Endangered Silence

Sedona's Silence

I got up early and went outside. The wilderness in my backyard was still and quiet. There was no breeze and the delicate leaves of the mesquite tree stood as silent and unmoving as the red rocks.  I could hear the silence, it was palpable and refreshing.  I love this early morning before the pink jeeps start to crawl through the forests, or the helicopters hover above. The birds are chirping loudly this morning, and as I walk back into the house, I can hear my breath and my feet touching the ground.  In this moment it all comes back to me, it is a visceral sensation of peace that I remember from my stay at the Buddhist training center, where I’d spend days and days in silence and meditation.

An Entire Day in Front of the Television?

Our culture and perhaps most cultures in the modern world, value getting things done quickly and filling every moment with sensual stimuli: music from your iPod, a friend’s voice or text message on the cell phone, the videos, audios, and written word on the internet, the programs you play back on your TiVo, the music from the radio in your car, the words from the newspaper, or the images in the magazines in your dentist’s office. There is a wide variety of stimuli and there is no end to the noise and distraction we are dealing with.

And if you think I am making this ‘noise thing’ up, let’s take a look at what’s going on in America’s living rooms.  According to Nielsen Media Research, half of our homes have three or more TVs, and at least one of those sets is on for an average of 8 hours and 11 minutes every day!  The average American watches TV for 4 hours and 34 minutes every day – so in one week, the typical American has spent over one entire day sitting in front of the tube. In a year, that amounts to well over two months!

We can hardly hear ourselves think, never mind make thoughtful choices in our lives. Scientific research claims that we have close to 80,000 thoughts each day. Those thoughts relentlessly layer us with our musings of the past as well as our future desires. The magic of the present moment is where stillness and silence converge — the “gap” between our thoughts.  And this is a rare experience these days unless you make room for it.

Silencing the Din

As a remedy to the constant noise and distraction, some people have come to practice mindfulness, a discipline of being fully present while doing just one thing.  Try this mindfulness eating exercise where you’ll eat a piece of fruit without conversation, radio, television or reading:  

Choose a piece of fruit, and sit down.

Experience the fruit.  

Smell it, look at it, feel it, see the light reflect on its shape.

Then begin to eat it with your full attention on peeling, breaking open, chewing and tasting the fruit.

Take your time.

Later, you can practice the same mindfulness process while typing an email, driving, walking, or even listening to another person.  You can also schedule a family meal or a meal with friends and eat it completely in silence. See what arises then.

Silence is Golden

Being in silence enables us to actually experience what we are experiencing, and the practice begins to quiet the mind. For those who practice silence daily, their awareness eventually transcends the constant distraction of the thoughts of the past, the future, and the running commentary about our life and the people, places, and things it is made up of. 

Some people sit in silence through meditation or prayer. There are many ways to practice silence, and each has something in common:  each moment we spend in silence teaches us more about who we really are, and what we are really experiencing.  Silence offers each of us an opportunity be in the present moment, where we can commune with our life and the intelligence that underlies it, and the magnificent, subtle and silent qualities of nature.

The practice of Silent Meditation

Silent sitting meditation is still the main practice in Buddhism which was founded 25 centuries ago by Gautama Buddha. Buddha practiced and taught meditation as a universal remedy for suffering.  Though Buddhism was born in India, its teachings travelled throughout the world to China, Nepal, Tibet, Japan, Burma, and all of Southeast Asia. Each time the practice met a new land, it would take on a different flavor. There are many names for silent sitting meditation: Zazen, Sati, Shikantaza, Vipassana, Insight, Mindfulness, just to name a few.

One of the names for the meditation practice is Vipassana. As Buddhism passed through Burma, it found a home in Burmese monasteries which kept the teachings alive for many centuries. Vipassana literally means, “To see clearly” and refers to insight: insight into the truth of impermanence, insight and seeing things as they really are.

The practice of Vipassana is about watching the mind, and to some, can be a practice that takes a whole lifetime.  The purpose of the practice is to expand one’s awareness and to become more alert, or conscious.  It is also a way of self-transformation through self-observation. Vipassana, meditation, or insight practice is simple yet has profound effects on the mind and body.

Here’s how it’s done:

Sit in a reasonably comfortable and alert position. Some people sit in the traditional lotus posture (Indian style or cross-legged), others may choose to sit in a chair with their feet flat on the floor. Either way, your back and head should be straight, chin tucked in slightly.  And you should be comfortable.

