There’s nothing like a 7-day silent retreat to shut you up. I don’t mean just during the retreat, when, of course, you’re supposed to be quiet. But even after. I’ve found that since returning from a week-long meditation retreat in July, I’ve been reluctant to write. Not about public affairs, which I write about for my work, but about the experience of the retreat itself. Seven days of silence taught me not only the value of silence, but why it’s really worth evaluating more carefully what it is we have to say.
Being in a room with 100 other people in silence makes immediately clear how much anxiety underlies ordinary situations involving other people simply because we feel we should say something. Preferably it’s clever, witty, or welcoming, and always it feels like a reflection of us in the world. The worry, ‘How will I present myself?’ Is frequently an anxiety about ‘what will I say?’ It leads to a lot of unnecessary chatter, which in itself can provoke further anxiety.
What’s interesting about being in silence is you find you don’t really need to say much. There’s great peace in that.
Of course, your thoughts don’t stop. You’re just saying them to yourself. This presents a unique opportunity to observe what it is that you say to yourself all day, and its impact.
For example, I noticed that, when undistracted by chatter or radio or television or even reading or writing – all things taboo on a silent retreat – my mind tends to either ruminate about the past or plan for the future. It may be ruminating about why a past relationship went wrong or something I regret saying or doing yesterday or 20 years ago, or it may be planning my next vacation, or even my next meal. But it becomes instantly clear how hard it is to keep my mind in the present.
So what? Well, for one thing, it means I’m missing out on whatever’s going on right now. Which is actually where I’m living my life. It means I’m not fully engaging with the experience I’m having, whether it’s pleasant or painful.
That also means I’m not learning from it. Paying attention to what brings us joy, for example, is really important. How else can you not only fully experience that joy, but know what it is you really want more of in your life?
Paying attention to what’s painful is harder, but also crucial. If I’m feeling bad about some past mistake I made yet again, I can recognize the pain in that and decide to respond to myself with compassion instead of blame. That makes it easier to see, consider and understand why I did what I did, and leaves me better able, when a similar situation arises again, to choose a different course. Over time, choosing to respond this way becomes a new habit. It’s ultimately a much less painful and more constructive way to move forward.
The other thing I realized is how much all these ruminations and plans are really about trying to solidify a sense of who I am: if I’m stewing over something hurtful I did or said, I’m not only regretting that act, I’m also hating myself for being the person who committed it. Identifying myself as a person who does hurtful things compounds the pain tremendously.
The same is true when thinking about other people. If I’m revisiting a wrong done to me, I’m usually not just upset about what happened. I’m also feeling angry toward the person who did it, and whom I’ve now labeled a bad person. And I’m identifying myself as a victim in the situation, which is inherently disempowering. I’ve just compounded the problem and seared into my memory these solid impressions of who everyone involved actually is.
What’s useful about silence is to see how these are all simply habits of mind. We habitually seek to create a sense of our own identity, and of the identity of others, based on partial memories, refracted images and imagined futures. That’s not only painful, but terribly limiting.
What we dwell upon becomes the shape of our minds. In our ordinary lives, we’re being constantly bombarded by stimuli that literally shape our minds, whether it’s the latest hateful thing Donald Trump said or an ad for some luxury item we don’t need and can’t afford. By recognizing this, we can begin to make the choice to focus on things that matter more to us, such as the people in our lives or a cause we really care about. That all requires paying attention to where our minds habitually stray, and setting an intention to direct them toward where we actually want them to go.
Silence helped me realize how much room we have to create our selves, and how much more charitably we can view other people — in far more helpful and responsible ways.