After the final hugs and goodbyes, I walk through the house, closing windows and checking whether anything has been left behind by any of the retreatants. I notice a small, squareish, pale-blue book on the lounge table, with the title written in large silver letters: SILENCE: In the Age of Noise. What have my students been reading during this five-day, largely silent retreat, I wonder? And I discover that the book was written by a Norwegian explorer, writer, and publisher called Erling Kagge who once spent 50 days walking solo across Antarctica, looking for silence. The opening sentence reads:
Whenever I am unable to walk, climb or sail away from the world, I have learned to shut it out.
My first thought is: “It doesn’t work like that. Anyone who meditates knows that.” But I am intrigued nevertheless—this little bestseller has been published in 50 languages and maybe there is something here for me to discover.
I have the good fortune to stay on in the studio we used as a meditation hall for another couple of days on my own. It’s an exceptionally warm early September day and the Scottish Argyll coast, with its many small islands and promontories, looks spectacular. But after these days of intensified meditation practice, even a common chaffinch at the bird-feeder is enchanting to me, and it is utterly satisfying to just sit and do nothing. My heart is content and mellow, feeling the continued presence of the beings I have shared this space with and gratitude for the people looking after this place. I am alone, yet connected; everything I see has a quiet suchness about it. I know it will change, but right now I get what the 18th century Japanese Buddhist hermit monk Ryokan expressed in this poem, one of the few I know by heart:
My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe;
When the moon comes out I read Buddhist poems.
I have nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.
The extremity of Kagge’s search for meaning is undoubtedly part of the appeal of his book. Living vicariously through the author’s chosen deprivations, we shiver with him under the minus temperatures and frostbite, and smell the stench of the New York underground sewage system he chooses as his three-day route through the city. We intuit what kind of experiences he was accessing: “One universe stretches outwards, the other inwards.” But does our fascination help us reach that elusive silence within ourselves? Since we can’t reasonably be expected to follow him on such dangerous explorations, where does that leave us? He recommends stopping for some conscious breaths from time to time, curbing social media and other input, becoming absorbed in small sensory experiences and spending a few days away from the city. Advice you’d find in a mindfulness manual, but he doesn’t go as far as recommending a systematic practice of meditation, even if he mentions his own meditation and yoga practice at some point. Would that have lessened the book’s popularity, I wonder?
Whether it is a question of exposing ourselves to the rawness of the elements or, taking those quests more metaphorically and charting scary, unknown territories within ourselves, most of us don’t cherish being too far outside our comfort zones. Kagge mentions some research conducted by the universities of Virginia and Harvard, where people are left in a room for up to 15 minutes without music, reading material, the chance to write, or their smartphones. Most felt discomfort and, in some variations of the study, even chose to do something unpleasant, such as giving themselves electric shocks they knew to be painful, in order to reduce their silent time.
Why are we so afraid of stillness? When we turn silent, on a meditation retreat for example, we may first encounter a degree of sadness related to having been out of touch with ourselves for so long. Perhaps a vague, disquieting sense of having lost connection with our life’s purpose, with our deeper values. And we often meet worried and critical inner parts of ourselves: “You are not good at this!” “You should try harder!” Underneath those harsh and tense admonitions we sometimes sense, sad and desperate, vulnerable child parts of ourselves who are longing to be fully seen and accepted, to be loved. Without experience and confidence in our inner communication, awareness, and compassion skills, we are afraid to become embroiled in this inner quagmire of unpleasant emotions and will do anything to avoid the experience. Much of the “work” we do on a retreat is to befriend these internal patterns, to understand how they are trying to serve us, and to feel more at ease with them. Likewise, we do our best to accept the inevitable intrusions of outside noise—coughing, a neighbor’s hedge-cutting—into the quiet space we have created so carefully.
I would like to think that it is within the reach of most people to learn to be happy and comfortable in their own company, and even to relish that 15-minute spell of silence in a room by themselves, if it came to it. It just needs regular, committed practice. At the end of the retreat, everyone, even those who initially were apprehensive of the silence on the retreat, spoke in the most glowing terms of the effects (in combination with the other practices we engaged in). How it deepened their sense of intimacy with themselves and enhanced their belonging to the community. How it heightened their sensory enjoyment of the food we shared. How they treasured going off on their quiet, solitary walks. At the end, they were reluctant to switch on their smartphones again.
Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order, spoke of the importance of accessing the “depth dimension of the present moment.” I like the sound of that; it invites me to relax and to let go into the mystery of my experience right now. There is nowhere else to go. From here, the future will take care of itself. It can happen anywhere, as I am typing this and you are reading this. Stop for a moment and listen to the silence that surrounds your experience. There is so much more silence than sound, just as there is so much more space than matter in the universe.
Shutting out anything (as Kagge repeatedly advises) is a noisy thing to do; it keeps us on a level of vociferous reactivity. It’s often an impulse born of aversion, wanting things to be other than they are, and activates our threat system: fight, flight, freeze. For inner silence to have a chance to show itself and sweeten our lives, a shift has to occur: into an expanded, open, and inviting way of perceiving. We listen with tenderness to what is happening, both outside and inside ourselves, and the listening opens into spacious awareness. Whether or not there is thinking ceases to matter. All experience is welcome. End of rant.
Ranting, of course, also interferes with inner silence. Anything that tries to bolster our own sense of a separate Self, in opposition to the “other” has that noise-aggravating effect. On the retreat I mentioned the concept of “selving,” the fear-driven process of asserting an independent sense of “me and mine.” It is interesting to observe it coming and going during a day. At times we are happily absorbed in an activity, or resting, without much of a sense of “Self,” and then suddenly something is perceived as a threat and we start contracting around some imagined kernel of selfhood. I gave an example of how it kicked in for me on the retreat, related to decaffeinated coffee. I don’t drink “real” coffee and when I observed more and more people who normally drink the “real,” heart-rate-raising stuff, also going for the decaf, I felt a little anxious because there was only one packet left to last the retreat. A bit embarrassing, but there you are.
The next day, at the beginning of our mid-morning practice session, I found three sachets of decaffeinated coffee on my meditation cushion. I enquired (since I am allowed to speak) who had made that delightful offering. They shook their heads, denying responsibility. “It must be Robert then,” I said, as he hadn’t yet arrived in the room. But it wasn’t him either, as he made perfectly clear, non-verbally. During our final evening meal, the silence formally over, someone asked whether the decaf case had been resolved. “I bet it was Mary,” she suggested. “What makes you think that?” I asked. “Because she is so kind and generous,” she replied. “I think it was Thom,” someone else suggested. “Why?” ‘Because he is so modest, he would never tell.” “No, it was Helen, I am sure. She always has such good ideas.” Then Chris piped up: “I wonder why nobody thinks it was me.” The table erupted into hilarity.
Erling Kagge does, of course have a point: if we are lovers of silence, it is wise to minimize our exposure to distractions. Mary Oliver, in her poem “The Old Poets of China,” puts it like this:
Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.
Kagge, Erling. 2018. Silence in the Age of Noise. London: Penguin Random House
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