In Vipassana, this posture is with eyes closed. In zazen (the Japanase Buddhist sitting meditation), your eyes will remain open, not wide open and not closed, but somewhere in between – open enough to allow some light in. You shouldn’t be staring at anything, your eyes should be relaxed and softly focused. The downward gaze of the eyes should be at about a 45 degree angle and rest on the floor about 2-3 feet in front of you. When gazing downward, keep your face straight ahead so that if your eyes were wide open you would be looking straight ahead. Only your gaze is cast downward, not your head.

In zazen, the hands are held in a specific way to help to turn your attention inward: both hands held palms up. The right hand on the bottom holding the left hand palm up, so that the knuckles of both hands overlap. The thumbs are lightly touching, thus the hands seem to form an oval, which can rest on your thighs.

Breathe normally through your nose. Stay as still as possible and only change position if it is really necessary. While sitting, the primary objective is to be aware of the breath and the sensations of the breath moving in and out of the body. This practice is not a concentration technique, so while watching the breath; many other things will take your attention away. 

Nothing is considered a distraction in this form of meditation, so when something else comes up, stop watching the breath, pay attention to whatever is happening until it’s possible to go back to your breath.  This may include thoughts, feelings, judgments, body sensations, impressions from the outside world, etc.  It is the process of paying attention, or watching, that is significant, not so much what you are watching.  So remember not to become identified with whatever comes up: questions or problems may just be seen as mysteries to be enjoyed.

When we observe the breath, this allows the mind to become naturally focused. Another part of the Vipassana practice involves carefully “scanning” the surface of the body with one’s attention and observing the sensations with equanimity. This helps us to become more aware of the ‘impermanence’ of all things. This prepares one for another aspect of the practice which naturally unfolds – a non-attached observation of the reality of the present moment.

The Extended Practice of Sitting Silent Meditation

I lived two years as a resident in a Zen Buddhist training center (the Japanese form of Buddhism), where there was a lot of silence.  I craved the silence and loved living a simple life so close to nature. I practiced Shikantaza, which is a “goalless” meditation of quiet awareness: a form of Buddhist meditation. The training center was started in California by a Japanese priest named Taizan Maezumi Roshi. There were other Zen training centers in America run by his contemporaries, the most famous among them Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.

Sometimes we would observe a Day of Reflection during while we’d spend a day in silence and meditation, reflecting on the Buddhist precepts which we subscribed to: among them, nonviolence, reverence for life, non-stealing, conscious loving relationships, and truth in speech and action.

While our regular daily routine in the training center required us to meditate and work several hours a day, there were extended training periods from ten days to two months called sesshins. During a sesshin we’d devote ourselves exclusively to sitting (what they call meditation, or zazen, in the Zen Buddhist tradition).

Sesshin literally means “gathering the mind” and it consists of many (up to nine) 30- to 40-minute-long meditation periods. Between the periods we’d practice a walking meditation (called kinhin), formal meal meditations (called oryoki), and short periods of work (samu practice).  Each activity was performed in silence with mindfulness. The meditation practice was occasionally interrupted by the teacher giving public talks, or sometimes we could silently leave to wait our turn for an individual private meeting (called dokusan) with the Zen teacher. We slept from five to seven hours a night, and our early morning meditation began shortly after four a.m.  

A New Perspective

I found that I needed at least two to three days of sesshin to have my mind “settle down” into routine. It would become quiet enough for deeper self realization to begin. That’s when my mind stops its habits, and stops saying “you’ll be happier in a minute, or when this happens.” Suddenly there’s a joy, a lightness, in everything – every simple moment. Brushing my teeth becomes an incredibly joyous experience, and I marvel as the toothbrush moves in my mouth. The very act of breathing, walking, drinking tea or chewing is a wondrous.  Each moment is profound, and sometimes, if I am lucky, everything becomes one: the tree is me. The squirrel is me. The vast, boundless sky is me. These are not words; this is an experience of reality, stark and wild and gorgeous.

Many people are seeking this new perspective, a way out of the suffering they experience or perceive in other people’s lives.  And they’re finding their way to meditation retreats all around the world.  However, most people don’t want to change their religion or become Buddhist. This is understandable, yet there seems to be a real need, or a craving to experience a deep silence, a deep peace, and to be supported in taking a time out for a silent retreat.

