Beginning one of my early meditation retreats, I read the information describing the retreat and gave only a cursory glance to the line that stated that Noble Silence would be observed for a period each day. As the retreat proceeded I was startled to discover the impact that these daily periods of silence had upon me. We were 100 people living and practising meditation side by side, yet those hours we spent in silence together each day were some of the loneliest moments. I had anticipated that silence would be only a minor facet of the retreat; it became the place of deep discovery and understanding. Before the retreat I had probably never consciously been silent in a community of other people and initially I experienced it as a disturbing and even threatening place to inhabit. Emotionally I was reminded of times in my life when silence had been a tool of punishment and a withdrawal of affection. At times I felt deeply bereft, as if I was deprived of all of my familiar ways of knowing that I was accepted, approved of and loved. I became aware of how I would seek to make eye contact with other students, hoping for a sign of acknowledgement, a smile or a gesture of recognition. When they weren’t forthcoming, old familiar patterns of feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy would follow. I found myself longing for the end of the silent periods, immediately finding someone to talk for, looking for reassurance and affirmation that I was seen, heard and visible. I began to understand that silence was going to be a powerful teacher in my life.
Over years of teaching silent meditation retreats, I have come to understand that the initial discomfort I experienced with silence was not an experience unique to me. In the moments when we feel most overwhelmed by the volume of sound in our life, we long for silence. We put in our earplugs, turn off our telephones of seek out the nearest monastery. The sigh of relief with which we first greet the quiet is frequently followed by an awareness of how much activity and busyness we carry within ourselves. Silence reveals the intensity of the repetitive thoughts, conversations, images, rehearsals and agitation that can shape the landscape of our mind and heart. Bombarded by sound, information and sensory input from the world and from the busyness of our own minds we deeply feel the undermining effects of being exiled from stillness. Perhaps it is not so much the absence of sound we thirst for, after all what would life be without sound, but a genuine sense of spaciousness and stillness within ourselves.
As I undertook longer and longer periods of silence, both alone and with others, it became a powerful gateway to awareness and self understanding. Consciously spending time alone in silence became a powerful vehicle for learning to listen to the subtle rhythms of my body, heart and mind and learning to dive beneath the endless chatter of the inner voices that camouflaged inner stillness. Silence is a path that returns us to ourselves. It teaches us to gently release some of the historical patterns of self abandonment and anxiety. Our flights into fantasy, perpetual rehearsals of the future, the busyness of our judgements, comparisons and replaying of the past can gently calm as we learn to be at ease in silence. Silence teaches us not only to listen to ourselves but equally the way to bring a deeper, sensitive and more compassionate listening to our life and all the people we encounter. Years later I came across a piece of writing that suggested that much of our unhappiness stems from not being able to sit quietly in a room by ourselves for even 10 minutes.
Over the years I have spent more and more time in silence and have come to honor and love it. Through centuries silence has been a vehicle of profound transformation – personal, social and spiritual. The great spiritual mystics of the past and the present have embraced silence as a beloved, seeking the silence of the deserts, the mountain tops and the forests. In the tribal traditions of the native American, silence is honored as the home of renewal and of communion with the natural world. The elders teach that silence is the absolute pose and balance of body, mind and spirit, referring to silence as the ‘Great Mystery’. Throughout his life Mahatma Gandhi advocated the unshakeable power and creativity of silence, it is at the roots of the tradition on non-violent protest and transformation. Gandhi counselled that it was not difficult for people to resist words, but few people could resist the power of silent truth. During the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S and in the silent revolution in Czechoslovakia the silent dignity, integrity and truth of all who participated changed peoples’ hearts and ultimately their world. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya, the Black Stone in Mecca or on the banks of the River Ganges in India there is a tangible silence that has little to do with the absence of sound. They are dedicated places that remind us of the ancient quest for peace, wisdom and stillness.
Silence lies at the heart of all of the great spiritual traditions and pilgrimages. It is the vehicle that encourages us to dive beneath the words, the opinions, the chatter and the images and discover the unspoken truths and the unfathomable mystery of being. The variety of forms of contemplation, prayer and meditation meet together in their reverence of silence. Through them we learn to still the clamour of our hearts the competing voices that cascade through our mind and discover a place of profound receptivity and stillness. It is understood that silence is not a vacuum, a barren desert of the heart, but a potential and the source from which creativity, love, compassion and transforming wisdom emerge. Spiritual traditions embrace silence as a beloved friend, cultivate it, celebrate it and probe its potential.
The discovery and reclaiming of silence is a path an art that asks for attention and dedication. The commuter on the train and the hermit on the mountain top face the same challenge – to calm the waves of agitation and anxiety that lead them to flee from themselves and the moment. We do not need to abandon the world, our families or responsibilities to begin to taste the sweetness of silence. We may need to learn the art of creating oasis of stillness and calm within the clamour and haste of our own life. We cannot always control the speed and activity of our world, we can choose how we engage with it.
We can all create sanctuaries of stillness in our days, precious moments of ‘sacred idleness’ in which we reconnect with ourselves, our deepest values and the landscape of our heart and mind. What difference would it make in the quality of our life if we were to take a time in the beginning and ending of our day that was simply dedicated to stillness. In the morning before the activity of your day begins take a few moments when you leave the radio silent, the phone unplugged and explore intentionally what it means to be simply still. Let your body relax and dedicate the time to listening with great sensitivity and wholeheartedness to you body, mind and heart. Bring a gentle and curious awareness to the life of your body with all its sensations, its places of tightness and ease and feeling the contact of your feet with the ground or your back on the chair. Tune into the thoughts and images that arise and fade away, to the emotional tones of the inner voices clamouring for your attention, simply exploring what it means to listen without being lost. Receive with the same sensitivity the variety of sounds that invite your attention. The hum of the refrigerator, the sound of the birds or the traffic outside your window. Notice that we tend to call noise are the sounds that we judge, reject or struggle with. As you begin to learn what it means to rest in listening, inwardly and outwardly, notice too the spaces that are present between the sounds, the thoughts and the sensations.
Silence is never far away from us. Our challenge is to untangle the habits of haste and restlessness that can govern our lives. The many moments we may habitually fill with distraction or busyness are the same moments that are an invitation to explore the richness of silence. We learn to pay attention to those moments we wait for a bus, stand in a line, sit in a traffic jam or unexpectedly discover an empty space in our appointment calendar. Instead of floundering in frustration or impatience we can allow ourselves to be silent, to listen and receive with clear attention our inner and outer world. In all the activities and events of our lives we can explore what it means to create a ‘sacred space’.
What difference would it make in our lives to eat one meal a day in silence, truly savouring and appreciating the food that we eat? What difference would it make in the quality of our life, for one week or even for one day, to consciously renounce the habit of ‘hurrying’ and move through our life with calmness. One of the most significant areas of living truly enhanced by silence is within the countless conversations that fill our days. Meaningful, clear and effective speech is born of our capacity to be at ease is silence. Compassionate, wise and kind speech grows from our ability to silently listen to another. We learn to listen to what lies beneath the words, the moods and feelings evoked by our contact with another person.
The fostering of silence and stillness is a gift we offer to ourselves, a time of healing, renewal and of nurturing spiritual depth. We are engaged in the awakening of our heart and our capacity to live fully and deeply. Silence is an ally on the path to awakening, a doorway to profound inner stillness and a richness of connection with our life and all it brings to us. We find ourselves renewed and restore through all of the moments we dedicate to ‘doing nothing’ and remembering what it means to ‘be’.