Silent Right? Reflections on a month on silent retreat

Talking to my close friend last night, I found myself reflecting back to the month of silence I have just participated in at a silent meditation retreat community in Devon. We were comparing ‘noise tolerance frequencies’, having both made our re-entry from ‘retreat’ into ‘reality’ from the same place at the same time.

He was recalling a night some 20 years ago when he’d been woken in the night at his mother’s rural home by the incessant screech of an owl. To a Londoner this would not be the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of disturbing noises in the night! But so disturbed was he, that he got out of bed and went into the garden clad in boxer shorts and started throwing at it the only ammunition available – one penny pieces! He described how the irritation escalated to the extent that he eventually resorted to hurling 10p’s (of some value 20 years ago) at the still-hooting feathered monster.

I’m not sure if my friend succeeded in haggling for his silence; I’m guessing the owl must have got the message…“if I throw money at you, then will you be quiet?”…But, like many memories, there is something symbolic and strangely luminous about this image distilled by the passing of time: the dark night, the desolate owl, the exertion of the sleep-deprived body, the flying pennies. And then the flight of the ‘enemy’, the sudden quiet and creeping back out of the garden into bed and sweet dreams…

How much will we pay, now far will we go, to earn our imagined right for privacy, solitude, spaciousness, quietude? We increasingly inhabit a world where space for escape from the stresses of life is the territory of the privileged. This is why my month’s silent retreat this Christmas and New Year was such a surprisingly earthy experience, gritty even.

I’m someone who can bliss out at the very idea of a large space dedicated to meditation or art or yoga. And yes, there were moments of bliss. But the space I was looking for and thought I’d earned for myself after several months of treadmill-like activity in London just wasn’t there. It couldn’t be. I was working for 5 hours a day meditating for another 5 and eating and walking and sleeping for the rest alongside between 50 and 100 other people.

Cold mornings of ‘help!’ started to sink into my bones as duty called me at 6.30am to attend to the first laundry wash of the day, and then to the first meditation period, from which I frequently arose saying to myself ‘this can’t be it! I came to be silent, to get away and here I am faced by a full on slice of humanity right there in my face and it’s only 7.30am! Help!’ If you’re a commuter, which I’m not, you may be thinking ‘so what?’ But commuters expect it. I didn’t. I’d gone for some space to contemplate my life and it just wasn’t emerging from anywhere. Days merged into each other as the cycle of hoovering, toilet-cleaning, laundry-pile sorting, tea-towel folding closed in around my identity…slowly unclothing me of both pride and indifference.

Don’t get me wrong, there was an open-hearted part of me that was loving the interconnection and very wondrous experience of living in this ever-moving river-like silent community of people looking into the same ‘space’ for a similar ‘thing’. Rather like an ant’s nest, this thing works without anyone seeming to be the boss! But ‘where exactly is the space?’ became a rather rocky path of enquiry much faster than the initial novelty wore off. I was inspired by the rhythm, enthralled by the surrounding beauty, humbled by the devotion, filled with wholesome delight by the caring provision of food and, drop-by-drop, increasingly convinced by my exposure to the depth and breadth of the teaching. But my confession is, in spite of all this invaluable richness, the predominant sensation was one of being in a street in India pursued by a carpet seller. I wanted lift off. Now!

My default is abstraction. I’m a poet. I adore language. Religion and the idea of God appeals to me because it gives expression to my longing in a way that I can effectively hang on to it and convince myself that, if I do so for long enough, I’ll become an incarnation of its unearthly promises without having to do anything. And this was showing me, at the heart of my retreat, that this is not what it’s about. Christmas celebrates the gift of a human being who wasn’t afraid of facing the exposure of love-filled truth, of there being no escape if we really want to wake up. Jesus didn’t come here to have a good time; he came to show it’s fully and utterly a possible thing to be this bundle of flesh and bone, joy and sorrow, and find the gateway to fullness of life, realisation; in the language of the Buddha, enlightenment.

How strange that it should be that it was in the midst of all this that the spaciousness and longed-for connection of my hungry heart was actually growing; in everything that I wanted so desperately to ignore and push away.

Our soul’s yearnings do not exist in the realisations of the intellect or romanticising of our ideals. Even our attempts at compassion and mindfulness of others carry an agenda; we can learn to love, acquiring wisdom through our experiences of pleasure and pain. But it’s in the very moment by moment deep acceptance of life as it comes to us that the opportunity arises to move beyond our projections, into the cultivation of what we know our search and every being’s search is for. To know, at the very core of loss and longing that keeps us hurling our prayers into space, the fullness of happiness, freedom from suffering for ourselves and all. To encounter the emptiness that contains everything. To live so close and reconciled to the very ‘isness’ of our human experience in all it’s complexity that, as Rumi puts it, ‘there is no reason to go outside’…That place of wakeful resting where we have befriended every sound and the silence that lies behind it. A happiness that is not attached to anything and no amount of money or space or time can achieve.

Maybe this is where, beyond our earth bound life, we, like the owl, finally release the cry of our heart and take flight.

In times of sudden danger most people call out, ‘O my God!’

Why would they keep doing this if it didn’t help?

Only a fool keeps going back to where nothing happens.

The whole world live within a safeguarding, fish

inside waves, birds held in the sky, the elephant,

the wolf, the lions as he hunts, the dragon, the ant,

the waking snake, even the ground, the air,

the water, every spark floating up from the fire,

all subsist, exist, are held in the divine. Nothing

is ever alone for a single moment.

All giving comes from the There. No matter who

you think you put your open hand out

toward, it’s That which gives.

(Rumi, as quoted by Jack Kornfield in A Path With Heart)

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