Enjoy the Silence
Various thoughts about silence, touch, contact and life in 2020

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent
Ludwig Wittgenstein
I haven't said a word in nine days. I continue to do my job, lead contact classes, exercise in the gym, see my friends, but I do not talk. I read letters and messages but I don't reply to them. On my friend's birthday I video called her and we just looked at each other. I think she liked it. I'm in the middle of a 20-day silent retreat.

I've done this kind of retreat before and I feel it's increasingly becoming an important part of the consciousness hygiene I need. 20 days is a long time. Usually the process lasts 3-5 days. I do not have any special rituals of entering and exiting silence which gives me freedom of choice in each moment and helps me to integrate this practice into my daily life.
Why silence?
Never in human history has our brain processed as much information as it does today. Much of this information is superficial, yet we find ourselves so busy processing it that we lose our ability to think and feel. By sacrificing depth and feeling, we are cut off from ourselves and from other people.

Taoist practices describe three types of deprivation leading to clearly described results: sexual abstinence leads to a gain in vitality, refusal to eat leads to the opening of the heart, silence leads to wisdom and the ability to see the nature of things.

I have been to Vipassana many times and I can say that silent meditation really does help to calm the mind and put things in order. Now I want to tell you how silence is related to identity, freedom and why refusing to express oneself can be a political gesture these days.
In today's world it is not acceptable to be silent: you have to constantly talk, write, remind about yourself to be noticed. A person who does not speak raises suspicions - what if they hide something? Every day we have to respond to countless queries, confirming our inclusion in a social context and proving we are safe for others.
Greetings at home, work conversations, chatting in messengers, social media, "smart watches" - all this endlessly requires us to be engaged, to show and to react.

And everyone wants an answer right away!
Socialization becomes repressive - we feel obligated to respond, so we often respond with no time to think or feel an authentic answer. As a result, we seem insincere and feel guilty, and next time we respond the same way, because part of the consciousness is chained to guilt.

This results in a vicious circle, and this is exacerbated by a culture of positive thinking in which uncertainty, doubt and suffering are outlawed. The collective growing sense of irrational guilt creates perfect conditions for political manipulation and prevalence of "post truth", and, consequently, allows to establish total control over the individual and society as a whole.

Social networks have made us visible to others, but they have turned us inside out - trying to meet community standards, we no longer see ourselves. We are too busy answering and we have stopped directing questions to ourselves. Self-representation has turned from an opportunity into an obligation to put human life into a Procrustean bed of text and visual image.
What do you think - how many people are able to feel their own weight now, the moment you ask them about it?

I did it, I interviewed 20 people on a street, asking them if they could feel their weight and volume at that point. Four people answered affirmatively. This casual statistic suggests that most of the people are so busy with textual and visual thinking that they are not even able to feel their own weight, while the inability to physically feel your weight calls into question your overall existence. It is this fear of nonexistence that underlies proscrastination, social media induced depression and political conformism.
Thus, communication between people is becoming more and more formal and superficial, and, furthermore, the situation is aggravated by the second problem, the culture of social fear in which touch is outlawed.

Let's be honest - in 2020 you can never be sure that your touch will not be interpreted as an invasion of personal space and you will not be accused of harassment. Certainly, you can ask, but touch is a language on its own (which we are still developing).

We end up in situations where we absurdly have to ask for a permission to ask. [Like asking in English "can I ask you in Russian what time is it"] As a result, we choose not to touch at all. It seems strange but these are the realities of our time. What is meant to protect us from violence turns into a heavy wave of repression dividing us in the end.
The situation of sentient people today is similar to the situation of thinking intellectuals in the Soviet Union during the Stalin era in the 30's, they could never know what their actions could cause the Gulag sentence.

It was more smart not to think at all, and those who were doing it were in the risk group. Just like these days, the rules are constantly changing and you can't foresee what will cause public accusations that could lead to social damage.

It's safer not to feel anything at all..
Communication is an essential part of human existence and our collective survival. We like to belong and identify with a group, we learn and grow within it. But what can we do when trends in social norms lead to the dilution of communication itself?

Perhaps it's time to think about contact improvisation…
Contemporary dance is always at the avant-garde of contemporary art in general, as the body is the primary response to the changing environment and its movement is a visible manifestation of this response.
Contact improvisation, which appeared 50 years ago, began as an experiment at the intersection of philosophy, science, art and sport. Its creators did not certify it and, so it did not become yet another dance technique, but remains an open framework expanding into many dimensions - philosophical, social, psychological - and, ultimately, mirroring the body's response to the environment.

Contemporary contact improvisation is not exactly what it was in 1972 - and mainly because the idea was much broader than practice.

Nowadays, we can meet people with a wide variety of possibilities and goals at contact jam: athletes for whom it is a movement experiment, dancers for whom it is a beautiful partnering dance technique, young people for whom it is an international hugging party, elderly people and people with disabilities for whom it is an opportunity to socialize in an inclusive environment, people for whom contact dance has become a life philosophy and a way to find answers to spiritual questions.

The list can be continued. Contact improvisation as a social environment has not changed - it has expanded. Nowadays, we cannot ignore neither the aesthetic aspect of contact dance, nor the political factors inherent in the international community, nor the psychological effect of inclusiveness, nor the oxytocin.

