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.



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