Sunday, August 29, 2010

Noble Silence

I was on a retreat last week. It was held at the Rocky Mountain YMCA near Estes Park, Colorado and led by nuns and monks from two monasteries in the United States. They practice the form of Buddhism taught by exiled Vietnamese priest Thich Nhat Hahn.

There were elements of the retreat I thought I might have problems with.

First was the fact that we were to rise at 5 a.m. and be dressed and participating in group movements by 5:30. That was to be followed by a walking meditation, observing the sunrise, which was in turn to be followed by sitting meditation. Then, finally, about 7:30 a.m., breakfast. I am not a morning person. This schedule did not appeal to me. But I did it. And liked it.

Then there was the fact that we were to eat a vegan diet. I am a diabetic omnivore. I thought I would perish. I didn’t. In fact, I enjoyed the food.

But most frightening of all was that we were to spend great portions of each day and evening – and all meals – in absolute silence. I had done this once before, at a similar retreat five years ago. I knew I could do it, and could learn to be comfortable with it. What I did not know, or had perhaps forgotten, was that this pervading silence was quite powerful. As it begins to settle itself around and in you, you find yourself paying more attention to facial expressions, sunrises, and food. Most important, the stillness begins to pervade your being, clearing out the monkey-mind thoughts with which we tend to distract ourselves and allowing us to discover the pains we try to avoid acknowledging and the solutions that we have within us.

That last sentence should have been written in the first person. As the silence stilled my thoughts, I could feel my mind clear. It was an almost physical sensation, quite pleasant, beginning on the inside of my forehead and extending back about 1.5 inches. It opened my consciousness, making me aware of some unresolved pain. Then, in meditation and in discussion groups (where we could talk) and in the teaching (Dharma) sessions, I found within myself an answer – a way to heal.

It occurred to me that such silences are essential. We can create them in our days primarily through meditation. I’m bringing that practice home. I may never regularly arise at 5 a.m. but I now will regularly enter the silence that helps me get in touch with who I am and what I have to offer. They call it a Noble Silence. I recommend it.

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