Being fresh off a retreat this past weekend, I’d like to share what it’s like to be in silence, and why it’s a good thing. Even if we don’t go on retreats, I think there are many reasons why it’s important to bring more silence into our lives.
This past weekend, I was on a retreat where we spent several hours each day in silence. So the experience is still fresh in my mind.
Early on in a retreat, there’s always a bit of awkwardness since you’re thrown together with people you don’t know. We wonder what to say, how to start a conversation, how to make a good impression. All that inner fretting.
But when we’re in silence, all that becomes moot. In silence, a lot of that pomp and posturing drops away. We don’t have to grope for something to say. We can simply be with each other, smile and make friendly eye contact. Perhaps offer a helping hand. Nothing more is needed.
And how often do we really do that with another person, on retreat or otherwise? I mean consciously offer our presence without pretense or an agenda? When we learn how to be in silence with others, we find a deeper, more essential way of connecting with another human being. In that unobstructed space, we don’t need words. Actually, words can pull us away from that basic ground of real communication.
On this retreat, we ate breakfasts together in silence. And how often do we engage all our senses when we eat? Do we stop and take in the wonderful smell of a fresh pot of coffee? Hear the mechanical ka-chunk when the toast pops up? See the colors and textures of our breakfast cereal? Feel the creaminess and the chilly temperature of the milk in our mouth? Taste the bursting tang of the raisins when we bite down on them? How often do we slow down and really savor our food?
And eating with others in silence can be a lovely shared experience. What do you think happens if I want the butter at the far end of the table? When we’re all sitting with kind awareness of each other’s presence, it’s not a problem. If I’m holding a piece of toast, and looking toward the butter, somebody always notices and does the right thing. If necessary, there might be a series of taps on a neighbor’s arm and gestures and points. But the butter comes to me. Every time. No words are needed. We’re all holding each other with kind awareness, and everything flows smoothly.
This is all about mindfulness, really. Of ourselves, each other, and our surroundings. It’s also a deep respectfulness – gratitude even – of everything we encounter. Of our food, each other’s presence, everything.
When we stop talking, we get much closer to our experience and begin to glimpse what’s REALLY happening around us. I don’t think we realize how much talking can take us away from life itself. When we spend all our time thinking and talking, we start believing that’s all there is. But what happens is we end up thinking and talking ABOUT our lives, not actually living it. Skimming the surface.
I know most of us have busy lives, full of noisy hustle and bustle. Thinking and talking are obviously necessary for getting around, getting along, and even surviving in this world. But that’s all the more reason why I think it’s so important to reconnect with silence once in a while. Silence helps me drop down into the ground of something much more real. And it creates spaciousness and clarity in my mind so I can go back to that hustly-bustly world feeling fully present and alive, with all of me intact. I can’t imagine life without it.