In the Presence of Silence

March 2010

Dear friends,

After our six months of silence last year, a frequent question from correspondents was, what was it like?

In one way, not much different from the rest of the two-plus years of retreat so far, since we are silent anyway all but one-and-a-half hours of each day.

But…in other ways, very different.

For one thing, it was hard to break the habit of being used to asking or telling someone about things that come up in the course of the day. We could write notes, but we’re encouraged not to write them frivolously, as the point is to be undistracted from focus on the internal workings of our own minds. Besides, notes take precious time, and are easily misinterpreted—it ends up being much easier to let things pass. Most things I felt the urge to communicate turned out, upon examination, to be needless anyway—just one more habitual impulse. After the silence ended last July, that awareness stayed with me somewhat, though it doesn’t prevent me from speaking needlessly or thoughtlessly on a daily basis.

Another difference is that not talking frees up enormous amounts of time. It doesn’t seem like we talk all that much—yet we get so much more done, and time seems so much more spacious, when we’re not talking.

I remarked recently to a fellow retreatant that we would all be experts at charades after retreat, if anyone still plays. She responded that our signs are so retreat-specific, no one outside would get them. Still, we have undeniably gotten very efficient at communicating with gestures—though, as with notes, we don’t always convey what we mean to.

It was interesting to note that interpersonal frictions, which we do our best to minimize at all times, seemed to diminish of their own accord during the silent period. Though undeniably useful, words do seem to be a major vehicle of conflict—again, sometimes despite our best intentions.

And lack of speaking does inevitably turn one’s attention inward, heightening awareness of one’s own mental and emotional patterns, and allowing everything to just quiet down over time.

Silence has a texture. It is very spacious, and rich with all kinds of layers normally inaudible underneath the routine din of speech, both outer and inner. To me, it is like the silence of falling snow, not just an absence of sound but an almost tangible presence in its own right.

On that note, I’m happy to report that we have just entered another extended period of silence in support of our new current practice, which is very complex and will benefit from the relatively undistracted focus. By the time we are speaking again, it will be summer, and we will be well into our last year of retreat.

I will not be writing any posts for a few months, as I take advantage of this opportunity for fuller immersion in the inner life.

Before signing off, I would like to share something I have noticed over the course of retreat that I find surprising. Though the practices we learn here are rare and amazing, and some of them, like the current one, quite complex and challenging, I have also developed more and more appreciation for the simplest practices I’ve been doing since I was first introduced to the Buddhist path.

Just taking refuge, dedicating merit, and reciting aspiration prayers are among the most meaningful activities of my day. It seems to me that these simple prayers encompass the entire path, if one can only do them attentively and with an open heart. I also really look forward to moments when I can sit in silent meditation with nothing else going on, or do a simple visualization and mantra, such as Chenrezi, Green Tara or Medicine Buddha.

Whatever your personal practice is, I hope it brings you much benefit and joy.

Best wishes till next time,
Yeshe Chödrön, aka Linda

One thought on “In the Presence of Silence

Leave a Reply