Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance. -- Khalil Gibran
Silence is so freaking loud. -- Sarah Dessen, Just ListenI'm about to embark on an annual 9-day silent meditation retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. This has become the cornerstone of my life and ministry. It is spiritual bootcamp, and nothing feeds me like this experience does. But mention to anyone that you're going on a multi-day silent retreat, and see what responses you get. I'm always surprised at what I hear: "retreat" sounds good to folks, "meditation" is intriguing to most, but "silent"? That seems to stop them cold.
I can't even stay quiet for 9 minutes, let alone 9 days.
I would go bonkers if I couldn't talk to other people.
That sounds a little bit boring.
Perhaps it's my years as a practicing Quaker, but to me, the silence is not a problem. In fact, it's the least troublesome aspect of retreat life. It's a huge relief for me -- someone who essentially talks for a living -- to stop speaking. And since we all maintain "noble" silence, where eye contact is avoided and personal interactions are reduced to the bare minimum (nodding instead of saying "excuse me," for instance), I am also relieved of the burden of listening to others. Picture, if you can, 100 or so humans sitting and walking meditation from 5 am to 9 pm, eating together, doing yoga or Qigong, cleaning or cooking together, all without conversation.
The challenges of being on retreat in this way are supported by the silence, not made more difficult. Because, except for no talking, it's not very quiet. "Silence is so freaking loud." When all the external chatter falls away, I can notice the internal noise more easily. Just as when I sit or stand in balance and I can feel the constant motion, as I alternate sitting with walking meditation practice I see how strong my story line is, how I feed certain thoughts and try to reject others, how my habitual assumptions are operating.
One friend remarked that this retreat must be so peaceful, so blissful. Well, yes and no. I do experience the bliss of directly experiencing reality in a way I don't when I'm in everyday living. There are times that I sense the peace that passeth all understanding (turns out this is the ground of all existence, but that's a different blog post). Mostly I just feel the struggle, the greed, the tension, the rationalization, the repulsion, and the delusion of my life.
Sounds fun, doesn't it?
It is, actually. What could be more interesting than investigating your self? Aren't you the most fascinating and important person you know? Who can you truly know, other than you? What is it to be alive, anyway? Believe me, it's the opposite of boring.
Staying with the present moment all day, every day: that is the challenge of a silent meditation retreat. Silence is just the condition we cultivate so that we can show up without ceasing, turn toward what is arising with precision and curiosity, and relieve ourselves of the weight of continuous social interaction. So silence is easy. Continuous, embodied, present moment awareness is not so easy.
Each year I find the prospect of this retreat a little daunting, but I have come to recognize that it is a gigantic gift I give myself (and all who are connected to me). It's one way I honor myself, because it cannot be done without self-compassion, without turning it all over to the power of love. Pema Chodron describes this as "placing the fearful mind in the cradle of loving-kindness."
Within that cradle, there is the possibility of radical acceptance, of meeting life just as it is, and being okay with that. Helen Keller, who certainly knew something about silence, said, "Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content."