Silence Can Be Golden

stomachclenchesImagine, if you can, an hour all to yourself. No one needing anything from you. No noise; no distractions. You take a deep breath, you begin to unwind and, for the first time in years, you can hear yourself think.

Imagine, if you can, that for three months last fall I lived in that kind of quiet. I moved out of my New York City apartment, on a corner roaring with traffic, and settled into a rambling building on a New England hilltop, where the loudest sound is the wind whooshing through giant pine trees.

Not long before, I had been doing a job that ate up most of my life, and all my nerves. I had left it and wasn’t sure what to do next. More of the same? I didn’t think so. But what? A few years earlier I’d discovered a levelheaded kind of Buddhist meditation aimed at developing calm, compassion, and wisdom. One of its teachers immediately saw the upside of my liberation from employment. “Great,” he said, “now you can come to the three-month retreat.”

He was talking about the marathon of Retreats–not a weekend, or a week, but three months of meditating all day, every day, from predawn to 10:00 P.M. Three months of being cut off from family, friends, work, entertainment; talking, reading, writing; phone calls, e-mail.

What may sound like a nightmare to some, even a punishment, is so popular there’s a lottery to get in. The 100 winners travel from as far away as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Europe, as well as the United States and Canada. They range from 20-somethings to retirees. For obvious reasons, they’re mostly people with no children or grown children; often they’re changing their lives or recovering from trauma (one woman’s son had recently died of cancer; another woman was in the middle of a divorce). Many are self-employed; others have taken leaves of absence from their jobs.

As for me, I had saved some money, was relationship-free, childless, petless–perfect conditions for embarking on this adventure, this extreme sport. The only risk I could see was to my mental health. Like every woman I know, I was on overload, doing eight things at once. I complained all the time about being busy, but the truth is, I loved the adrenaline surge of the juggling act. If I stopped running, what would I do with the time? What would I do with my mind? I had read about prisoners playing imaginary chess games in their cells to stay sane. I don’t play chess. What if I went nuts?

And then there were my friends. “Three months,” one said, shaking his head. “Don’t you think it’s a little … self-indulgent?” Sounds it, maybe, but the purpose of this meditation is to liberate yourself from self-involvement. You sit with your eyes closed, paying attention to your breath as it goes in and out of your body. When you realize you’ve been lost in thought–not if, but when–you start over. It’s pretty simple, but somehow it deepens your connection to other people. It makes you see how we’re all in the same boat.

THE RETREAT BEGINS, AND DAY AFTER DAY I sit there, trying to follow my breath. Again and again I see that my mind is like an out-of-control radio, sliding from news broadcasts (what’s happening this minute) to dramas (my life as a horror film, a comedy, a black comedy, a thriller), with bits of music and preaching and static from random worries, fantasies, judgments, hopes, and fears thrown in. A thousand times a day I have to call my attention back to my breath and start fresh. This is an exercise in patience, which I don’t come by naturally. It teaches me forgiveness–of myself and, by extension, of other fallible humans too.

The inner ruckus is in striking contrast to the quiet in which I’m living. I wake up, get dressed, eat in a communal dining room, go for walks, prepare for sleep–all without a word. Talk is confined to a 15-minute question-and-answer period every morning, an evening lecture, and two ten-minute individual conversations per week with a teacher. Essential information is transmitted by bulletin board–schedules, notes from teachers, notes from us if we run out of shampoo, or if someone is showering before the first bell or otherwise disrupting the silence.

This is the precious thing, the silence. We protect it and it protects us–our privacy, our concentration, our investigation, our transformation. The silence keeps us solitary and, at the same time, it holds us together. It’s like a thick velvet blanket or, maybe, like snow. It’s heavy and penetrating. It fills your ears. It melts into your bones. Your shoulders lower, your abdomen relaxes. The silence clears a huge space, and suddenly you have plenty of mom to stretch out.

Your breathing deepens. Your senses sharpen. A birch tree in the distance strikes you as startlingly, blindingly white and graceful. Every sound stands out like a lone tree on a bluff. You hear shoes crunching on gravel. An old tree creaking in the wind. Water pipes running. A bird. What you don’t hear, ever, is a doorbell, a television, a shout, an air conditioner, a car alarm. The meditation hall, packed with 100 people, is so still you think, This is what a room must feel like when it’s empty.

As the retreat goes on, the boundary between you and the world disappears. You walk by a creek and the sound of the water fills your head, as though the water were burbling through you. Everyone in the retreat is moving more deliberately. We’re closing doors carefully rather than letting them slam, lifting chairs in the dining room rather than scraping them back from the table. We’re becoming sensitive to where people around us are headed, and step out of their way to avoid bumping into them. We can’t, after all, say, “Excuse me.”

Rushing seems a mild form of violence. And, really, there’s no reason to hurry. There’s nothing to do. All we have to do is pay attention–all day long, day after day, week after week, month after month.

AND THEN THE RETREAT IS OVER. A FRIEND picks me up and, as we head home, she turns on the radio to a talk show and continues our conversation. My stomach clenches. The struggle to listen to her is almost painful. I beg her to flip to a classical music station. Better, but l can still feel the sound tugging at my poor brain. I haven’t multitasked in three months; I’m out of practice.

My apartment is unusually, wonderfully, silent. The windows are shut, and the sisal rugs absorb my footsteps. I open a window for air but immediately shut it when noise flies up from the street. A few minutes later, unpacking, I turn on the television for company. I have to turn it off instantly. Now I’m getting worried: The point of meditation is not to make you too delicate to live in the world. It’s to make you more resilient, not less. During the night, that first evening home, I’m awakened twice: a bus screeches to a stop at the light; someone yells. The next night, though, I sleep straight through. I’ve adjusted.

But I can’t help wondering if the racket is somehow getting to me, to all of us sleeping through noise, trying to read the newspaper or work while a television rants in the background. A friend tells me about a recent, ordinary evening at home: Every appliance was running–the dishwasher, the dryer, a fan; music was floating in from a distant room–and she wanted to scream, l understand: It’s hard work to not hear all those sounds. Even an air conditioner’s motor takes a toll: Your sigh of relief when you shut it off is a measure of the effort required to keep the hum out of your awareness.

I thought of my friend when I stopped for lunch one warm day at a restaurant open to the street. Between the clatter of dishes and the din of traffic, I felt as though someone was drumming on my brain. I put down my book and tuned into the sounds as though they were a piece of new music. Listening with curiosity, I began to hear the spaces between the sounds–the silences. Each one was like a little breath. I ended up feeling refreshed, and went back to my book.

Soon after that lunch Sharon Salzberg, one of my teachers from the retreat, visited New York. I ask her how she deals with the chaos of the city. “We can’t control the world,” she says. “The real silence is within–in not constantly reacting to sounds.” She’s learned to recognize the tension in her body that comes from trying to ward off noise; she breathes into it to relax. She also sometimes imagines her mind as big as the sky, with the sounds moving through it. “We can foster inner silence in the form of peace,” she says, “and take it with us anywhere.”

This inner silence is our own private spa. We can pop in any time during the day for a quick rebalancing. And if that sounds … well, a little self-indulgent, remember the safety instructions for adults on airplanes. If there is a change in cabin pressure, the flight attendant says, adjust your own oxygen mask, then help those around you. In other words, first breathe. Then you’ll be ready to do whatever needs to be done.

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