In his introduction to breathing meditation the Buddha said, “The meditator, having gone to the forest, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building, sits down with legs folded crosswise, body held erect, and sets mindfulness to the fore. Always mindful, the meditator breathes in; mindful, the meditator breathes out.”
One reason for going to a forest, or seeking the shade of a tree or the solitude of an empty building is to encounter silence. As every meditator knows, silence can be extremely supportive to our practice. Silence can facilitate concentration, strengthen mindfulness, and encourage insight. By limiting external noise and distraction, silence offers us the unique opportunity to meet our incessant internal noise, the constant stream of mental and emotional activity that generally goes unnoticed or unexamined. Of course, silence isn’t necessary for meditation practice. And for many of us, silence is a rare experience in everyday life. Yet it can be invaluable. A meditation practice deepened in silence yields an intimacy with oneself, and over time, a greater intimacy with others and with all of life.
I remember the feeling of panic I had a few minutes before I entered into silence on my first 10-day meditation retreat nearly two decades ago. Although eager to learn more about meditation, I was nervous. I worried that the silence would be difficult or boring, perhaps even frightening. And it was all of those things — for approximately 10 minutes. Then I fell in love with silence, and it’s been that way for me ever since.
I know there are different kinds of silence, and different circumstances under which silence is present. I’m not enamored of the stony silence created by palpable anger or tension between people, or the awkward silence of social situations where there’s insecurity and confusion about what to say or do. The silence I love is that which I seek when I am alone: to meditate, to read an awaited book, to look out the window at the sky, set to work cooking an artful and delicious meal, walk in the woods with my dogs, bicycle along a quiet scenic road, rest on the couch in the afternoon, feel the breeze on my face as I sit by an open window, or feel the intensity of my grief as I visit the grave of someone I love. I also cherish the silence I create with others: meditating with sangha, being on retreat with yogis, and agreeing with friends to hold silence as we walk in nature, witness a sunset, or share a special meal. The silence of presence and connection with others is different, although equally wonderful, as the silence I find in solitude.
It takes about two minutes of alertness in silence to appreciate the Buddha’s teaching about how we experience our world. Every experience we have comes to us through one or more of our senses. In addition to the five usual senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch / physical sensation, the Buddha named thoughts and mental phenomena as our sixth sense. Each sense has its corresponding sense organ; the eye for sight, the ear for sound, the nose for smell, the tongue for taste, the body for touch and physical sensation, and the mind for thought and mental phenomena. Every experience we have, whether with ourselves, other people, or the world, is the result of a sensory stimulus being received by its respective sense organ. In that moment of contact between the stimulus and the sense organ, there is knowing, or what the Buddha called sense consciousness. Bringing awareness to the moment-by-moment arising and passing away of experience at our “sense doors” strengthens mindfulness. Over time, this practice also affords us many insights. We witness change and impermanence in real time, we come face-to-face with our habitual reactions of liking, disliking, or ignoring each moment of experience, we see the layers of opinion, judgment and commentary that we add to bare sensory experience, and sooner or later we confront the impossibility of locating a solid “self” to whom all this is happening. Just as the Buddha saw, we too begin to see how both suffering and happiness are created by our responses to this stream of moments of sense consciousness. Gradually and inevitably, these realizations transform us, our relationships, and our lives.
I have noticed that silence does not have a great reputation in our culture. When I teach meditation I immediately see what we’re up against. Silence connotes absence to most people, both in their view and in their actual experience. Silence marks the absence of conversation and social interaction, and signifies the absence of music, TV, radio, computers, and all our electronic companions. But most of all, silence threatens us with the loss of distraction. Silence endangers the world of activity, entertainment, and complexity that we habitually create and rely upon to confirm our identity as a separate self. Meditation students frequently share with me their abject terror that in silence they might disappear into a huge emptiness, become overwhelmed by some terrifying inner monster, or be descended upon by uninvited demons from afar.
Thus, it’s always a lovely moment in a meditation class when the group recognizes, and someone says aloud, that silence is about presence, not absence. Adults and children alike discover the possibility of contentment, ease, and repleteness in shared silence. And with continued practice and guidance, meditation students are relieved that instead of black holes and monsters and demons, what they find deep within themselves is a previously unimagined basic human goodness. This basic goodness, although not always accessible, is completely authentic, enduring, and trustworthy.
