Dear Still Water friends,
Today, my friend and I found ourselves out in the woods in the middle of a rainstorm on an unfamiliar, poorly maintained trail. We had a vague idea of the direction we needed to go to get back to our starting point. We kept walking, listening to rain pattering, then pouring onto trees and plants around us. We ducked under hanging vines, gingerly holding back thorn bushes, and tried to avoid slipping in thick red mud that soon oozed into puddles in our trail. We were confident that we would arrive back at our starting point, and, eventually, we did, but we arrived at several other places first along the way, none of which we could have anticipated.
My first evening of silent meditation at Still Water had a similar mysterious feeling to me. I came with a friend on a night where there was no orientation or guided meditation. I was used to guided meditation and had never experienced a silent sitting before. In the silence, I noticed how easily I became distracted by my thoughts and the physical discomforts of my body. Sitting up straight on a cushion for 35 minutes was harder than I expected. I found myself leaning on my arm which developed a cramp. Near the end, I glanced surreptitiously at my neighbors to see if they were getting uncomfortable as well. As my friend who brought me said later, “Silent meditation is a bit like being in a boat pushed into the middle of a lake without a paddle.”
I resisted the silence, and yet was drawn to it simultaneously.
Eventually, as I kept coming, I found I liked the silence. I liked the sense of space I felt expanding inside me. Sitting in the quiet company of others, I had room for all my emotions to have their say and be heard. I began craving the silence and enjoying the beauty of sounds as well. I liked the sonorous timbre of the big bell as it rang out to invite the silence, and the sound of people walking and breathing around me during walking meditation. I didn’t know people in the sittings well but I felt very connected to them.
As Gunilla Norris writes in her book Sharing Silence:
We cannot really experience anything without being present to it. True presence requires that we be attentive to what is happening . . . here and now. It is an offering of our awareness, our participation, and our willingness. This is a basic and profound courtesy. By such courtesy we are deeply transformed.
In silence we discover ourselves, our actual presence to the life in us and around us. When we are present, deeply attentive, we cannot be busy controlling. Instead we become beholders—giving ourselves up to the mystery of things. We become more willing to let things be. And, as a consequence, we can also let ourselves be. This is so simple . .. and so hard. Many of us have become uncomfortable with silence. We do not regard it as a friend. In its presence we feel uneasy, out of control. We seek superficial reassurance for our busy minds, instead of the deep confidence offered by our silent vitality.
It takes time to rediscover the treasure of silence. In it we can be found again. But we learn this only by learning. By being present, moment to moment, we may discern the richness of silence in ourselves and in each other.
Sharing silence with others is a profound act of trust, love, and courtesy. It is a mutual gift, a necessity, a helping hand, a path, and a discipline.
Through silence our days are illumined—like rooms filled with light—so we may inhabit our lives.
Because I am visually impaired, I sometimes don’t see others’ looks and gestures. I rely heavily on the nuances of speech and touch to interpret social cues. In signing up for my first silent retreat, I was nervous about experiencing a whole weekend of silence where I might not follow what was happening in the group and might not catch on to what was expected. To my relief, I found that the nourishing sense of companionship I felt in the evening sittings deepened into a solid rapport in sitting, walking, eating, washing dishes, smiling, and sharing together over several days.
I’ve always been someone who needs quiet time away from the world to process, reflect, and integrate the personalities, patterns and events swirling around me. On the retreat, what I found was that I could bring the comfort I felt being silent alone into my experience of being silent in a group. When I missed visual cues, people would kindly let me know if it was something obvious that I needed to know, like a gesture inviting the group to meet in another place. I grew confident and more trusting of both my ability to function visually and the kindness of the group. My takeaway was that we all have our vulnerabilities, and silence became a friend, not an obstacle for me.
This Thursday evening at our regular sitting at Crossing’s, we’ll share what impact silence and sound have on our lives, exploring how they have shaped our practice. We warmly invite you to join us!
A related excerpt from Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise by Thich Nhat Hanh is below.
Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise
by Thich Nhat Hanh
I have the impression that many of us are afraid of silence. We’re always taking in something—text, music, radio, television, or thoughts—to occupy the space. If quiet and space are so important for our happiness, why don’t we make more room for them in our lives?
One of my longtime students has a partner who is very kind, a good listener, and not overly talkative; but at home her partner always needs to have the radio or TV on, and he likes a newspaper in front of him while he sits and eats his breakfast.
I know a woman whose daughter loved to go to sitting meditation at the local Zen temple and encouraged her to give it a try. The daughter told her, “It’s really easy, Mom. You don’t have to sit on the floor; there are chairs available. You don’t have to do anything at all. We just sit quietly.” Very truthfully the woman replied, “I think I’m afraid to do that.”
We can feel lonely even when we’re surrounded by many people. We are lonely together. There is a vacuum inside us. We don’t feel comfortable with that vacuum, so we try to fill it up or make it go away. Technology supplies us with many devices that allow us to “stay connected.” These days, we are always “connected,” but we continue to feel lonely. We check incoming e-mail and social media sites multiple times a day. We e-mail or post one message after another. We want to share; we want to receive. We busy ourselves all day long in an effort to connect.
What are we so afraid of? We may feel an inner void, a sense of isolation, of sorrow, of restlessness. We may feel desolate and unloved. We may feel that we lack something important. Some of these feelings are very old and have been with us always, underneath all our doing and our thinking. Having plenty of stimuli makes it easy for us to distract ourselves from what we’re feeling. But when there is silence, all these things present themselves clearly.