BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 08:58 GMT, Monday, 31 May 2010 09:58 UK

The joy of daydreaming

Girl daydreaming

Stillness, meditation, reflection, silence. Radio documentary maker Alan Hall goes in search of refuge from the noise and bustle of the modern world, looking for moments of peace amid the hurly-burly of daily life.

I was seeking still moments.

A friend had mentioned The Pause, an unlikely quiet time held at the start of each day in a London boys' school.

Now I found myself perched next to the headmaster, David Boddy, on a stage in the main hall of St James Independent School, Twickenham. This was a school assembly, but not as I knew it.

Still Points, Turning Worlds is on Radio 4 at 1100 BST on Monday 31 May 2010

"Balanced and upright" was the head's gently coaxed instruction.

Three hundred boys fell into a well-rehearsed silence. Many closed their eyes. All ceased fidgeting.

"And settle... into the inner peace." Within moments, the entire school had fallen into a collective stillness, The Pause.

What do we get from stillness - those moments of reverie, of daydreaming, in an ever more noisy, busy and stimulating world?

I was seeking the sensation of escaping - and being jolted back into - the unrelenting bustle of the everyday.

Inner self

I had a suspicion - no more than that - that with the encroachment of digital technology into every private corner of our lives comes an erosion of a precious capacity to step aside from the hurly burly, "to stand and stare".

"What is this life, if full of care, We have no time to stand and stare..."

WH Davies' poem is 100 years old, written before mass ownership of the motor car, let alone the superhighway.

But in moments of stillness, now as then, we find opportunities for reflection, random association and creativity. Lose the gift of daydreaming and we lose that connection to our inner selves.

On the stage at St James school, I began to feel uncomfortable at the prospect of 10 full minutes of Pause, exposed as I was before 300 pairs of eyes.

David Boddy
Game Boys and iPods reduce pupils' concentration spans, says Mr Boddy

But the dreaded eternity evaporated in a passing moment.

"In the midst of the 10 minutes you may get a couple of minutes of absolute inner quiet but the rest is sort of getting there," Mr Boddy explained to me. "By comparison to where their minds have been, it is an oasis."

He fears an "attention deficit syndrome" affects the majority of British schoolchildren. At St James the rules concerning iPods and Game Boys extend well beyond the classroom and the school gate. Boys are not allowed to "plug in" on the way to school.

Mr Boddy estimates that it takes almost two school periods, about 1½ hours, to re-attune any pupil who arrives at school listening to music, to get their ears clear and minds attentive.

"Particularly on Monday mornings, they come in and they're very agitated… and you have to spend quite a long time just getting them to the point where they can attend on something."

As well as the collective Pause, every individual class begins and ends with 30 seconds of silence. The boys think of it as an opportunity "not to think", to "zone out", to clear their heads of one subject and create space for the next.

One pupil talks about putting "things on shelves" in his mind. Another says it helps him see things more clearly.

Canon Lucy Winkett
Silence is absolutely vital to the flourishing of human sensibility, to the flourishing of ourselves as people
Canon Lucy Winkett

This is not daydreaming. It's more purposeful. More productive. It helps with academic performance. It is the practice of stillness in the midst of the madding crowd.

In the heart of the City of London at St Paul's Cathedral, I went for a quiet chat with Canon Lucy Winkett, author of Our Sound Is Our Wound which explores contemplative listening.

She spent a month last summer pursuing complete silence on a retreat. She could speak for just 30 minutes a day.

And in this silence, sound took on a new profundity, reconnecting her to deep-lying emotion.

"Silence is absolutely vital to the flourishing of human sensibility, to the flourishing of ourselves as people," she says.

"We're people who want to try to communicate and we mostly do that by making noise but silence is not a negative, it's a very rich and fruitful and creative part of our lives."

'In silence, death'

Eventually she found she'd progressed from not speaking to a new state of actively "doing silence".

Her reflections, described as we sought out a quiet corner in the city centre cathedral - away from tourist visitors, hovering police helicopters and practising organists - brought her into a confrontation with mortality.

In silence resides our death. The frantic busy-ness and noisy-ness of a modern existence are distractions from meditating upon the eternal silence that is our fate.

Kieran MacFeely
The point of those moments is that you're not monitoring yourself
Musician Kieran MacFeely

Far from the bustling city in the peace of the Surrey suburbs, musician Kieran MacFeely has a very different use for stillness. As Simple Kid, he made a living making a racket.