I’ve been hearing a lot about ten-day silent Vipassana retreats that are becoming more and more popular. These are retreats based on the teachings of S.N. Goenka. As a young successful industrialist, this Burmese born Indian man, S.N. Goenka, suffered from chronic migraines from which he sought relief.  This led him to meditation. He studied Vipassana meditation and eventually helped to establish Vipassana meditation centers worldwide. He calls Vipassana meditation an “experiential scientific practice, through which one can observe the constantly changing nature of the mind and body at the deepest level, a profound understanding that leads to a truly happy and peaceful life.”

These centers regularly offer ten-day Vipassana meditation courses.  At the centers’ silent meditation courses, recordings of S.N. Goenka’s teachings are played. In them, Goenka states that “The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught the way to liberation – which is universal.”   Goenka opens these retreats to people of all faiths or of no faith.

Intensive Silence

Like sesshin, there is a rigorous and serious nature of the ten-day Vipassana meditation. It’s an intensive, and it’s not intended to be the usual way of being. To use an exercise analogy, it’s like lifting weights at maximum effort; it’s important for getting stronger, but it can’t be done all the time. However, it’s an opportunity to cultivate a profound stillness, an awareness of things that is much more expanded than what we normally have.

If you go to a retreat like these, you could be in meditation for up to ten hours a day. You’ll be asked to have no contact with the outside world or other students. This is called ‘Noble Silence’. Noble silence means no communication with anyone, either through voice, eye contact, gestures, or any other kind of signaling (though they may talk to a teacher about questions concerning the technique or other issues).  There is no reading, writing or listening to music or other forms of media.  The food is purposefully bland, and the setting is usually austere. There is little to do but watch the nature of the mind.

And here is the paradox, as you settle into silence, your mind will begin to rebel and you’ll experience what some meditators call “monkey mind’.  Eventually however, you’ll become aware of a thought rather than grasped by a thought. The difference is subtle, but significant. The monkey quietens. When you are aware of your thoughts, you can let your thoughts arise and dissolve without letting them pull you in different directions. You can’t stop thinking by trying to stop thinking. Most people have tried that and it doesn’t work. The only way to stop thinking is to transcend thought.

I’ve heard someone say once, “we shouldn’t call it a retreat, it’s an advance.”  It may seem like a week of structure and silence is a long time. It seems like it might get boring, but there is always another challenge. 

Experiences I’ve had and have heard about during retreats vary from feeling restless and bored, having lots of thoughts, repetition of songs stuck in your head, feeling extreme amounts of pain, feeling emotionally turbulent, feeling extreme peace and contentment, sensing compassion for yourself and all living things, planning menus or designing a new house, feeling trapped, seeing things very clearly, hearing the slightest sound, feeling the slightest change in air temperature, feeling completely unbounded, wanting to do it again, never wanting to do it again.

B. Benson, a participant of a ten-day Viapssana retreat reports:  “It was an incredibly surreal 10 days. Both in the sense of learning about myself and my mind, as well as adapting to the culture of silent community living and the weird meditation practice itself.  My mood went soaringly high during certain days and abysmally low during others. I’ve heard that people are often tempted to leave on certain days.  The inability to share or compare notes with anyone else during this time was an interesting constraint… it forced me to resolve these issues on my own without consulting the consensus. I think that this helped me both to avoid becoming too negative or too positive. It allowed my mood to swing up and down even higher as I didn’t have to remain consistent to anyone. I went from being determined to leave, to deciding to stay, at least twice.”

In her very funny book Holy Cow author Sarah MacDonald writes about her spiritual travels through India, and described some of her experiences well into the retreat: “It’s been ten days without a mirror and not seeing the thing that most people recognize as me makes me less aware of the boundary of self. . . . . .  I couldn’t sense where I ended and nothingness began  . . . . I’ve caught a glimpse of the Buddhist and Vipassana notion that there is no permanent self to cling to. I lost my ego, my core…… I do feel some bliss, some generosity and kindness growing within me.”

Whether for a few minutes, or for ten days, the practice of silent meditation, whatever name you use for it, can sharpen your senses and bring you greater wisdom and insight. It is, for good reason, considered a direct path to enlightenment.  It shines the light on the nature of who you really are and the world out there.  Meditation can open us to a world beyond our prejudices, and habits of mind.  Like the Buddha, we can step away from everything we are certain about.


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