I have just returned from a silent meditation retreat in the north of England at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey. It was fantastic to get away for a while to the middle of nowhere and to feel a sense of isolation among the imposing hills, spotted with only the occasional sheep and with no human in sight!
When I first enter into a silent retreat, it takes me a few days to get used to this extraordinary state. Standing and staring across the monastery’s silent landscape, it would feel as if my ears were reaching out for sound, any sound at all. It was as though they were so habitually accustomed to listening that they needed some form of stimulus. It took me a while before I stopped trying to listen and became at ease with this state of silence.
It was only when I finally relinquished this desire to listen that I began to be aware of the subtler sounds that permeate our lives but which we rarely acknowledge. The deep whisper of a light breeze or the soft thud of a footstep began to accompany my appreciation of my surroundings. I did not grasp after these sounds but simply allowed them to flow out of silence and then to return to their source. This is the beauty of a non-judgemental relationship to sound.
When I first entered the retreat, I was so used to using my sense of hearing for discursive reflection and for contemplation. Listening could not be separated from an engagement with sound, processing it and packaging it in my mind so that I may react to it in some manner. However, the nature of monastic silence does not impair your ability to hear but it relieves the necessity to listen, to react and label the sounds that present themselves to us.
I found that another result of the practice of silence was an increasing sensitivity to the actions of those around me. This sensitivity is characterised by an awareness of the thoughts and judgements that arise in the mind with respect to others. When we are restricted in our communication with others, our mind begins to interpret their behaviour and to try and read meaning into their actions.
I certainly became more aware of the facial expressions of my fellow practitioners and found myself compiling great stories about who they were and what they were doing here based on the judgements I had made when observing them. It was funny to talk to them after the retreat and to realise that these fantastic life stories I had woven around them were ultimately figments of my imagination!
It was mid-way into my stay that I suddenly became much more aware of the chattering that when on in my mind. The mind is constantly racing away conceptualising our universe and it is only when we quieten other aspects of our lives that we can witness how much we are thinking in the depths of our consciousness. It was at this point, when I began to see this whirlwind of thoughts coursing through my mind, I began to find the practice of silence difficult. Through lack of an external stimulus, it was very easy to get lost in my thoughts and to cling and react to certain ideas that would fly up from nowhere into my conscious awareness.
It was only through the monastic discipline of the monastery that allowed me to detach from pursuing this introspection and to focus on my activities in the present moment. This discipline, the strict method of meditating, cooking, eating and sleeping, provides the necessary tool to finally quieten the mind.
While I only had glimpses of this deeper level of silence – the letting go of the need to control thoughts and the peace of the present moment – I found it a wonderful experience. In this way, the practice of silence can lead us into newfound depths and allow us to confront the activities of the mind that we never normally notice. Just don’t expect it to be easy!