When I met Steve Paxton in Brussels, I asked him a question. "Steve," I said, "you and those with whom you started contact improvisation, will die sooner or later. Did you think about what would happen to the practice after you?" Steve got revived, and he said, "Of course I did. Everyone who practices now, teaches, organizes, will create some kind of contact improvisation according to what they understood from what we did."
Apparently, anticipating this, we understood something and acted upon it.

The idea of the Silent Festival was born in 2016. We were doing a small contact festival at a ski resort and thought it would be great to have one day of silence in the middle of the festival, so that no one would pester us with questions and we could relax. It turned out great and then we had been doing one quiet day in the middle of the festival untiI I started looking for a place to host a full-fledged festival of silence.

I have varied experience in non-verbal communication: Vipassana, my toddler daughter with whom we were communicating while she was not yet able to speak, and the extensive experience of traveling in foreign countries. I remember on my first trip to China without knowing a word of Chinese, I realized that language is just one of the communication tools and that direct comperhension is possible - at a level where children who do not yet speak language understand each other.

This is a big topic - we could start by saying that language is, first of all, a model of logic that defines thinking and only then a means of communication. From this point of view, we could include other sign systems that correlate conceptual content with standard writing, such as music, sign language, or program code.

Perception and expression are inversely dependent - when you stop speaking, you start to hear (as well as see and feel). In such scenario, the brain will anyway structure the information coming in, creating an image of reality, though, if we we reduce the power of words for a while, it will start connecting alternate symbolic systems - and there will appear sounds, colors, scents - sensations and feelings of the world instead of just their textual projections.
What if verbal communication is a way to protect ourselves from each other?
What if, when talking, we build a conceptual image of ourselves and present it to others, and in an essence, it's our external projections which communicate. It happens often that when you are in private with someone you like, you both embarrassingly start talking nonsense.

What if we don't do that? What would happen to us?
All these questions led to conceiving of the first Silent Festival.
I came to Georgia in 2018 in search of a place for the festival. The first edition was held on the coast of the Black Sea. It was a beautiful and challenging experience.

First of all, my task was to engage teachers with the new idea and make sure they genuinely develop their intensive curriculum and not only improvise as they go. Secondly, I was to involve participants in a new format - people are not ready to pay for experiments and they generally want something familiar. Lastly, it was a new place in a new country, where everything works very peculiarly (if it does at all).

In general, the first festival left wonderful impressions, warm friendships and impressive debts.

On the surface...

Deep down, we felt that something very important and life changing had happened to us. It was as if this experience of a week of sharing had really made us into one. It was as if it was clear that everyone was already a message, without saying a word.

And if like all of us had the ability to read each others' messages.
It was decided to continue.

I stayed in Georgia and began to teach regular classes which started attracting more people. A local community began to form.
For the second festival edition, we found a beautiful retreat in the mountains, built a dance floor, and most importantly, brought a charismatic international team on board. If the first festival attended about 60 people, the second one gathered 100 people from more than 40 countries, from all continents!

This has been a powerful cultural exchange: despite the fact that we do not talk, everyone brings their habits, patterns of movement, views, facial expressions, emotions and, in general, a projection of personal onto the group process. Perhaps, this could be the most "contact" festival to this day, as we observed the contact extend beyond the dance floor and fill the space - people fed each other, touched each other, exchanged long gazes, looked for ways of mutual deeper understanding. In such context, you have to be creative to cope. And yes, there was a lot of laughter at this festival.
What silence meant to each individual and how quiet this festival should be - became central subjects of the discussion about the festival. Some participants appreciated our open interpretation format, while some expected complete silence.

In this format we explore non-verbal ways of communication but people can laugh, make expressive sounds, some jams have music. For us, the focus of this concept is in the area of attention research - in particular, ability to learn and teach without using words.

We hear both sides so we decided to make a separate event in the spring of 2021. The first Silent Retreat will be held in absolute silence and will be a platform for a new layer of immersion in contact. We will not say much about it yet, but, traditionally, we will try to test it during the upcoming Silent Festival this year.
Resuming the results of the past two silent festivals, we can confidently say that the process is going on and it is a living one.

Attending to the previously mentioned challenges of modern life such as the imperative of constant responding to stimulation and the prohibition of physical contact, we create a space in which we can be ourselves without expressing anything verbally, yet remaining in touch, literally and metaphorically.

We are glad that the idea was valuable to many, participants and teachers who continue coming and supporting the festival every year. Together we create a space in which answers are not required and contact is possible. If you think about it, it is pretty impossible to describe the past and the future without words. When all you have at your disposal are gestures, eyes and telepathy, all you have left is presence in now.
We have found that learning process in silence was more impactful and that our ability to improvise and find creative solutions has increased enormously. I think we have tapped into something worthwhile.

Naturally, to hear others you have to silence yourself. That's why silence is not always about isolation or loneliness; sometimes it is just about opening space to others and listening. We also remain silent when we meet with something unknown.

Something that impresses and amazes us so much that we cannot find the words, something that leaves us speechless...

In a way, in the core of philosophy is silence.

Yevhen Vovk

Tbilisi, Georgia

Photo Credits: Nadia Gativa, Adam Hruby, Ekaterina Soorsk
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