As I peer into my teacup, I contemplate what silence is. A richness or a nothingness? The absence of words or total sound around us? Thich Nhat Hahn describes real silence as the cessation of talking of both the mouth and the mind. It is an opportunity to truly stop without the clutter or noise of society.
As an only child, I disliked silence. I experienced the loneliness of long summers with few people to play with – the absence of company to entertain. It was dull and I was bored. Indeed, in my twenties, I always felt the need for company. If I had nothing to do for an evening, I would go through a list of 5-10 people to call or fill the time with a series of records, not enjoying the potential quiet time.
I needed to fill the void.
So how do we experience silence? In the 19th Century, Thoreau retreated from society for two years into the woods of New England – to discover the depths of solitude, inform deep states of consciousness and his subsequent writing.
But such extreme measures may not be possible, or even needed.
My first experience was a silent Mindfulness day in Oxford in 2012. I had taken the 8 week Mindfulness course and the silent day was an opportunity to ‘deepen our practice’ (whatever that meant) but I was both curious and apprehensive. There were 30 of us in the room and we had signed up for jobs to assist with the flow of the day and sat down.
I was not fully prepared for the rollercoaster of emotions that day. The teaching was tender and gentle. We explored sitting meditations, mindful walking and movement. It was a day of paradoxical feelings – as it progressed, I felt more and more lonely but yet rested at the same time. I felt a relief to not having to talk to anyone, but at the same time, I felt shunned at not being acknowledged by my fellow participants. The lunchtime brought a new wave of isolation as mealtime conjured up expectations for me as a social experience. Meanwhile, I studied the variety on my plate with a new mindful affection.
At the end of the day, we were asked to reflect on our day. For many, including me, it was a rush of emotions and we spoke through tears to explain how we felt. Loneliness, peace, agitation, being sidelined, awareness, sadness, pain, happiness – the lot. I was relieved that the others felt the depth of emotion as I thought I was the only one.
It was the start of a fruitful relationship with silence.
I’ve now experienced and taught many Mindfulness days and retreats but perhaps the most memorable so far was a 5 night silent retreat at the secular Buddhist retreat centre, Gaia House in Devon. It felt like a challenge I was ready for.
Again, waves of emotion came, not as extreme as in the past but still notable. The first 2 days were the most difficult. What hit me most was, despite all that I’ve learnt, I was playing a narrative – ‘by now I should be able to maintain a still mind’. Our teacher talked in depth about how expectation and striving for something can limit us. We can’t go on retreat to expect a still mind because ‘it knows’! The hidden agenda of the ego will trip us up and, therefore, we need to be without agenda, to allow and welcome whatever may come.
By the second half of the retreat, I had, to a large extent, allowed the experience to be what it is. The edges of ‘suffering’ had softened. Despite our lack of words, I developed warmth for my fellow ‘retreatants’ and respected how many don’t make eye contact.
They no longer needed to fill my void.
It is true that being silent with other people can create an intimacy. There was often a dance of movement and communication in the corridors, we didn’t need to speak, we could show compassion without speaking or even looking at each other.
Taking silence into everyday life
Last Christmas (2016), the Pope advised us amid the rush of daily life to make time for quiet. For the non-religious, ways can be found to take a pause from the hustle and bustle. It could be a tree that you visit, a view or a simple meditation that allows you some silence.
Silence is very personal. It can cause us to stare inwardly, introspectively, and ‘suffer’ as if obsessed about how silence affects us personally. However, silence and stillness are things you can always access, yet you need to allow them in – to start listening to yourself and to appreciate richness by spending time in dedicated silence with others. This is a journey that is worth embarking on.
It turns out that this only child learned to appreciate (and need) silence, the space, the depth and openness it brings.
By Ruth Farenga
Founder and Mindfulness Teacher, Mindful Pathway