The Power of Retreat 4 – the Container of Silence

“Speak only if it improves upon the silence.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

“silence is the language of god, all else is poor translation.” ― Rumi


We spent all of last week at a silent meditation retreat. It is a powerful experience that I highly recommend. First off it is liberating from the mundane chores. Everything is provided. You don’t have to shop, cook, or clean dishes. You don’t need to clean or even make your bed. In addition, your day’s schedule is pretty much set out for you. Our teacher commented that it’s a ‘lazy man’s nirvana!’ This frees up the mind from planning and the mundane duties of daily life, allowing for more focus, more self-exploration, and less doing and more being.


The full experience requires refraining from communicating with everyone around through speech, writing, gestures, or non-verbals; removing access to media and the internet; turning off smart phones; and completely removing reading materials, and access to TV, computers, etc. At first glance the container of silence in the retreat may seem a bit intimidating. For an individual accustomed to the modern world this can seem daunting, as a friend commented ‘it sounds awful.’ To many, particularly first timers, this can initially be very disorienting. But we adjust within a day or two and enter the flow of retreat. The disquiet notwithstanding this container of silence is foundational. It is responsible for many of the extremely positive benefits of retreat. It sets that stage for deeper explorations and understandings. All the negatives are soon eclipsed by the obvious benefits.


One of the simple things we learn is how little communications is actually necessary. By doing without it we come to understand that much of it is small talk, automated social responses, serving our own egoic agendas, and self-generated distractions. It also highlights what communications are really important, from simply dealing with the logistics of life, like where and when shall we meet for lunch to the truly important emotional communications that sustain us and the ones we love. This sets the stage for what we do after retreat in focusing our communications more on those that truly matter.


The silence has some interesting effects on our senses. We become much more aware of and sensitive to sensory experiences. Food tastes and odors are amplified and meals become savored, appreciated and eaten slowly. This is in contrast to our normal distracted forms of eating while conversing, listening to music, reading, watching TV, texting etc. We become much more aware of not only our senses but also our internal states of hunger, fullness, and satiety. Sounds that we usually ignore become vibrant and salient. The silence reduces many of the noises that often pollute out sensory environment, so bird chirps, footsteps, trees rustling in the wind, a cough, a car driving past, are not only noticed but deeply experienced. Our thoughts even become clearer, unencumbered by the din of external speech. All of this serves to heighten our awareness of the present moment, making us more aware of what actually constitutes the experiences that form the stream in which we live our lives.


The container of silence makes us much more aware of our thoughts and clearer on their content. This is an important benefit that helps to make the retreat work. By being better tuned into the incessant chatterbox that constitutes our internal speech, what a friend calls ‘her crazy roommate’, we are often shocked by their repetitiveness and vacuous quality. This is a lesson that is strongly reinforced in meditation. In addition, everyday our minds and energies are dominated by the demands of our lives, from work, family, friends, chores, or simply the to do list. The immediacy of the demands somehow gives them an importance that is unwarranted. Moving away from these demands in retreat provides perspective on their true place in the grand scheme of our lives. We begin to see that most of these demands are really not that important after all. We begin to see that other things that have been relegated to back stage and neglected are actually much more important. So, the container of silence allows us to both see the triviality of many of our thoughts producing a highlighting of the truly important ones.


The container of silence also heightens and makes us much more aware of our emotions. There is little to distract us from our bodily sensations that are an essential component of our emotions. There is little going on to blame them on. So we have to confront their internal origins. I became very aware of my frustration while having to wait for my partner as she meticulously prepared to depart for the dining hall for a meal. Where previously I would blame her for my upset, the environment of the retreat allowed me to see how I was making myself upset. It allowed me to see that I felt the way I did because I wanted things to be different than they were. The insight burst forth that trying to oppose what is, was the source of unhappiness. When I simply accepted it, I felt much better and learned to use the time to look deeply at my own inner world. As an added bonus it made a wonderful relationship that much better.


In this context of silence, it is impossible to escape from oneself. Under normal conditions we can avoid troubling thoughts and memories by distracting ourselves with media or conversation. In a silent retreat that is impossible. Thus one has to confront one’s inner self without opportunity for escape. This is an opportunity that is rarely present in life. This is an opportunity to grow and develop psychologically. This is an opportunity to understand ourselves and our minds. What a phenomenal opportunity to become fully integrated human beings. This is an opportunity not to be missed.


Of course this is an idealized version of the reality of the retreat container of silence. It is never this clear or this easy. It has many challenges and some are derailed and leave retreat early. But those that persevere are richly rewarded.


In the next essay, The Power of Retreat 5 – Meditation and Spirituality, we will look closely at the real goals of the silent retreat.


“Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.” ― William S. Burroughs


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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