was Luke (of the odd-sized balls’) face. He stretched his mouth into a strangely hilarious ‘O’ shape in order to keep from laughing. It had me bending over double and roaring. A wonderful image to take away.

We were in for around fifteen or twenty minutes. The atmosphere was strange. A battle of wills, or a battle of energy. Our free-flowing guffaws trying to shimmy through their iron walls. We finished the session by saying goodbye, thank you, good luck and shaking hands. I remarked to the other Luke that we nearly had him. They relaxed as we were leaving, and there were some genuine thank yous and warmth. The barriers to connection were loosened a little. I walked away relived that I wasn’t trapped in the house, and thinking that this task not to laugh was probably much more subtle and psychologically tortuous than it appeared on the surface. There are very few ways for the housemates to rid themselves of tension. Most of them won’t have sex whilst in the house. There isn’t a great deal of space or quiet time to be had. There is no space for a run around or to do significant sports. There are no distractions from one another in the form of books or television. To keep them from laughing for forty-eight hours struck me as very severe. Having done experiments in taking away a natural faculty (i.e. not speaking for a month at a time) I am aware of the difficulty in working so hard to turn something instinctual off, and then the stickiness around turning it on again. For me, speaking again brought a great flood and intensity of emotion. I had imprisoned myself, and I didn’t realise the effects would be so profound and long-lasting. Strangely, there was a horror to it that I hadn’t expected. I wonder about the effects of all of this on them, although I guess it will be piled in among the effects of being a showcase in a massive popularity competition, and may be hard to distinguish.

We left the bedroom after the producer had made one request on the wizzycom for us to repeat the sitting on each other’s knees in a circle activity. At least I think that’s what he said. We stepped through the door, back into the equally weird and wonderful world of Portakabins, fantastical ideas, wires and activity, and were greeted everywhere with smiles and thanks. The production team had apparently greatly enjoyed our efforts and were pleased with the camera angles. It struck me more deeply than it has before the strangeness of the set-up. The production team are concerned with making a good programme. This is not to say that they are not concerned for the housemates’ wellbeing, but that the concern for their wellbeing is necessarily in the service of making the programme. The cooking pot of the House sits inside the busy bee-hive of the production enclosure, and the production enclosure sits inside the sedate and ‘normal’ Elstree, London Zone 6. The three worlds seem so different from one another that the mind boggles.

We had to sign release forms before we left. I signed mine after a brief skim-read, but Kate pointed out the clause that said that we agreed to the Contribution being used… bla bla bla… throughout the known Universe. Another quirky sci-fi moment to add to the collection. Just to be aired on Earth is clearly no longer adequate.

After signing our release forms, Kate and I went outside the Big Brother production enclosure and posed for some snaps with Chantal. We had been asked not to take snaps inside the strange world of the production enclosure, which added to the magical and mysterious cloud that seems to shroud the whole enterprise. Which isn’t to say that I wasn’t entirely unaffected by having had only a couple of hours sleep that night. The journey home was a little hazy. After a couple more hours sleep, I got up and went to teach that evening’s choir, ruby slippers firmly packed away, polished and ready for the next adventure.

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Getting Going After the Tsunami, by Charlotte Eaton

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Charlotte shares her experience of creating a project to help small businesses get re-started in Sri Lanka after the tsunami. March 2005

Nandikka points along the front of the concrete square which was once her home and clothes shop. The family’s allocated tent is pitched in the middle of it. ‘He helped me with the sweeping. He lined our shoes up here,’ she says, referring to her four year old son who died in the tsunami.

I was in Sri Lanka for 6 months, working at an elephant sanctuary and teaching English before the tsunami hit. I left before Christmas, but flew back on the 12th of January. I had no specific plan, but a desire to help and some donations from friends and family. I headed to Unawatuna, a tsunami-struck village on the South coast where I knew people.

‘It is because I did something wrong before,’ Nandikka says. She can’t say what it was that she did wrong, only that she must have done something or her son would still be alive. She doesn’t know whether her punishable behaviour occurred in this life or a previous one. Her twelve year old daughter was the one to find his body, where the sea discarded it. I wonder if she also feels a sense of responsibility for her brother’s death. The father doesn’t speak, and won’t meet my eye.

The tsunami seems to be connected in people’s minds with the long-term erosion of the coastline and coral reefs. ‘The beach has got shorter in the last ten years,’ a resident European tells me. ‘The buildings on the beach have changed the tides.’ I ask him in what way this is relevant to the tsunami and he admits that it isn’t directly related, but claims that it is connected, expressing a view that I hear many times afterwards: that nature is taking its revenge for the building on the sand and the sewage dumped into the sea. Another man tells me that in the first few hours after the wave came, the villagers didn’t realise that the damage extended all the way round the coast, and blamed a local guy for opening his disco on a Poya day (full moon day, which is holy to Buddhists).