Now he relishes the gentle hubbub of birdsong intermingled with passing trains, distant traffic and neighbours' lawnmowers.

From the garden outside his music room, his mind can wander - often to be followed by his feet - down country lanes and creative pathways.

"If I tried to remember where my mind goes [when daydreaming] I bet I'd get it wrong.

"I think the reason is that you relax a little bit and you go off and you look at things from different angles.

"I presume it flits around all over the place, I think that's the point of those moments is that you're not monitoring yourself."

Trained in music therapy practice, Mr MacFeely has found in still moments a new relationship between sound and silence, and an invitation to daydream...

Below is a selection of comments.

I went to St James as a child. Now, looking back I can see the benefits of such meditative activities. At the time though, I certainly did not find any use out of the Pauses or forced meditations. We were never explained the benefits of these things - they were just school rules to be endured. I wonder, if we had been made to understand why, would it have taken me 20 years into my life to come back to meditation (rather than remember it for ages is as a repressive part of school)?
Sunny, London

What a coincidence! Only minutes before opening your front-page I'd drafted an e-mail to someone containing precisely these words: "Bank holiday weather dull, cold, drizzly, if you feel like staying in bed, stay there, let your mind run free, relish in your thoughts, dreams, visions, ideas - it's a gift, too much time processing (stuff) which the world has to offer......"
Pat Franks, Cambridge

I work in a school and try to teach classes the benefits of meditation. It is incredible to see some students enter moments of stillness and calm. I don't care if we achieve nothing other than the showing the students the value of stillness and calm in their own lives. In a very real way, this level of silence is uncomfortable and even feared by many. Still, this is something to aspire to. As a friend of mine says - 'We are Human Beings, not Human Doings'
John, Cork, Ireland

Silence is helpful to my wellbeing, I didn't seem to need so much when I was younger. As a telephonist I wear a headset for eight hours a day. So the first thing I do when I get home is switch off the TV or radio and have a quiet 30 minutes. If the weather permits I go outside and watch the sparrows enjoying dirt baths. My husband is a gardener - he is alone most of the day so is responsible for all the noise I can hear as soon as I walk in. After 30 minutes we can communicate again
Kimmy, Plymouth

It's about time that these aspects of ourselves are more brought to light. We aren't just bodies and minds, but spirit beings as well; and we need all the intelligence we can access. Inner peace is worth a few moments of our time. And, respecting our spirit is profoundly important.
Audrey, Scotland

Quiet and stillness in our urban environments is a rare thing. Quiet and stillness in the human mind is even rarer. We must struggle to regain such a precious and rarefied commodity. I applaud the action taken by St James, and it seems to have paid-off. More efforts along similar lines must be taken by authorities and public guardians to ensure that quiet and stillness do not disappear into the maelstrom of modern life. Our world would be a much poorer place if it were to do so.
Ronski, Rayleigh, Essex

The idea of regular periods for silence and calm seems like a good idea. I am constantly amazed at the level of aggresion and excitement that we are exposed to through media and music these days.
Mark Slaughter, Cambridge, England

I live in a tiny walled village and am so used to the silence that the other day I had to ask a hoopoe to shut up. Sparrows were fighting, collar doves were cooing, a pair of gold finches were chatting, a nightingale was singing and the hoopoe was being monotonous. It was so quiet I could hear all that quite clearly, whilst I watched a snail wander slowly across the patio. We have real peace.
Sandy Notman, Saint Arailles, France

Stillness and silence can be created anywhere, anytime, even during a flurry of activity. I suggest looking into the Buddhist concept of "mindfulness". Of the texts which teach inner peace through inner silence, I have found "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle the clearest and most helpful. The difference that can be made by such practice is radical, and it does not even require formal meditation.
Alexei, Oxford

I find the comment "This is not daydreaming. It's more purposeful. More productive. It helps with academic performance." to be troubling. Daydreaming here as in most places is seen as a negative thing, a waste of time, it is implied it must be a structured kind of silence and contemplation to be useful. That favourite phrase "stop daydreaming and pay attention" instantly curtails what is essentially a visual and much underestimated thought process. Certainly my best ideas and solutions come most often when daydreaming and not when I am specifically thinking about what it is I am supposed to be thinking about. It is not until we hear from a musician that daydreaming is shown to be what it is an essential part of the creative thinking process for many people.
Poppy , Witley, UK

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific