Lessons from Silence

June 28, 2013

A short time ago I had the privilege of participating in 3 day silent Chopra Center meditation retreat known as Seduction of Silence.  This retreat was an offshoot of a 7 day program called Seduction of Spirit.  Those of us taking place in the silent retreat were part of the larger group as well, but for three days we were not to speak or engage in conversations with others.  As you might imagine, this experience is a big departure from one’s regular daily activities.  Extended time in silence can be difficult to explain.  It creates a deepened understanding of life that doesn’t translate easily into spoken language, which explains why it’s taken me some time to integrate the experience and share with you here.  What follows are a few of the insights I gained and how I perceived the experience.

The silent portion of the retreat began for us on a Tuesday morning.  We had been instructed the previous day that upon waking we were not to speak and to avoid overt forms of communication (such as sign language or writing) unless absolutely necessary.  Since we were in a retreat setting, we were more or less isolated from the outside world and surrounded by a team of volunteers to provide help and support if needed.   This was a good thing, as choosing deliberately to not speak outside of this environment in our daily lives would be both challenging and frustrating.  At the retreat we were provided with a button to wear that told the other participants we were “Honoring Silence”.  This helped prevent others from trying to engage us in conversation while we were deepening our meditation practice.  We also had a separate dining area so we wouldn’t get drawn into the conversations and activity of other participants during mealtimes.  However I chose to eat in the main area along with my wife who was not in silence, but was attending her first retreat of this kind.

The majority of the retreat was spent either in meditation, yoga or attending various lectures or activities.  Though this entire time though, we were silent.  No comments to one another about the weather, the food or any of life’s usually trivialities.  It was very interesting to notice my mind during this experience as the urge to speak would arise, (usually out of some conditioned response) and be held in check by my commitment to remain silent.  I was initially surprised by how often the desire to speak would come up, but after a few hours had passed those urges became less pronounced and less desperate and demanding.   I can’t speak for the other participants, but after a while it felt as if I slipped into a “silence groove” that started to feel more and more familiar.  Similar to breaking in a pair of new shoes – in the beginning it’s awkward and uncomfortable, but as time passes, the shoes (or silence) begins to feel like home.

During this time some interesting insights began to reveal themselves to me.  Nothing otherworldly or ‘far out’ as you might expect; but rather a simple, down to earth and common sense understanding of myself, humanity, communication, ego, attention, stillness and spirit.  Here in brief are the lessons I learned.

1.  We talk too much.  That’s right – as individuals, as groups of people, as a race, we just talk much too much.  Now don’t get me wrong, human communication has been and continues to be a vital and important part of our culture, society, growth, development, and evolution.   However, what I noticed as I spent this time in silence was that much of our normal speech consists of mindless filler, rather than quality communication.  Not unlike the empty calories from a light beer, we regularly engage in conversations that seem to focus on trivialities, stating or restating the obvious or providing narration and running commentary on life’s events.  We seem compelled to fill the space with, as Eckhart Tolle says, “one damn thing after another” in hopes of avoiding a dreaded lull in the conversation.  You might know people like this as I do, who would rather fill the air with genuine nonsense rather than accept the natural stillness that provides a refreshing counterpoint between words and sentences.

Even worse than mindless verbal dumping is however, the negative use of speech to pollute the environment or willfully harm others.   In his amazing book, The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz challenges us to live the first agreement and Be Impeccable with the Word.  Being impeccable with the word means we choose our words consciously, speaking positively, seeking to uplift others, to speak with compassion, kindness and peace.  The opposite of impeccability is gossip, hurtful speech, cynicism, and chronic negativity.   Ultimately, our words have power to create or destroy and we should choose them with care.

But to return to my main point, in talking more than is necessary we water down the quality of what we have to say; the ratio of meaning to words spoken becomes terribly imbalanced.  I’m not saying that everything we say has to be a deep thought or a powerful and transformational insight, however in practicing mindful speech we can raise the level of our conversation substantially.  That mindfulness also helps us recognize when silence is the best answer.  As a relatively introverted person, I find that I would rather speak only when needed rather than just out of a conventional need to talk.  Before I move on to my next point I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu:

“He who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know.”

This quote has frequently served as a reminder that in matters of spoken communication less can indeed be more.

2.  We talk about ourselves…a lot.  This one hit much closer to home than I wanted to admit, but once I dug a little deeper into it, I saw just how powerful and liberating this insight was.  When you talk, how much of that talk is about yourself?  If you’re honest, you’ll probably find that much of your conversation is used to glorify and validate the ego.  I was once given some valuable advice about conversations that sheds light on this notion: If you want a conversation to be about another person, ask lots of questions; if you want it to be about you, don’t.  But before we beat ourselves up over this, it’s important to realize that this is all the ego knows how to do.  It wants attention.  It wants approval and validation.  So it’s only natural that it will try to steer the conversation back towards itself whenever the chance arises.  Subtly or overt, the ego finds ways to say “Hey, look at me, I’m here; I’m special.”

As I spent more time in silence, I could feel my ego becoming increasingly irritable.  After all, if I wasn’t talking, then how would it get the attention it craved?  It’s at times like this that you discover just how slippery the ego is, because as the silence deepened, my ego tried to use sneaky, ninja-like non-verbal tactics to get the attention of others.  Some were successful, some weren’t; but what I came away with was a deep appreciation for how desperate the small self is for attention and approval.  Normally, when we are engaged in our daily lives, that external activity overshadows the ego’s game plan, but in silence that strategy stands out with more clarity.  It doesn’t mean that we are always successful in slaying the thousand header dragon as Carlos Castaneda calls it, but through the awareness of what‘s really going on we gain the power to tell the ego to sit down and shut up for a while.  It’s not as if we dissolve or destroy the ego, just tame it; and time in silence can be a great obedience school.

3.  Silence deepens our ability to observe the world.  In our daily lives most of us are inundated with activity, distractions, and attention grabbing situations and concerns.  No matter what we’re doing, there is always something going on, something to pull us away from our true state of ever present witnessing awareness.  In prolonged silence though, things get very quiet.  This may seem incredibly obvious, but the silence I’m talking about isn’t just the decreased external activity experienced during a meditation retreat.  Rather, I’m referring to the mental state of spaciousness that comes about as the intellect and ego take a time out.  To refer to the teachings of Eckhart Tolle once again, the whole process is about what could be called “Space Consciousness”.  In other words, through silence, you create a more intimate relationship with that space, because it feels as if there is so much more of it.  This is just the opposite of the way we normally function in the world.  It’s as if we have a big beautiful room that we keep filling with furniture.  We keep adding more and more to the room until there isn’t even space for us to move, and in doing so the room becomes unusable.

But through silence, the thought furniture is hauled away of its own accord and we are able to just be in the space.  That space, the witnessing self and true nature of who we are becomes the background of all our activity.  The result of which is that we experience a heightened state of observation or witnessing.  At times during the retreat it felt as if all there was for me to do was watch – watch others, nature, my own behavior and thoughts.  With the mental clutter in my mind temporarily abated, I found myself listening more deeply, witnessing more, and being more present.  Less caught up in the drama, I could just watch it without judgment.  If I had to use a word to describe this experience I would choose ‘Moksha”, a Sanskrit word that means “liberation”.  In this type of liberation, we truly are free to be in the present moment.  No longer tormented by the illusions of the past or future, we can truly live in the eternal Now.

4.  In silence we experience a shift in awareness.   What do I mean by a shift in awareness?  In simple terms, it means a change in perception.  We’re all used to looking at the world in a unique, specific and conditioned manner.  What we don’t often realize is that there are other perspectives, other states of awareness beyond what we’ve come to expect as normal.

According to Vedanta, the world’s oldest living spiritual philosophy, there are 7 states of awareness, but only the first three – deep sleep, dreaming, and waking are obvious to most people.  To use video game language, the remaining four states could be considered “Level -ups” into a completely new way of looking at the world.   Each changing state of consciousness has its own unique biology, perceptions, knowledge, and reality.  Extended time in silence helps to clear the lenses of perception and allow for a shift into higher states and a more expanded sense of self.

Spending that time in silence, I began to experience a reality in which I felt a deep connection with others without ever having spoken to them.  The communication was both subtle and profound and was I imagine a result of the decreased mental static that we were all experiencing.  In that stillness, we could communicate soul to soul, rather than mind to mind or ego to ego.  This is the true goal of Yoga and meditation; the union between mind, body, spirit, and environment.  The more time I spent in silence, the more I felt the boundaries between myself and others beginning to dissolve, even if just temporarily.  This was truly an amazing feeling, something not easily captured by words, but real and tangible nonetheless.  Although this experience became less pronounced following the retreat, it served to validate the deepest truths of Yoga and Vedanta – that there is ultimately only one reality and through the practices of Yoga, Meditation, and Silence, we can have direct experience of that reality and know it as our true nature.

5.  I didn’t want the silence to end.  As the last day of silence wound to a close, I found myself not wanting to return to speaking.  I think my reluctance to talk stemmed from how much I had enjoyed the time in stillness, but there was also a side of me that wanted to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment for having made it through those three days.  In fact, I wanted it to last longer.   Silence had become an intimate friend and I wanted to stay wrapped up in it for as long as I could.  But with this desire to remain in stillness came one last insight – perhaps my desire to prolong my silence was just another way for my ego to draw attention to itself in a game of spiritual one-upmanship.  How important and special would my ego feel knowing it out-silenced everybody else?  Hmmm.  Sneaky bugger, the ego.

Regardless, the following day I began speaking again.  Softly, mindfully, and I hope, with more awareness than before.  I admit it was a little disappointing to begin talking.  It initially felt crude and clumsy compared to the second attention I had experienced during those three days, but as time wore on I was soon back to normal conversation as if nothing had happened.   I knew though, that the experience had changed me.  Profound silence of this kind touches everyone in a slightly different way, but we are all transformed to the very core of our being when we embrace the stillness within.   This was an amazing experience; one that I’ll never forget; one that will continue to provide insight and understanding for a long time to come.



It’s been a little over a week since I attended the 2013 Jeet Kune Do Athletic Association East Coast Retreat in Boca Raton Florida. It was a four day martial arts seminar that consisted of Special Ops Kali, Military JKD, Collapsible Baton, Pepper Spray, and Simunation Reality Based Handgun instruction. An amazing learning opportunity, this program was without a doubt one of the best and most comprehensive martial arts training seminars I have ever attended. In this post I want to describe and recap my experience for the benefit of those who couldn’t attend, but to also reabsorb the wealth of information and knowledge I received during those few short (albeit very intense) days. Here goes…

The retreat officially began on Friday morning at 8:00 am. I had unfortunately not been able to attend Sifu Singh’s Tia Chi class the evening before, nonetheless, I was excited to begin training with my fellow members of the Jeet Kune Do Athletic Association. I had been on a hiatus from my JKD training for the last few years, but after attending the Action Strength certification in October of 2012, I realized just how much I had been missing my JKD roots and was eager to jump back into training. That morning we hit the ground running with Sgt. John Riddle, a 28 year veteran police officer with the West Palm Beach Police Department and Instructor at Progressive Self Defense Systems. John’s program consisted of instruction in use of both the Collapsible Baton and Pepper Spray. The majority of the day was spent working with the baton – types of batons, how to carry, deploy, strike and defend; striking targets, and baton retention. Drilling through multiple carry positions, opening techniques and strikes, we laid down the neuromuscular pathways that would help us to use the baton under pressure. I think we all had our eyes opened to the unmistakable effectiveness of this powerful impact weapon. It’s small, concealable, easy to deploy, highly functional, and a great tool to add to any self defense tool bag.

After dinner we returned to learn about all the subtleties and applications of pepper spray as a self defense option. The discussion covered all the details of pepper spray usage: the active ingredient (oleoresin capsicum), the physical and psychological effects of use, different delivery systems, spray patterns and carry positions. We also explored the Tactical “L” as a pattern of movement to integrate during the deployment of the spray. We were then able to drill our deployment using training canisters against John’s BOB training dummies, ensuring accurate targeting and spray patterns. Finally, to close out the night, John gave us the option of experiencing the effects of pepper spray firsthand. As I had no backup driver back to my hotel and the effects could take 45 minutes to an hour to wear off, I had to pass on this opportunity. However, one member of our group chose to get sprayed (thanks JB, for taking one for the team). In the end, I came away with a deep appreciation for the simple and direct effectiveness of this tool. As a force multiplier, pepper spray is a highly beneficial weapon that can be carried by women and men alike and is not to be underestimated.

Through all this, I can’t speak highly enough of John’s instruction. The thoroughness of these two courses, the detail of the information, plus his years of experience made for a very educational and entertaining learning experience. Not only did we get the technical knowledge, but we also received a unique perspective into situational awareness, the OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act), law enforcement, and the legal implications of using either of these tools to defend ourselves. John was the consummate professional who could both instruct from a theoretical perspective and demonstrate his skill forged through real life experience. I felt as if no stone was left unturned as his knowledge as a teacher was largely unparalleled to any instruction I have received in the past. I’m sure that my fellow classmates would agree that no one could have been more deserving of Black Belt Magazine Hall of Fame’s Instructor of the Year award. Thanks John, for setting the bar so high.

With one day and two courses down, we returned Saturday morning to dig into the meat of Special Ops Kali with Sifu Singh. We began with a few Action Strength ground flows to warm us up and center our breathing. Singh then began to detail out the theoretical framework for our JKD weapons curriculum. Building from the ground up, Singh broke out the self-preservation strategy (defang the snake), elaborated on the self-perfection training drills used to hone our attributes, and listed out the specific aspects of the weapons game such as footwork, zoning, weapons ranges, and striking angles. Once the theory was laid down, it was time to drill; Largo Mano, Numerada, Sumbrada, and light sparring – we trained through each drill and slowly began to merge them together one by one into a flow. By the time our lunch break rolled around, we were all ready for a breather, but it didn’t last long, for as soon as we returned it was back to training, but this time with the blade. Hubud and the U Drill were integrated into the matrix; meeting the force, passing the force, riding the force; all were drilled repeatedly until we were able to merge the knife and stick together. As Saturday afternoon wound to a close, Singh called out the drills while we transitioned from one partner to the next, sampling the energy of our fellow students. I found this to be an amazing exercise as 1) I had to manage my breathing during what turned out to be a 30-40 minute round of continuous drilling and sparring, and 2) with so much external activity and the drills being called out, it provided a unique opportunity for some profound mental stillness. I realized that there was not time for the ego to take over when a stick or knife was coming at me, I had to just BE in the moment. It was all great stuff and my mind was reeling…but there were still two more days to go.

Sunday morning began with more Action Strength but Singh wasted no time in moving us into the Military JKD applications. The theoretical map of the art continued to grow as we were introduced to the fundamental JKD concepts of primary and secondary attacks, the 5 ways of attack, the 3 phases of a fight; interception and destructions, the straight blast, and JKD trapping. Each principle was integrated out of a moving platform of footwork, the straight lead and Pak Sao; continually moving us closer to sparring with each drill. Returning to the theory once again, Singh explained the various possible reactions to the blast and how to counter each one. More drills, more experience, more sweat.

Sifu Singh also explored the emotional dimension of the fight in great detail, looping back to the importance of breath control and how through a deeper understanding of the emotional and mental aspects of a fight we can learn to use our minds rather than be used by them, resulting in panic and defeat. Wrapping up the theory, Singh elaborated on the arts we could draw from for finishing/follow up arts and techniques. Broken down into three levels, each group of techniques offered us multiple options along a practical use of force continuum.

Not one to let us get stuck in our heads for too long however, Singh ordered us to suit up with our gear and prepare for one last round of drills and sparring. This final round was the culmination of all we had worked on: Single Stick, Knife, Espada Y Daga, Eye Jabs, Jeet Teks, Straight Blasts, Trapping and more. Weaving drills together with sparring, we switched partners and ran through it once again. When it was all over, soaked in sweat, Singh guided us through a breathing exercise to help slow down our mental activity after the high level of training intensity we had experienced.

By the end of the day I was exhausted, but more than satisfied with everything I had learned. I was especially fascinated by the map Sifu Singh had used to develop a sound theoretical framework for understanding JKD. As many of us know, while Jeet Kune Do is an incredible art that’s both highly effective and great fun to train in, the intellectual understanding of the art is not without its challenges. Singh’s background allows him to look at Bruce Lee’s theories and art through the eyes of a computer programmer and translate the ‘program’ into a tangible and workable outline for training and evolution in the martial arts. Coupled with his skill as an athlete and martial artist, Singh’s teaching ability places him firmly on the cutting edge of the martial arts frontier. He led an amazing program that was evenly paced, highly informative, fun and physically demanding. I look forward to my next opportunity to train with him and his highly skilled senior instructors, all of whom treated each of us like family throughout the entire weekend.

For most of us, the retreat ended Sunday evening after we received our certificates of completion along with a few well earned promotions for some of the JKDAA Instructors. But for four of us, we still had one more day of training to go…

Despite the fatigue I felt throughout my body I was still highly anticipating the final day of the retreat with John, who would lead us through a Simunation Reality Based Handgun Training Course. Far more than firing at paper targets in a shooting range, the Simunation program involved active combat shooting drills and situational training to prepare the student for an actual high-stress handgun scenario. The Simunation system utilizes paint marking cartridges fired at 430 feet per second which, when coupled with appropriate body protection allows trainees to fire at living, moving targets in realistic situations.

The Simunation classes are small, so the four of us received some incredibly personal instruction from John in handgun basics, drawing, clearing misfires, and active shooting drills. With each exercise we integrated the previous skill until we were able to fire on command, move, reload, and resume firing under various conditions. We were then introduced to the steps for clearing and searching rooms and buildings. John’s school features a ‘shoot house’ – a fabricated set of rooms, hallways, and functioning doors that allowed us to practice our movements and techniques in the most realistic setting possible. Each of us had the opportunity to make our way through individual rooms and doorways, buttonhook around tight turns, and crisscross an entry while working with a partner. The training was both insightful and practical, giving us real world tools and techniques that are used by law enforcement agencies under actual life or death situations.

The culmination of our training was live scenario training in which each of us, suited up in protective gear and armed with fully loaded Simunation handguns had to defend ourselves against potentially armed and dangerous attackers. We each experienced two scenarios, one solo, the other as a team. In both cases adrenaline was running high as we tried to anticipate where an attack might come from and how best to respond, both tactically, legally, and ethically. To make matters worse, prior to the team scenario, John had us sprint roughly 100 feet to further amp up our emotional content. For those of us waiting outside to participate, the sounds of gunshots and yelling added yet another level of realism to the experience.

When it was all over, we were each debriefed on the scenarios and the choices we made. We also heard from the attackers and John who offered additional insights into our performance. Overall, it was an incredible experience, one that I won’t soon forget. In fact, I’m looking forward to taking the next level of Simunation training with John in the future, as I’m convinced this type of training provides the knowledge and practical experience that can save your life or that of your loved ones under pressure.

So there you have it. At the end of this long and action packed retreat, I can say without hesitation, that the 2013 JKD Athletic Association East Coast retreat was an amazing martial arts training opportunity. From the quality of instruction to the specific curriculum, to the camaraderie of everyone participating, the entirety of the event was truly outstanding. For those of you who might be interested in expanding your training, or those who might be looking to test the waters of the martial arts in a reality-based training program, I can’t recommend this course and those offered by the JKD Athletic Association highly enough. I also can’t express my gratitude enough to all those who assisted me with my training – John, Singh, Brian, Gavin, Clay, Bev, JB, Kyle, Darrell, Vicki, Leigh, Kirk, Liz, Cat, Francisco and Anshu. You guys are the best. See you soon!