There seems to be almost a Universal push/pull between human beings and silence. Whenever I talk about my silent retreat experiences it is often met by a really interesting combination of energies. There is a mix of desire, excitement and anxiety accompanied by a laundry list of reasons why it would of course be impossible. People say things like:
‘Oh I would love to do that – but I could never!’
‘Wow – that must be amazing – I can’t keep quiet for 5 minutes though’
‘I really need that – but…’
So, given that everyone seems to have a curiosity about the experience, and even feel the draw of silence at certain times in their lives, I thought I would share a few things I have learned about the quiet, over the last 25 years.
Lengthy Silence Is Not For Beginners
It might feel (to non-meditators) like the antidote to your busy lifestyle is the polar opposite of your usual experience. You may be tempted to dive deep into something like a 10-day silent retreat – perhaps you have heard of the Buddhist practice of Vipassana? Generally – I would advise that this is NOT a good idea!
Yes – you might end up with some powerful insights and transformation by the end – but the journey is likely to be rough and could even be damaging.
Silence Will Reveal Who You Are
One journalist who went on a silent retreat (somewhat unprepared) reported the experience was like being ‘locked in a phone box with a madman’. Take that in for a moment. Silence is not a bliss cloud of cushions and love waiting for you to dive into – it is a mirror that will allow you to hear, feel, and know your current state of consciousness, warts and all. The quiet exposes the thought-stream mercilessly, as if under a microscope. It is easy to get lost here and journey no further.
Within extended silence an opening also grows for anything that was submerged over time, beneath the level of conscious awareness, to pop back up – like a beachball that can no longer be held underwater. Whether ready for it or not, you will likely start making contact with both hidden treasures and forgotten pains. Navigating these skilfully takes work.
Further into the stillness and the boundaries between subject and object (that’s you the meditator (subject) and the focus of your practice (object) may begin to merge. Eckhart Tolle’s words: ‘You are the awareness in which your thoughts arise’ might land more poignantly for you at this time – but the experience, if unexpected, can also be disorientating. Usually suppressed questions such as Who am I? and What is the nature of reality…? may also pay a visit.
None of this is to say that short periods of silence are not recommended – they are – they just need to be accompanied by periods of teaching, moments for reflection, enquiry, feedback and learning.
Silence Requires A Runway
If you are feeling the call of silence, here’s a runway to help you build up to it:
- Start learning a form of meditation such as mindfulness using guided practices or a class. Build your skills gradually, learning the art of navigating your complex inner landscape of consciousness.
- If you are finding the experience beneficial – sign up for the Mindfulness-BasedStress Reduction course (don’t be put off by the name – you don’t have to be stressed to go on the course). This is an 8-week course which often includes a retreat day or afternoon where there will be periods of silence to explore.
- If, after that, the call of silence is leading you on – try a one-day or two-day silent retreat and keep increasing the duration of your retreat time as you feel called. By now you will be a proficient voyager of the inner plains and silence will safely open its arms for you to nestle deeper within it.
Silence is Deafening
This is true in multiple ways.
- When all goes quiet – as already described, your mind will likely start shouting, distracting, prodding and enticing. It has many tactics for keeping you out of the deeper streams of mindful contemplation and learning the art of deftly weaving through the foray of noise is a work in progress for us all, even the most experienced.
- With a dedication to practice, and with skilful acceptance, the silence will gradually deepen and welcome you into its frequency. Silence is in fact a field of consciousness where one can be in communion with the wisdom, with the teachers, and with the mystery. In other words – silence holds answers – insights if you will, and they come wrapped in such a way that only you can reveal them. Inside, you will find wisdom that is yours and yours alone. Here the silence is deafening in its rich frequency of knowing: A field of awareness so sacred that it is as elusive as it is precious.
So – how about now – are you still feeling the call of silence?
By Neil Seligman
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