Sunday, June 24, 2012


A single leaf in the lake along La Ferme de Villefavard, Limousin, France.
Whenever I go on retreat, like I am now, before I leave, I get endless questions about what is it like to be in silence for an extended period of time with others. It's ironic to answer with words, since the experience of silence is so wordless itself. And yet, it's a legitimate question. So I'll try to say something about my experiences with it.

 I first went on silent retreat for a month. I had done brief periods of silence before - a day, part of a weekend - but this was the first long span. It's what's called a Dathun in Shambhala Buddhist tradition - a month-long meditation retreat, interspersed with teachings and a two week period of total silence in the middle (before then one is lowered into silence through functional talking - asking important questions, etc, and one comes back out the same way). I did this retreat, as it is often done, in the middle of the mountains, with 100 or so others. The weather was dramatic, as high Colorado places can be, and feelings were the same. I was in my mid-twenties and had a lot of processing to do, and was used to - still am used to - doing that through talking to others. It's how I process in general.

But there was no choice. Though I had writing practice (I am, in fact, on retreat with Natalie Goldberg now in the Limousin region in France doing writing practice in silence), I realized quickly that in the context of the tremendous amount of sitting meditation we were doing (sometimes up to 10 hours a day), I had little to say. I had, as I was instructed, not brought books other than what was required reading and, because I had just had my first retreat (not silent) with Natalie in Taos, I had a copy of her book Living Color - a Writer Paints Her World. That's it.

A couple of years before this Dathun, I'd done Julia Cameron's Artist's Way. The hardest week for me of the twelve weeks was the one without reading. It made me crazy. It's the only thing I cut short - after three days I could not bear to not read. Yesterday, as the day before and before, a woman sat across from me reading one of our required books for this retreat, at breakfast. My first thought was judgmental (how often these are my first thoughts, as is true for so many humans) - she shouldn't be reading while eating, if I were in charge I'd say something about it, etc, etc. But then I recalled that week without books, how I had learned to either read or talk while eating and how unbearable it was to be deprived of both. I let it go. Of course, just then, she put her book down for good.

Not speaking, not listening, is very hard for someone like me. In fact, most traditions also recommend breaking any kind of contact - eye contact, etc. For the first few (this is the sixth silent writing retreat I've done with Natalie) I made funny faces at people, made them laugh. I missed touch the most - contact with others, and felt it quite severe to be so silent. Somber. Sad. I knew it didn't have to be that way but I felt so lonely. After about three days I'd begin crying and feel abandoned. Then, surprising myself, I'd get over it. Just like that, really. And move on to some other emotional plot line that is always in my head.

Now it is far easier. This retreat I have kept my head low, despite knowing a lot of people here - or maybe because I already know a lot of the people here. Whenever I catch myself looking around at the others (as opposed to the birds, which I watch all the time), I notice instantly that I am comparing myself to them, or them to me. This person's clothes, that person's hair, my belly or that person's facial expression. Ugh. It's exhausting.

But the silence makes it possible to let it go. When I am speaking I don't notice a lot of what is under my mind, except in select circumstances with very spacious friends who know me well. Even then, I often miss this undercurrent - the seemingly "real me" underneath all my good intentions. And what I really miss, regardless, is the actual "real me" or as real as it gets - what Shambhala Buddhists call "Basic Goodness", which is one interpretation of Bodhicitta, or, Awakened Heart. This is the part that cannot be explained in words, though plenty have tried. And I have read a lot of the books and thought I got it that way. But there is nothing as clear as watching a still lake reflect the endless sky on a June day in France in total silence. Then, there, I see it in myself. I see it in the woman reading at breakfast, in the woman who cries whenever she meditates, in the man whose sneezes shock all of us at lunch, in the chef when he bellows out in French, forgetting we are in silence.

And when I say see, I mean something other than sight, even other than what we typically think of as "insight" and more what Vipassana means by insight - a knowing that cannot be explained. It is so simple, so quiet and true that the only way to experience it is to be experiencing little else - by the fifth day, which is today, as we return to speaking tonight, most of my thoughts have run their course and I've gotten to what is far more underneath my regular playbill of emotions.

It may seem odd that we need take such severe-seeming steps to find silence inside. And to find that that silence, the same silence so many people tell me they are sure they would go crazy in, cannot stand, would think constantly of what others thought, that in that practice which feels so dramatic, there is true rest. Peace. Space. But the ultimate space - a knowing, deep inside, experiential and non-explainable, that it's all going to be ok. That I am ok. That you are ok. That all those things that normally fill up our silence - inside and out - with stories and bias and emotions - all those things are simply things and nothing more. Not bad or good.

But not the whole story.

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