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Having a Voice During Silence on Retreat

. . . without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm. — Thomas Merton1

This is the state of mind taught and strengthened by improvisation, a state of mind in which the here and now is not some trendy idea but a matter of life and death, upon which we can learn to reliably depend. We can depend on the world being a perpetual surprise in perpetual motion. And a perpetual invitation to create. — Stephen Nachmanovitch2

The German word unmündig, which is translated as “underage,” literally means ”un-mouthed.” You could take that to indicate “not having a voice,” or “not having any say.” This reflection arose in my mind during a recent retreat in Germany, at a place called Waldhaus am Laacher See that I attended together with my husband. It is one of the oldest Buddhist retreat centers in Germany and happens to be just a walk away from the village in the Eifel where my brother lives and where we had a family gathering to celebrate his 60th birthday.

Silence is an indispensable element of any retreat, and I was interested to hear how the teacher, Agnes Pollner, a student of Shenpen Hookham, introduced its virtues in her first talk. She described the elimination of dialogue opportunities with others as protection from reactivity—not having to have an immediate answer. The spaciousness of silence is also an opportunity to gain freedom from prejudice: “You don’t have to believe everything you tell yourself about yourself and others.” Silence offers us the means to dwell in “in-between states;” to become sensitive to the pastel shades of experience. I enjoyed her expositions—it is so valuable to be guided by someone else every so often and to be in the role of a participant rather than the teacher. She encouraged “emotionally intelligent” practice, making allowances for the inevitable, initial playback from the lives that we have been leading.

A large proportion of my own “playback” had to do with recent family time—three days of living in close quarters with seven adults who don’t see each other very often and who share some formidable historical baggage. There is a word of wisdom from a famous meditation teacher—or probably several of them: “If you think you are enlightened, spend some time with your family.” Well, enlightened or most likely not, the persistent, nagging upset I felt about some hurtful interactions during that past weekend was certainly humbling. There were some lovely moments of course, particularly our collective music-making. But the combination of being in the country and hearing the language of my childhood, having just had that conflict, and being in silence powerfully brought back that childhood mood of not having much agency and not being heard or understood. My guess is that such inner reliving of painful memories will be common for those of us who had a less than ideal family upbringing, which is probably most of us. How we deal with these experiences is an integral part of any retreat and we have to find our own ways to align the Dharma vision of perfect freedom, joy, peace, and love with our personal predicaments. In that process we gain confidence and growing resilience. 

So what form might such inner processing take? It is only too easy to exacerbate our emotional pain by expecting it to go away through practicing harder. Experience shows that the most effective path to peace is to find a way of meeting the tight and unhappy inner parts with interest, kindness, and acceptance. In that process we access and experience a different way of being; one that is more aware, wiser, and more compassionate than the hurting, stuck parts. For some, this might also be felt as the presence of other-power, being in the field of something bigger than ourselves. And gradually, the balance may shift from identification with painful, reactive ways of being to inhabiting a more liberated realm. It can be such a relief to be able to simply relax into a natural, open, trusting, and joyful way of being present, where nothing is a problem—particularly not ourselves! The question is what kind of conditions support this inner shift.

The retreat structures, including silence, can be supportive, but I sometimes wonder whether the traditional formats always serve the process best. Traditionally on Buddhist retreats, the teacher will be the only one who speaks, with limited opportunities to share what is going on internally, except in occasional short practice reviews with a teacher or in a small group. Ultimately, we want to find our inner agency regardless of outer circumstances, but I wonder whether the prolonged experience of not having a voice in the hierarchical social context we find ourselves in on retreat could make it unnecessarily hard. It can keep us unmündig, with a somewhat infantile lack of confidence in our skills and power. Being silent may even trigger an inner state of frozenness, which is one of the manifestations of trauma. At home, in our various roles, we have opportunities for expressing ourselves and being mirrored back as creative, generous, effective human beings who have something of value to offer the world. Is there a way we can have access to this experience of agency on a retreat, without it becoming all busy and noisy and full of views and distractions? I think there may be a way, to a certain extent at least, and it has to do with using our voice—but without speaking.

“Imagine you are in the company of someone going on and on about a topic you are not really interested in. Every so often you go ‘mmm-mmhh.’ Let’s make that sound now, together, repeatedly and feel the resonance of it in your facial bones and other parts of your body. Put your hands on your chest bone and feel it vibrating.” As well as a Buddhist teacher, Agnes is a voice coach and performer, and her physical and vocal warm-ups, like the one quoted above, were a favorite part of the retreat for me. They were fun and took us into that zone of alert curiosity, being on the edge of the seat, eyes, ears, and skin open, not quite knowing what was going to happen next. We started to play with the sounds, letting the humming explore different pitches and textures. The improvisatory nature of these exercises got us into the present moment, out of autopilot, and prepared to risk our seeming control and pride. On the second day, Agnes encouraged us to vocalize right into the heart, while listening to everyone else, also from the heart. It felt to me as if I was right in the middle of a swarm of bees, making honey. The title of the retreat was “The Awakened  Heart – Bodhichitta,” and for me these free explorations were more moving and expressive of Dharmic principles than the set songs and chants that constituted most of our collective vocal expression.

My first professional training was as a Dalcroze Rhythmics teacher, a form of music and movement education that draws heavily on improvisation as a creative means for learning and self-development. Even as a 20-year-old student, I had a strong inkling of the spiritual implications of the improv mindset—it is a surrender to the true nature of things, unpredictable, ever-changing, self-liberated, and it exposes the delusion of self-other separation. When I enter into the spirit of it, the boundaries of Self loosen and something bigger expresses itself through my body and voice in a natural—sometimes ordinary, sometimes ecstatic—way. I want to let others partake of these opportunities, but improvisation sounds scary to many people. So I tend to smuggle them into my mindfulness workshops and retreats—which have more of a stamp of respectability—under the heading of mindful movement and sound-making. There is much evidence that humming and other forms of vocalizing activate the soothing mode of the nervous system and lower the blood pressure. It also gets the energies moving on a silent retreat and gives everyone an equal voice, at least at some stage—perhaps enough to feel more fully mündig and able to self-direct our healing and flourishing with confidence and flair.

1 Merton, Thomas. 2005. No Man Is an Island. Boulder, CO: Shambhala. (p.134)

2 Nachmanovitch, Stephen. 1991. Free Play, Improvisation in Life and Art. New York: Penguin Publishing. (p.22)

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10 months ago

Is Dalcroze Rhythmics teacher a profession?