Notes From a Silent Meditation Retreat
I arrive at the Garrison Insitute late afternoon and check in to a closet-sized room. At dinner before the opening program, women near me discuss their concerns about being silent for three days. I wish they would stop talking, but I join in, so they don’t get offended.
At 7pm a bell rings, and we all file into a meditation hall with enormous stained glass windows. I find a chair front and center as I always do. Jack Kornfield welcomes us and begins a guided meditation. He explains the practice of Noble Silence that he requests we keep for the weekend. This silence is different from keeping secrets, shame-based silence. There will be periods to ask questions and speak with teachers. Noble Silence was a practice of the Buddha. He would often remain silent when asked questions that were irrelevant or unanswerable. Silence will help us tune into our inner experience. We should observe the desire to communicate when it arises. What is that we want to say? What needs lie beneath our words?
Jack explains that Buddhism is a science of the mind, not a religion. You can identify as another religion and practice Buddhism too. The Buddha never claimed to be a God, just a person who was awake. He did not teach Buddhism, he taught a way of life. Buddhism is about engaging in practices to discover what is true for you. Buddha taught to end suffering. We all have the potential to wake up and become Buddha’s.
After the session concludes, I make a cup of tea and sit in the library on my floor. People sit near me quietly. I notice there is no discomfort in silence when it’s a shared agreement. I enjoy being with people in this way, without the draining chatter that we are habituated to engage in at a young age. Silence is far more intimate than anything we could say to each other. Why is it the agreement in our society to always be talking? Are words the reason I rarely feel connected in conversation?
I wake up happy in my white monk cell. I am grateful for the simplicity, of having only what I need. At breakfast, my judging mind takes over. That one keeps whispering to her friend, and that one took too much food and pushed to be first. That one keeps giving me dirty looks, what’s her problem. I eat and interact with these thoughts for a while until two questions arrive. Why am I judging them? Who cares what they are doing? It doesn’t affect me unless I allow it too. Maybe it’s awkward for her to be with a friend in silence. Maybe she takes too much food as a way to push down pain that is bubbling up in her silence. Maybe I can have compassion for the woman giving me dirty looks, she must hurt inside the way I do when I behave like that.
Not having to wear my personality is a relief. The way I talk is akin to using a battering ram to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. There is a desperation to it that stems from my desire to connect. But no conversation will ever fill me, my longing is misdirected. Striving causes pain, there are no answers out there. During an extended meditation, I am astounded by a calm, safe garden inside me.
A lady behind me starts coughing. I startle back into the room annoyed. She won’t stop and keeps clearing her throat. Self-righteous anger floods me. Why doesn’t she leave, consider the rest of us? Instead of expanding my complaint like I normally do, I am able to freeze it. Zooming in, I notice how familiar it looks. It’s a thought I get lost in daily that causes me pain. Once my mind becomes disturbed, it sees disturbance everywhere. I can return to the garden or waste the morning obsessing about the coughing woman. I see clearly that my focus is always my choice.
Jack says later that separation is a delusion, a manifestation of the small self. He quotes Alice Walker, “One day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed.” Harming self is harming others and vice versa. I am overwhelmed by how much love I suddenly contain.
There is time to ask questions and speak to teachers. I wait in line to talk to Jack. I intend to thank him, tell him how much I love being here in his presence. I don’t know how to describe Jack because he is somewhere beyond personality, unattached and emergent. When my turn comes, tears accompany my words. He looks at me and says slowly,” Maybe you were a nun or monk in a past life, maybe a few lives. Living in the cloisters and monasteries, and now you have a different incarnation.” He asks my name, where I live and what I do to fill my time. I tell him about my family and life in New York City. He nods and says, “must be a difficult incarnation for you.” I laugh out loud, the truth of his words makes me feel lighter. A question arises, and I ask it, “How do I stay close to the purity I experience in silence? People normally feel messy and false. Their personalities out of alignment with their true nature.” After the words leave my mouth, I see they include me. There is no separation from what I am and what I see. Jack looks at me kindly, “Why do you think they are false?” Since my question includes me, I know the answer, “because they long to be loved.” Jack smiles, “Exactly. That’s all they want, and they don’t know how to get it, so they do what they learned as a child to receive love, and they do that still. Why don’t you practice loving them?” I walk away knowing that loving them depends on loving myself.
A woman shares with the group about feeling the suffering of the world, especially the animals. She cries. She says that she knows her relationship with suffering started in childhood when she was abused. I feel her pain and cry. I feel my pain and inability to be with suffering. Jack tells her the first of The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha is that suffering exists and will always exist. The Buddha taught people how to liberate themselves from suffering through The Noble Eightfold Path. We don’t have to suffer.
A man shares next about battling an illness that carries a death sentence. He is afraid, he doesn’t want to die. He cries, and I cry too. Not just for him, but for all our human fears that lead us to the mother of all fear, the fear of death. Jack comforts him. He talks lightly about death, how we are passing through this life and will all die. Impermanence is the nature of all living things. Jack tells us the phrase “Do not be afraid” exists 366 times in the Bible.
