The Art of Listening: Secrets From 17 Years of Silence

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The activist John Francis didn't speak for almost two decades. His new book, and his talks, show us what he learned.

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[Editor's note: Read our Q & A with John Francis here.]

In 1971, after the devastating 800,000-gallon oil spill in the San Francisco Bay, John Francis, then a young man, pledged to never ride a motorized vehicle again. Two years later, he added voluntary silence to his vow, spending 17 years in silence as he walked the world and became known as The Planetwalker. The first words that he spoke again were in Washington, D.C., on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. In 2009, Francis, by then a National Geographic fellow with a Ph.D, told his remarkable story in the candid and deeply inspirational Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence.

This year, Dr. Francis is back with the highly anticipated and most excellent follow-up, The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World--a powerful and poetic exploration of the beauty of our world and our place in it, and a timely antidote to our increasingly networked, ping-scored existence.



The Ragged Edge of Silence explores the art of listening through a beautiful collage of personal accounts, interviews, science, storytelling, and a fascinating historical perspective on the role of silence across Hindu, Buddhist, and Native American cultures. Francis transcends the purely philosophical to offer practical ways of building constructive silence into our everyday routines as micro-oases of self-discovery amidst our stimulus-overloaded lives.

"The Ragged Edge of Silence digs deeply into the phenomenology of silence and the practice of listening. As in Planetwalker, I followed a methodology that recognizes the importance of personal documents, explanations, and interpretation of silence. This story, then, is my personal account and interpretation of silence as I experienced it." John Francis

For a moving glimpse of Francis's unusual story, don't miss his excellent 2008 TED talk:



Part adventure story, part philosophical reflection, part heartfelt memoir, The Ragged Edge of Silence is a pure joy to read, lacking the self-righteous preachiness this line of thinking often festers into and instead extending a humble but powerful invitation to reexamine your worldview.


This post also appears on Brain Pickings.
Images: YouTube

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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