As a parent I have tried to offer my children experiences of intentional silence. We have incorporated a few simple rituals into daily life, ways to routinely create what Buddhist teacher, psychologist, and author Tara Brach calls “the sacred pause.” We take turns sounding a bell of mindfulness before each evening meal. This serves as a reminder to pause, breathe, and appreciate the blessings of family, friends, and abundant good food. A much smaller bell hangs from the rear view mirror of my car. I ring it after we have fastened our seat belts but before starting the car. This allows us to more fully inhabit time, to linger briefly in the present moment before moving rapidly into the future once again.
These small rituals, repeated daily over months and years, have assumed a rightful place in the life of our family. I have also sought ways to engage my children in more sustained periods of silence. Silence is naturally more comfortable for some children than others. My son Emilio has been at home in silence since the day I met him. My daughter Claudia, however, has never liked silence. When she was little she could barely tolerate silence at all. She seemed to mistrust it, as if silence was synonymous with deprivation.
Claudia has also always loved to talk. I remember her preschool years as a period of tremendous language growth, a veritable explosion of English and Spanish language. I could see how much she enjoyed the different aspects of speaking: asking questions, telling stories, experimenting with the sounds and rhythms of language, trying out new vocabulary, and entertaining her audience with increasingly sophisticated wit and humor. She was also enthralled with the relational aspect of language. She loved having the attention of the listener and its resulting interpersonal connection.
This is of course all part of normal child development, and as a parent I was intrigued and gratified to watch my daughter’s natural intelligence blossom. I recognized the important role of verbal interaction in our relationship, and I often found listening to her enjoyable. However, being on the receiving end of her talking was not always pleasant. At times I found the sheer quantity of her speech tiring. And there were moments when tiring would be a polite understatement; exhausting or overwhelming would be more accurate descriptions of how worn out I felt by the endless chatter. I believed it was important for me to stay present, to be an attentive and generous listener when she spoke to me. But I was not always willing or able to do this, and I felt bad about my lapses. I wasn’t proud to admit it, but being with my young daughter felt at times like I was being pursued by a blaring radio whose off switch had long since broken. I wanted to believe that I wasn’t the first mother to have this experience. Yet no other mother had ever told me she felt this way. And wary of revealing a personal flaw, I never asked.
One of my favorite silent activities has always been taking long walks with my dogs. Although we live in a city, we are fortunate to be just two blocks from a very large park. There are miles of wooded trails where fox, wild turkey and a variety of migratory birds can regularly be seen. These trails run alongside a meandering river, home to swans, geese, ducks, and snapping turtles. A small section of the river is a protected bird sanctuary inhabited by egrets and herons. People of all ages stroll and jog on the trails, and the river hosts canoeing, kayaking and bass fishing. There is so much to enjoy walking in this park. (I have admittedly glorified this description because of how important this park is to me. I should also mention the noise of traffic from the road that runs parallel to the trails, sometimes just 50 feet away, the trash thrown onto the trails by passing motorists, and the potential dangers of these woods, especially to women who are alone.)
For many years the walk I most often take is a loop, naturally demarcated into segments. From my house it’s two city blocks to arrive at the trailhead, then it’s approximately one-quarter mile along the wide trail until the trail crosses a road. Once across the road, the trail narrows and continues to a wooden footbridge over the river. On the other side of the footbridge the trail circles back in the direction of home, intersecting the road again, running alongside a sports field and playground, and finally ending a few blocks from our house.
Claudia has often accompanied me on these walks with our dogs. When she was younger, she almost always talked non-stop, seemingly oblivious to nature and to everything we passed along the way. Whenever she saw me getting ready to leave on a walk with the dogs, she would ask to come along, and with a very hopeful look, await my response. I often felt torn between wanting to spend time with my daughter and wanting the walk to be more “my way,” which means peaceful, quiet, relaxing, and attentive to nature. I longed for a way to resolve this conflict, and not solely to have the walk meet my desires and expectations. I sincerely wished for Claudia to experience the beauty of nature and the pleasure of silence. I also believed it would enhance our relationship if my daughter and I could enjoy even brief periods of silence together.
When I walked with Claudia, I often remembered the Buddha’s teaching on the six senses. I tried to imagine how to make this mindfulness teaching into a game for my daughter, and how to present it in a way that included some silence. I was certain that “playing” with sensory awareness would be intuitive and enjoyable for a young child. It also seemed completely natural to explore sensory perception in the outdoors.
As we left the house and headed to the park one day, I proposed a rudimentary sensory awareness game. “For these two blocks until we get to the trailhead,” I said, “ Let’s have our normal conversation. Talk about anything you want, ok? Then, when we get to the trailhead, I’ll tell you more about the game.” After a chatty beginning, we arrived at the trailhead. We paused. “From here to where the trail crosses the road,” I explained, “Let’s be very quiet. Let’s not talk at all. Let’s try doing something very special together. We’ll use our eyes to notice different sights, and when we get to the road, we’ll stop and tell each other one thing that we saw.” Claudia agreed. She was apparently willing to tolerate short periods of silence, as long as we were doing something, and doing it together.