The government line appears to add credence to the view of moral responsibility for the disaster. Since the tsunami they have introduced a ban on building within 100 metres of the coast. They have been threatening to do so for years but have chosen now to enforce it. Not only have the survivors lost members of their family, their businesses and their houses, they are to lose their land as well. The policy has a feel of ‘I-told-you-so’ as if people invited the disaster upon themselves. It has thrown them into a state of apathy. They do not wish to rebuild their houses if their houses are going to be cleared by the government, but neither do they wish to move; to a proposed inland estate of apartment blocks. As a seafront restaurant owner put it: ‘we were born with our feet in the sand.’

One woman told me that although her family had survived and her house was intact, she wished she had died. The tsunami carried away her cooker and pots and pans. Previously she had run cookery classes for tourists. The next day I tentatively suggested that if I bought her a new cooker, she could teach me to cook. She nearly exploded with gratitude. I was also pleased. I had found a structure for giving aid that was both motivational and productive, healing and effective in the long-term. We went shopping and she became immersed in testing coconut graters and other unusual contraptions that I did not recognise. She was a strict cookery teacher. Her brother offered to provide music as we worked. He and his friend sang and drummed, but I got told off if I gave them any attention because I wasn’t concentrating on cooking. This became a common experience as people embarked on their work again: the tables turned and I was no longer in charge.

In that first month I assisted seventeen businesses back onto their feet. I gave myself some basic guidelines: I would not give cash and I would only help those who were willing to help themselves. This may sound harsh but there seems to be a culture of dependency in Sri Lanka, which got far worse after the tsunami. I was willing to help, but only if there was input from the recipient. A joint effort was far more productive and therapeutic than simple charity: it strengthened people’s confidence and self-respect. My final rule was that anything bought for a business should be portable. No money would be spent on re-building. If necessary, businesses could be run from a moveable structure –for instance a trolley-shop. This was to avoid coming into conflict with the 100-metre rule, and to protect myself from involvement in people’s living situations. I wasn’t there to give pity, but to give respect. There was so much that needed doing. I had to retain a narrow focus in order not to get distracted or depressed, or to find myself at the brunt of people’s anger and distress.

After some groundwork, quietly cross-checking an individual’s apparent situation and means and then ascertaining their willingness to work, I took them shopping. It was necessary to ensure that the money was spent on what we had agreed upon: alcoholism was prevalent in Sri Lanka before the disaster and more so afterwards with such profound shock and grief. Initially I worried that the shopping trips were a waste of my time, preventing me from getting to as many people as I wanted to, but actually they were fundamental. It was each person’s chance to be the focus of someone’s attention, to tell their story and receive some much-needed support. Once their enterprise was open I made sure other volunteers knew of it. The target market was no longer tourists, as there weren’t any. But there was a market in the huge number of volunteers who were now present.

I dropped by each business regularly, expressing how impressed I was at the work they were doing and how good the place was looking. I bought their produce. Eating my way around the village, buying jewellery and clothing was all part of the job. I bought wooden mobiles from a carvings shop, (once they had been cleaned of sand and salt), and donated them to the local orphanage. I commissioned new toys for devastated play-schools from a carpenter. I was given a mucky tsunami-surviving wooden Buddha, which I was instructed not to clean, as a thank you gift. Everything was tsunami. Tsunami jewellery, tsunami cookery. The word tsunami was thrown into music, the way people might shout ‘in the house!’ Someone’s ex-wife was described as a tsunami.

I was warned against helping the owner of a bakery; it was rumoured that he had spent money donated by another tourist on drink. But his business stood a good chance of success: there were a lot of people around who could pay for their lunch and there was nowhere local to get it. He cleaned up the shop and rebuilt the outside wall before I would consider helping him financially. Motivation proved, we bought a cooker and some brightly coloured table cloths. I reflected, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that helping a drinker was really a positive move. Any money he earned was likely to circulate the local economy, supporting the bar and small shops that were tentatively resurfacing.

I met Nandikka, the seamstress who lost her four year old son, on the evening of the one month anniversary of the tsunami. She had written her son’s name in candles. Bizarrely, his name meant ‘sea’ in Sinhala. I also lit lamps for the anniversary. There were forty thousand laid out across the village. They were floated out to sea in coconut shells and plastic bottles. It was an incredible sight. A local restaurant owner provided the clay pots for the lamps and enough coconut oil to keep them burning all night, but a few villagers took a load of oil up the mountain to sell, so not all the lamps could burn all night. I drifted into philosophical thoughts, wondering whether this could be the reason that some people live and some die- the lamps that stayed alight were the survivors. It had nothing to do with being good or bad, just the randomness of who kept which candles burning. It was difficult to make sense of any of it. It seemed as likely as the randomness of being judged and having your four year old child killed for something he hadn’t done, and perhaps you hadn’t either, or at least not in this life. It seemed a lot of the drug dealers and heroin addicts had survived. The addicts were an asset: they worked harder than anyone else when it came to the cash-for-clearing-sewage-from-the-canal initiative. It seems they needed cash more than anyone else.

I took Nandikka to buy a sewing machine. I wasn’t sure that she was in any state to work, but she came to life in front of a big heavy foot-treadle Singer, the like of which has not been available new in England for a long time. I watched her wringing hands turn to nimble skill. She chose materials, scissors and thread and I commissioned her to make some dolls to go in the doll’s houses which a carpenter was constructing for local schools.

