I have just returned to New York from a six-day meditation retreat near Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Part of the time, we were meant to maintain silence. At sunrise, with the temperature hovering around 40 degrees, we meditated on a ridge overlooking tree-covered hills. As the pink glow on the horizon brightened to gold, the birds took up their chorus. And just as loudly, dead leaves from the trees around us turned in the breeze and clattered to the ground. Without silence, how would we have heard the “metal leaves . . . that rattled on like tin,” as T. S. Eliot described them in Little Gidding? I had no idea fall leaves made such a racket, though I vaguely remembered some poet calling fall “the metal season.” So many of nature’s secrets are revealed to us only in silence.
Silence makes most people uncomfortable, however—including a number of my fellow retreatants, it seemed. No sooner had the evening practice ended and the retreat leader said, “Remember, we’re in silence until after breakfast,” than conversation broke out all over the meditation hall, technically a quiet zone at all times.
These weren’t urgent exchanges: most were the idle chatter of pent-up energy being released. But however inconsequential the content of our conversations, we are addicted to words borne on the sound of our own voices. After living in a Zen monastery and sitting a number of silent retreats, I find solace in silence. In music, silence is the rest between notes that allows us to hear the tune. But when I first started Buddhist practice, even a 40-minute meditation period was torture. Silence terrified me.
If you’d asked me why I was afraid of silence, I’d have probably told you something like “Well, if I needed something, I couldn’t ask for it,” or something even lamer like “It’s boring.” Silly excuses, of course. The real terror behind silence was that it left me with myself. Without the diversion of TV or music or chitchat, there is nothing to attend to but what I’m thinking and feeling. Every fear, every doubt, every obsessive idea is vivid and insistent in the silent void. Oh, god, did I really say that? Did I really do that? How could I have been so dumb/careless/silly? What will happen now?
As if it weren’t enough to be trapped in my own mental squirrel cage, silence challenges interpersonal relations as well. Being alone in silence is one thing; being silent with others is a different kind of hell. Why is he looking at me like that? What did I do? Is she still chewing over that remark I made at lunch? I was just kidding; does she think I was rude? Where are all those people going? They didn’t invite me. In silence we project onto others the flimsiest of resentments and fears. Without any feedback, how quickly I can install myself in someone else’s mind and compose stories—indeed, entire operas—based on nothing but my imagination. It’s an old joke among practitioners that in the course of a weeklong silent retreat, you can fall in love, carry on a torrid affair, and break up—all in your mind, with a person you’ve never even met who’s seated on a cushion across the room. If silence allows me to hear dead leaves drop, it is equally conducive to fabricating a life.
But the opposite is also true. In silence, the fantasy life falls apart more readily than when it’s wrapped in the noise of everyday life. Stay busy, and doubt and anxiety duck behind the wall of talking and doing; shame and guilt slide into the swamp of multitasking and overscheduled time. With enough noise, I can outrun my deepest fears. But in silence at 3 a.m., the fears win out.
When I first started Buddhist meditation, I sat at a zendo located on a busy New York street. We could hear the traffic going by, punctuated by the starting and stopping of the crosstown bus. We complained to our teacher that the noise was interfering with our practice. “But that is your practice,” we were told. “Life is noisy. Here, sitting in silence, you learn to quiet the mind regardless of what is going on around you.”
One of the buzz phrases these days is lean in, the title of Sheryl Sandberg’s manifesto for women trying to make it in a gender-unequal world. Go after what you want. Don’t avoid the tough stuff is the underlying message. In silence I have little choice but to lean in to the tough stuff—to meet it without resistance when it’s “blown towards me like the metal leaves / Before the urban dawn wind unresisting,” as T. S. Eliot put it. Just as my teacher suggested making friends with the clutter in my apartment, I need to cozy up to my internal mess.
Because that’s not the end of it. It’s not just the tough stuff—or the fantasy life—we encounter in silence. Beyond the internal mess is clear space, a clear mind. And there’s no better place—indeed, no other place—to meet your true self. This doesn’t happen at once. Usually, it takes a few—or a number of—meditation sessions sitting with the agitated mind before the true self appears. But with each session the fog lifts a bit more, until one day the ego “I,” with its insistent look-at-me voice, drops away, revealing the true self afloat in a vast blue sky. For the moment, at least, there is only a feeling of peace and joy.
Why wouldn’t I want to shut up and sit quietly for that?
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