We walked in silence. When we arrived at the appointed place, we shared what we had noticed. “I saw a bird’s nest in the big tree by the rock,” I said. “I saw the lady jog by with her Golden Retriever,” she replied.
We continued talking as we crossed the road. Then we paused. I said, “From here to the footbridge, let’s be very quiet again. This time, we can use our ears to listen for sounds along the way, and when we get to the footbridge, we’ll share what we heard. Is that ok?” Again she agreed, a bit more enthusiastically this time. At the footbridge I reported, “I heard a car go by on the road.” To which she replied, “I heard our dogs bark.”
We continued like this, stopping periodically for me to propose which “sense-door” we would attend to, and then stopping again to report back to each other what we’d noticed. Over the next few days and weeks we added the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, and the body and sensations. Occasionally I gave her a few examples so she’d understand what I meant. For body sensation I said, “Sensation is a feeling in the body. It might be the feeling of air touching the skin of your face, or the feeling of the tennis ball in your hand, or the contact with the ground and stones and tree roots beneath your feet.” With this explanation, she quickly understood.
During these early weeks, Claudia sometimes forgot that we had agreed to walk in silence, and she would blurt out whatever thought was crossing her mind. When I replied with a soft “Shhh” and a gesture of a finger over my lips, she would smile, remember our game, and willingly become silent again.
Since we walked in the park with our dogs frequently, our sensory awareness game became more elaborate over time. One day I suggested that we focus on the mind and thoughts. She looked puzzled, so I explained further. “You know, just like your eyes see sights and your ears hear sounds, your mind thinks thoughts. If you take a closer took at your mind now and then, you can see the thoughts your mind is thinking.” I gave her a few examples. “When I pay attention to my mind, I might notice a thought like, ‘This is a fun walk,’ or ‘My legs are getting tired,’ or ‘I want to have a snack when we get home,’ or ‘I hope it doesn’t start raining.’” By this time she was co-creator of our ever-expanding game, and she was definitely up for adding the mind, our sixth sense.
Over the next few months our sense game evolved a bit further. We took turns deciding which sense to attend to on the different segments of the walk. We increased the number of stimuli to report for each sense, and we increased the number of senses to focus on at one time. Sometimes Claudia made all the decisions about how we’d play, including who was to speak first when we stopped to share. We laughed whenever each of us had noticed the same sight or sound or sensation.
The beautiful fall foliage gave way to a cold winter. Sometimes I walked alone with the dogs, but often Claudia came with me. We didn’t always play our special game, but there were days when she suggested it before I even had a chance to. I have a very clear memory of one particular walk we took on an especially cold winter morning. We were bundled up in parkas, hats, scarves, gloves and boots. Our cheeks were bright red from the biting wind. The sky was overcast and the trails were covered in a soft layer of fresh snow. By this time we were both quite experienced at noticing sense stimuli, and we had grown to enjoy these special, mostly silent, walks together.
On this morning I said, “You choose” and Claudia replied, ”All the senses! From here to the where the trail crosses the road, we’ll each notice one sight, one sound, one sensation, one smell, one taste, and one thought. Ready?” I sure was.
We walked slowly in silence, holding hands, looking at everything around us, enjoying ourselves and enjoying watching our dogs playing excitedly in the snow. When we arrived at the road, she told me, “You first.” I gave my report. “I saw your smile when you spotted the pair of swans on the river, I heard the crunch of snow beneath your boots, I felt the sensation of your gloved hand inside mine, I smelled the raw wind inside my nose, I tasted a fresh snowflake on my tongue, and I thought, ‘I am so happy to be walking in the woods with my daughter!’”
I smiled, and squeezed her small hand in mine. She stopped dead in her tracks and faced me. There was a quizzical look on her face, which quickly changed to an expression of surprise and delight. She finally got it. We could be together in silence and still be connected! The relational part didn’t disappear when we stopped talking. There was no question that I had been paying close attention to her. After all, almost everything I noticed was about her.
With a broad smile, Claudia gave my hand a quick squeeze back. I was certain she had appreciated, if only for a moment, both the preciousness and the fragility of silence: precious, because it is such a rare and beautiful thing, and fragile, because it is so easily broken. And although easily broken, silence is also easily repaired. And like anything else repaired, it is never exactly the same as it was before. This is a good thing, as it helps us learn that every moment truly is a new beginning
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