My tolerance is expanding. I barely notice the coughing woman. Staying present to my patterns, even when it’s uncomfortable. Sit with them, no judgment. An old sadness overwhelms me for a while. I allow it to be there, without writing a story about what it means or grasping on to it. Eventually, it passes, and I am back in the garden. I sense an ancient part of me, something that is just traveling through the identity I inhabit now. I knew it was there as a child, it’s why I looked for aliens and Narnia. I make note that teaching my children that the doorway is within them is the greatest gift I can offer as a parent.
I have faith that my soul contains all the answers I seek. All I have to do is be quiet and pose the question inward. When the answer comes, listen with respect whether I like it or not. God is not an old man with a beard who hangs out on a cloud. God is inside me, inside of everyone at the retreat, in the trees outside my window. God is the sacred energy of life.
I look at my email for the first time. Skimming a response from a friend, I am off to the races, my amygdala hijacked. Flooded with self-righteous anger, I notice there is a lot of energy in this pattern. The details don’t matter because what triggers me is the same thing that always triggers me, I didn’t get my way.
All morning my body feels like a beehive. My thoughts are raging toddlers, and I can barely hear the teachers. Desperate to shift my state I rush over to DaRa, a female teacher, when the break begins. I tell her how I ruined the retreat by reading an email. Now I am disconnected from the beautiful source I located yesterday. DaRa smiles, “It sounds like you have a specific perception of connection?” I consider her words. Yes, I do. I have a specific way that everything should be, including spiritual practice. DaRa continues, “All human beings have a nervous system. This is just what your body does when it perceives a threat. It can take a while to settle. Practicing meditation will help. Connection includes chaos and pain. To become enlightened is to be intimate with life, not to avoid it.” My upset disappears by the time I sit back down in my chair. The story that I was connected and now disconnected made me panic. Panic is sticky, it traps our thoughts so they can’t pass through. It’s so easy to let go, why do I always hold on?
Jack says that we are all learners in this life. It’s essential to stay in a “Beginners Mind” and seek people who exist in this mindset. Experts are stagnant. “Many of us have made our world so familiar that we don’t see it anymore. Ask yourself before bed: what did I really see today? Do this with loved ones as a practice.”
Being angry is a practice too. Mara is what Buddhists call “the personification of the forces antagonistic to enlightenment.” When Mara would visit the Buddha, he spoke to her lightly. “Hi Mara, come in, please stay for tea but don’t stay for too long.” Don’t push away suffering, be with it but don’t attach to it either. When we get activated, step away from the source of upset when possible. I use my children as an example. Say to them with love, “I don’t want to add to your anxiety with my own. I want to keep myself steady and peaceful so I can be there for you.” Love is still accessible in anger if you practice.
Jack asks, “What does your heart long to give to the world?” He says the best way to find your work is to imagine yourself ten years in the future. Ask yourself if you lived the life you wanted to live. Yes, I am living the life I want to live, but there is still something missing, something not enough that haunts me. I know I could be more, do more. As if he read my mind, Jack adds smiling, “and give up living up to your potential! None of you will ever live up to your potential.” Whatever is missing disappears with my laughter. Jack wears life loosely, makes a lot of jokes. Humor relaxes me. Why am I so serious? I love to laugh.
We learn the Metta practice. Exactly what I need to gently override my judging mind as I navigate life in New York City. Whenever I catch myself disturbed from judging people, I can swap out my thoughts with “May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful. May you be brave. May you know your worth.” Tailor my own version for loved ones.
My heart feels open and free. Everyone around me glows. I am touched by their dedication and my own. It’s a gift to have this time. The busy world won’t slow down so I must. My mind is the source of suffering and joy. Mindfulness and meditation change the way I interact with my mind. Notice when I get attached. That moment is the beginning of suffering. The quicker I let it go, the less I suffer.
I am sad to leave, I am just sinking into the silence. Out of all the places I’ve traveled, this has been my favorite destination. I share my feelings with the group. Jack responds that we can create pockets of silence in our lives daily. There can be space around words. We can pause in conversation, and that pause will give us a choice. We don’t have to jump on other people’s trains.
Jack hands out red strings and invites us to take place in the Three Refuge Protection Ceremony. I take a vow with each of the three knots I make before a woman seated next to me ties it on my left wrist. This red string feels more precious than any jewelry I own.
Jack’s parting words to us are to practice daily and take responsibility for who and what we allow into our space: people, news, etc. Take a stand in the world with love, in a playful way. Only love will conquer hate. We practice not for ourselves, but so we can go out into the world and serve others with compassion and love. Plant beautiful seeds and trust that they will create miracles you will probably never see.
No more measuring my existence or seeking outside for a source I will never find. I leave the retreat knowing that I am whole and already connected to everything I need.
“To be holy is to be home, to be able to rest in the house of belonging that we call the soul.” Anam Cara by John Donohue