The Sounds of Silence

“Listen to silence– it has so much to say.”– Rumi

Last weekend I attended a silent meditation retreat, hosted by my meditation group, Pause to be Present. This retreat promised peace and calm in a beautiful outdoor setting. I had never been on a retreat before, so I didn’t know what to expect; all I knew was that we would silent for much of the weekend. I was both excited and terrified.

Our group of 19 women gathered late Friday afternoon at the Won Dharma Center, a 426-acre Buddhist Monastery in Clavarack, NY, set beside pristine rolling hills and panoramic views of the Catskill mountains.

While getting acquainted, we enjoyed a tasty and nutritious dinner sourced from the center’s organic garden. The chatter was lively and amiable. After dinner, we entered the meditation hall for introductions, orientation and an evening meditation. In a special ceremony, we tied red strings around our wrists. These bracelets symbolized our vow to remain silent. Later in the weekend when we broke our silence, we would cut the string. But that seemed a long time from now. We were told to avoid all eye contact and interactions with others, in order to remain alone with our own thoughts and feelings.

Next up was the list of prohibited items. Cell phones were turned off and placed in a basket for safekeeping. All other tech devices, as well as books, were banned (while reading, we are taking in other people’s ideas versus just being with our own thoughts.) The final dagger: no writing allowed. (When we write we interpret and analyze what’s happening, instead of just living it.) As a writer, this one was the toughest to swallow (I did take a few notes so I could write this blog post.)

The purpose of silence is to turn down the noise– both literally and figuratively–in order to discover what’s really going on below the surface. The goal is to exist in our experience, with no sense of time or place, eliminating the need to BE somewhere.

I thought about all of this as I slept fitfully for most of the first night in my twin bed in a sparsely furnished room; the building was aptly named Placeless Zen. I actually did feel placeless… and utterly alone. The silence was deafening. Where was Ted Lasso when I needed him most?

Finally, at 6:37 a.m., I roused myself out of bed, noting that this was my usual wake-up time for dog walking. I felt a momentary pang of worry– what if hubby oversleeps and the dog relives himself in the house? What if hubby forgets to feed the dog or give him his meds? But, after a cup of coffee and a stroll around the property, my mind settled down and I relaxed.

I found that being silent was not as difficult as I had imagined. My introverted side actually felt relieved not to have to speak or make idle conversation. My biggest challenge was not being able to make eye contact. Averting my eyes as I passed people went against every grain of my being. It was slightly less awkward with sunglasses and a mask on, but I still felt uncomfortable.

Silent mealtime was interesting. We served ourselves buffet style and spread out at the dining tables. The only sounds in the dining hall were light footsteps on the floor, the clanking of plates and the scraping of silverware. Each table held a tented sign: “Mindful Eating With Gratitude.” With no conversations and nothing to read, I found myself alone with my food. I ate slowly and deliberately and soon became fully engaged in tasting each bite. The scrambled eggs were warm, soft and buttery– utterly delicious. The crunch of my apple slice as I chewed it seemed like the loudest noise in the room. I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed food so much.

During our morning meditation we began an excavation to uncover our authentic selves. As we sat quietly (and uncomfortably I might add) on our cushions, I felt a shift inside of me. Some of my life layers– the “shoulds” and the stories we tell ourselves that we believe to be true– started to give way. It was a subtle shift, but it was a start.  I knew my authentic self was in there somewhere; I was hopeful that my silence could coax her out.  

In addition to meditations, we spent a lot of time outdoors. Our naturalist guide encouraged us to harness our inner child and approach the world with a sense of wonder and awe, experiencing everything with fresh eyes.

This did not come naturally to me. (no pun intended.) My first instinct was to hike quickly through the woods to get a good cardio workout. But I discovered that by following our guide’s suggestion to “walk gently like your feet are hugging the earth,” I could experience the magic of the forest. When I no longer felt like I had to go somewhere and do something productive, my senses came alive and I began to appreciate how each plant, seed and creature is meant to be there, all existing in harmony.

In the forest, we each found a special tree and created our own “sit spot.” My tree had one large trunk base and three smaller trunks coming out of the base. The tree reminded me of my two sisters. The three of us began our lives rooted together at the base, then diverged and followed our own paths; yet, we will always be united at our core. I sat quietly by my tree and breathed deeply as I honored these two special women. I was now officially a “tree-hugger.”

Midway through the weekend, the transformation began. As I watched a gorgeous sunset later that day, I dismissed the slight urge to pull out my phone and snap a photo for Instagram. Instead, I allowed my inner child to take over and simply gazed awestruck as majestic colors filled the sky.

During our evening meditation, we learned the principles of mindful communication or, in Buddhism, Right Speech. Before communicating, one must ponder several questions:

  1. Is this true?
  2. Is it useful? (Does it need to be said?)
  3. Is it kind?
  4. Is it timely?

Rarely all the answers will be affirmative. That means that most of what we say need not be said. By pausing before speaking, we can avoid reacting out of anger, frustration or impatience. Our responses will be more measured; we can then use our power of speech to spread peace and kindness.

I had planned to break my silence that evening, but I was not ready to do so. I had found comfort and safety in the silent, supportive environment and didn’t want to break the spell.  

The next morning, we took another group hike and gathered objects from the woods to create a mandala– a circular art form with a central focal point and rows of natural objects extending outward. Our leader placed a small cairn in the center; then we arranged our leaves, twigs, flowers, seeds and stones in a spoke-like pattern until the wood platform was filled with a colorful display. I stood back admiring the cooperative art piece we had created.

But the real power of this team effort came next. An important part of the mandala ritual is to sweep away the art and return it to nature. The destruction of the mandala reminds us of life’s impermanence. One by one, we swept pieces of the mandala into a basket until our platform was empty. Our beloved natural objects would be returned back into the earth. It was a beautiful and emotional experience that moved me to tears.

Finally, it was time to break the silence. Our group had barely spoken to each other all weekend, and yet we had bonded so that we all felt safe, welcomed and loved. We spoke in turn, with each speaker holding the singing bowl while she shared. There were about 12 people ahead of me. Even though I wanted desperately to speak, I forced myself to sit patiently and listen mindfully. I wanted to be there fully to hear each of these women. At last, it was my turn. Here’s what I shared:

  1. Being silent was not difficult. My biggest challenge was sitting still and moving slowly. Why am I in such a rush? Where am I going? I need to enjoy the journey more and not worry so much about getting to the destination.
  2. Making eye contact and smiling at other people to let them know I acknowledge and appreciate them comes naturally to me. This is an important part of who I am.
  3. I can live without my cell phone and tech devices. It felt liberating not to have texts, calls and emails coming at me 24/7. I am more joyful living in the moment and experiencing life as it happens, rather than recording it to show/tell others. (I actually wanted to leave my phone in the basket and go home without it… but I didn’t.)
  4. When I am not speaking (or thinking about what I want to say,) I am better able to listen to others and be present for them. When I speak less, I feel more powerful and my heart feels fuller.

Postscript

It is now 10 days post-retreat and I am still wearing my red string bracelet. It reminds me not to talk so much and that, when I do have something to say, to pause before I speak, text or email. This short pause enables me to better understand my emotions and motivations and then to choose how to respond. When we talk less, we live more. And, when we do speak, the words are more meaningful because there are fewer of them.

“Open your mouth only if what you are going to say is more beautiful than the silence.”Spanish Proverb

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