Shortly before I left Sri Lanka I went to Nandikka’s house to buy a sarong, and she showed me her son’s schoolbag and photograph. I was pleased. Her attitude seemed more positive. It seemed that her focus had shifted from her own guilt to remembering the child that her son was. As I was leaving, she told me that she had decided to try for another child.

(Article written to raise funds for Cork Aid to Sri Lanka, an Irish charity started by two other aid workers I met in Sri Lanka).

The beauty of 100 million sunflower seeds by Charlotte Eaton

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Last wednesday I went to the Tate Modern to see Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds’ exhibition. I didn’t know much about it before I went.

The seeds have a great presence. I was profoundly calmed and awakened by them. It felt as though each seed was rustling with vitality, which perhaps they are: one hundred million seeds individually handmade and painted by some sixteen-hundred people employed from an otherwise economically-depressed Chinese town. A project which expresses love and unity and individuality, set in motion and overseen by a man with great presence of mind and heart; an artist and a socially active, connected individual. I didn’t know all of this initially, only felt their serenity and beauty; their depth and their unintended silence. They were like a vast, inviting urban beach in the huge industrial space of the Turbine Hall.

When the exhibition first opened at the Tate in October 2010 the intention was for the public to play among the seeds. Unfortunately, movement on the seeds raised a toxic dust, and with concerns over health and safety the Tate took the decision to put a cordon around the installation. Without any interplay the seeds became only half an artwork: a different kind of artwork entirely to that which was intended.

Ai Weiwei has been detained in custody by the Chinese Government for morbidly, almost comical “suspected, unspecified crimes”. His whereabouts, and those of many people connected to him, are unknown. The exhibition, cordoned off and silent, unwittingly become a reflection of the artist’s own silence. The symbolism of this and the loss of this great man struck me deeply. It awoke a powerful desire in me to roll unclothed upon them, returning them to the state of playfulness for which they were intended: to respond to the artist’s desire for interaction and to express the lust for life which he currently cannot express. I wanted to wake people up as the seeds had woken me. In a room adjoining the exhibition the public were invited to record questions for Ai, or leave responses to his questions. Not only did Ai create an interactive exhibition but he was looking for exchange with the public.

I wished to make a statement in solidarity with Ai about freedom yet I did not wish to do anything which might be construed as aggressive or illegal, particularly towards the Tate, which is an institution I admire. I rang and wrote to the Tate’s Press Office, requesting the opportunity to walk upon the seeds naked. It struck me that to do this with the Tate’s consent would constitute a far stronger symbol of freedom than to run the risk of being removed by security. It would serve to highlight the freedom of expression that we have in this country, and not some kind of bizarre protest about being naked. The exhibition was due to finish on May Day, a traditional day for the workers to stand up for their rights: to protest and be heard. Perhaps because it was the bank holiday weekend, there was no reply from the Press Office.

I did not know that I would go through with it until the Monday afternoon, standing ready at the cordon. My action was intuitive and personal. I was naked and painted, reflecting the beach-like yet man-made husks in a vast old power-station, wishing to invite questions about freedom: every individual’s freedom to move and express as they see fit; and on a grander level, the freedom that each society allows.

I took a few minutes to calm myself down and tune in to the magical quality of the seeds and the hall. I had asked a couple of friends to come with cameras. I didn’t want to tell any press or many people beforehand, because I didn’t think I would go through with it if I put too much pressure on myself. I wanted to minimise disruption to the Tate, and yet felt implicitly invited: by the Tate and Ai: to be myself; to give a response to this beauty as I felt fit, and to act in solidarity with Ai.

I stepped onto the seeds without my shoes and took my dress off as I walked, showing the painting on my body (a large sunflower and the words freedom on my front, and thank you Ai Weiwei on my back). I don’t remember walking on the seeds. I do remember hearing someone shout bravo, getting off the seeds, smiling at Tate staff and leaving the building clothed again and without recrimination. It has been a week of waves of nervousness, emotion and joy.

I feel so proud and grateful to live in this country, and I felt this intensely as I left the exhibition: the stark contrast of our nation compared to others. I felt an affinity with Ai Weiwei, for his state of silence, and for the projects in which he has been involved. I spent a year in Sri Lanka in 2004/5, caught up in trying to help people get back into the swing of their lives, of life itself, following the tsunami. I understand something of the impulse which sings so strongly in Ai: to record people’s tragedy, to support local growth and development, to move against corruption, and to give people a voice. When I returned from Sri Lanka I realised that I had slowly become used to the fact that women were less important than men, poor far less important than rich. I felt an immense gratitude then for this country. I am equal here. I had a taste of what it is to be unheard, and it was sad and shocking. With all its faults, with all our ups and downs, we are so fortunate here. Ai Weiwei is not fortunate in his country. His beauty is not supported nor venerated but feared by those in power. He has lost his voice. That is an appalling and shocking thing for anyone, yet sharply intensified by the fact that he is a jewel of a human being.

Sign a petition here:

Press links:
BBC Three Counties Radio interview 7th May 2011
Evening Standard 3rd May 2011
Belfast Telegraph 2nd May 2011

Experiment in not speaking, Charlotte Eaton

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

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

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