Silence and Retreat

These words have arisen in response to the many enquiries over the years as to whether or not an upcoming retreat would be held in silence.

Will the retreat be in silence? Actually, if there is silence, the whole universe would have disappeared!  If the retreat is in silence, we will all be in deep trouble.  I expect the birds will continue to sing.  The leaves will rustle in the breeze.  Crickets and frogs will chorus with cicadas and the growing grasses and wild flowers.  The cells of our bodies will continue to converse with each other.  Organs will speak to organs.  Intestinal fungi, flora and fauna will gossip and exchange news.  Will there be silence?  I sincerely hope not.  We will, however, gently and care-fully, encourage ourselves, and each other, to listen deeply to the complex symphony of our lives unfolding responsively in the great togetherness of this living world.

Retreat is a time for so much more than just refraining from talking while engaging in disciplined effort.  Retreat is precious opportunity to cultivate a continuity of patient thorough listening and deep empathic experiencing.  Setting aside our habitual use of verbal communication will support an ambiance in which we can become more sensitive to the wisdom and stories and singings of our bodies and minds, as they commune with the embodied minds of all the other beings that together compose this extraordinary mystery of life.

Many people today float through life in an almost non-stop cacophony of radio, TV, internet, i-pods, cell phones, piped music and person to person talking.  From waking up in the morning to going to sleep at night we are immersed in verbalizing and if none is available, we invent some; filling the gap with internal dialogues, critiques and imagined entertainments.  We don’t quite know what to do when all this chatter stops.  Addictively tuned to the wave length of human language, we risk losing the ancient and life affirming art of appreciating the myriad other non-human communications that are necessary for a healthy living world.  This loss is fast becoming a tsunami of disaster for all of us.

It is understandable that people might feel a bit anxious at the thought of not speaking for a day or so, not to mention a week or a month but you might be surprised –– you may find you enjoy it.  In retreat, even one that honours silence, we inevitably have moments of speaking to our fellow retreaters; sharing in a class, asking for something in the kitchen or garden, but these moments will be simple and straight forward, and a lot less than what we are used to in our normal daily living.

Silence doesn’t have to be anxiety producing.  Rather than signifying a loss of something, an isolation or a cutting off, it could be experienced as a blessing, an invitation to responsive presence.

Like a deep clear pool;
and sometimes even seductive,
silence draws us in,
strips us,
revealing jewels of experience that before were hidden in the noise.

Perhaps what we mean by silence is really an experience of harmonious settling; a natural at-oneness; a blending of inner and outer, without conflict or expectation; a manifesting of deep physical and mental acceptance of being at home in the fullness of whatever is occurring –– with presence, dignity and natural grace.  This is the silence of contemplation.  This is the stillness of healing presence.  Traditionally it has been referred to as the ‘noble silence’.  Will it take place in your retreat?  In truth, it’s up to you.

© Tarchin Hearn, Sept. 2011