Friday, August 28, 2009

Layer 185 Voices and Silence

I seem to have come across quite a lot of things in the press recently about the concept of individual ‘voice’, which interests me greatly. Finally, nearly 30 years on from when I first started thinking about individual 'voice' (in connection with developing children as writers - having read things by Donald Graves, Lucy Calkins, the Rosens, and the CLPE project group) - there seems to be some sort of general awakening happening.

It’s interesting, and shocking, that so many adults never find their own ‘voice’. How many of us never discover the personal voice within us that’s uniquely ourselves, and become aware of what it has to say, and what it thinks and feels - what it cares about, what makes it feel angry, what makes it laugh, what makes it sad?

It’s the opposite of the bloke in the bar in The Fast Show, who parrots what he hears from his mates, what he reads in the newspaper, what he sees and hears on the TV and radio - the guy who has no considered opinions of his own - who just says things because he wants to be one of the crowd or the gang, and could never stand up for or defend a particular viewpoint, because he has no beliefs or convictions of his own.

To have a personal voice and to stand alone as an individual are obviously fraught and potentially risky things to have and to do. In any case - how do we ever really know what we ourselves really feel about things, as opposed to what we think we think, and feel, as a result of reading, seeing and hearing others give voice to their thoughts and feelings?

Conditioning and brainwashing go on from the time we’re born. We ingest the prevailing culture and its norms and beliefs without even knowing we’re doing it. In our teen age we may experience a reaction and a rebellion, as part of our wanting to become an individual in our own right, as part of the breaking with our parents’ and with society’s rules and dictats - but it’s an immature and ill-considered rejection, on the whole. More often than not, societal and parental values aren’t really replaced with anything more valid.

It’s often hard to challenge cultural and societal, as well as religious, orthodoxies, especially if we haven’t gone deeply into alternatives. Sometimes we pick up alternatives second-hand, as it were, and grab those views, and wear those clothes, because we think they suit us better, without ever having discovered why WE ourselves are rejecting cultural norms, without having discovered what WE think is ‘the truth’ from within. In such ways people become cult members, for example, or switch wildly between extreme political standpoints. “It seemed to make sense at the time”, is often our explanation or defence.

In matters of metaphysics and spiritual belief this becomes even more important. Things we can’t explain by logic or concrete testing and observation can ONLY be intuited. When we think about things like God and the spirit and ultimate reality we can only arrive at our own standpoints through personal reflection and meditation, through examining our innermost thoughts with utmost concentration, and by letting those thoughts rise to the conscious surface after gestating in our subconscious.

In order for that to happen we need lengthy periods of familiarising ourselves with our inner realms, and in order to do that we not only have to avoid outer distractions - we have to clear our minds and our spirits of inner clutter and ‘noise’. This takes time, and opportunity, which many of us feel we don’t have. What we may also lack is inclination. Why bother? What’s the point? Is it worth it anyway?

Well, you’ll never know unless you try - unless you take on personal responsibility for going down that road towards enlightenment, just as the Buddha did all those hundreds and thousands of years ago. After which he didn’t say, ‘Think what I think. Believe what I believe. Do what I say. Worship me and my divinity.’

He said only, “These are my truths. These are my beliefs. This is my enlightenment. Now set out on your own journey and seek your own.”

How many of us consciously do this, or even consider the need to do so?


All of this, of course, has huge implications for schools, and for parents. I’m writing this now because I have time, and opportunity, and motivation. I know what I know and what I think because I’ve become practiced in doing so. Children don’t, on the whole, develop that practice unless they receive encouragement, and have time and opportunity.

Ask any child to write down their thoughts and feelings and they may baulk at it, and fail, because they may not have the language, the thinking skills, the habit of reflection, and the ability as a writer. Additionally they may not know what they know and feel because they’ve not been given enough time to stop, to sit, and to reflect. Writing anything meaningful to order is nigh on impossible for most of us, and certainly for most children.

Maybe this is why most teachers don’t do it. They don’t see the need, and it’s not in the National Curriculum. Nowhere does it say that children need to find their own voices, as speakers and writers. Yes - they sometimes are asked to ‘discuss’ things, but mainly these things are external to them, and of a purely factual or a purely imaginative nature. “Why did William decide to invade England?” “How would you have felt as a member of William’s army?”

It’s never, or rarely, about things that really matter to the students, things that are affecting them from day to day, things that really bring them sadness, or joy, or fear, or elation. Expressing inner ‘truths’ may be too painful, as well as too difficult. For all of us.

And yet, having transcended life’s day to day frustrations, and challenges, and difficulties, we usually find that life is indeed full of awe and wonder, full of mystery and love and sometimes indescribable pleasure. Though it may sometimes take years before we come round to seeing the glass as half full, instead of half empty.

And as I reminded my dear old mum yesterday, life’s not so bad, when you consider the alternatives. Thankfully, she agreed with me. Just about.


Zazen IS meditation. Sitting quietly, doing nothing, as the Taoists also say. Gathering our thoughts, becoming aware of them. Examining them, and then letting them free again, to go their own way. Dark thoughts, when brought into the light, usually disappear.

Children have lots of dark thoughts and imaginings. When brought to the surface, or when allowed to come into the daylight, they also disappear. Left to fester within the prison of the individual unenlightened mind or spirit they often take on a life of their own.

Just as good and positive thoughts and feelings, left un-noted and unrecorded, tend to disappear and leave us empty. We need to hold on to them by sharing them with ourselves and others. We need to practice this virtue, and make it a habit. I guess this is what Quakers do in their meetings. It’s also why alcoholics need to stand up and be counted, and admit certain things to themselves, and others.

The most important sharing, however, is with oneself. Of course we can go to meetings and force ourselves, through doing so, to share. But the most fundamental sharing is when we meet with our true selves, naked, all alone with our unadorned thoughts and feelings.

We need to listen to our innermost voices and recognise what our souls and our spirits wish to communicate. And beyond that, we need to find a place of pure silence, and pure grace, where words alone are inadequate, and impoverished, and unnecessary.


I had this from a friend today, which I'm going to use without permission:

"In the Guardian's Comment Is Free today, in the thread asking for topic suggestions, someone is asking for more contributions from working class people. They actually mean yer actual working class people. Not 'unemployed middle class people', but the real McCoy.

How do they know there isn't a whole throng of working class people already posting? How would you judge? Grammar? Spelling? Having racist views? Being sexist, homophobic?

Breathe. Just breathe. Ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

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