The Nobility of Silence
It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.
I want to know
if you can be alone
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.
Oriah Mountain Dreamer
As a therapist, yoga teacher and empowerment leader, I show up most comfortably for and with others. I spend most of my week in dialogue–listening and speaking. Often the quiet moments I get to myself I spend “catching up”. Emails, articles, blogs, workshop and program design, website updates–this time is certainly far from quiet. My brain rapid fires and I can barely stand the thoughts in my own head. It is a voice that prods, pokes and encourages the productivity and even deeper down scarcity (fear) that there isn’t enough time to get it all done. I must not stop, lest I don’t get back up and write more, say more and connect more…people rely on me after all. The past several months I have felt so amped up that by evening my crashing into bed doesn’t last long and soon I am revved up far before dawn to start the day of more catching up before clients and teaching.
While I do actively make some daily meditation time for myself, I don’t do silence for long periods of time in my every day life. What I remembered the past couple weekends is that extended periods of quiet time are powerful, informative and transformative. As a mind/body specialist, I know that nonverbal communication is essential and powerful. It encompasses more than two thirds of the way we communicate. I had, however, forgotten how powerful and bonding the experience of communal silence is. I feel fortunate to have had two long weekends in a row in October to be a part of two very different meditation trainings. One was Healing from the Core, which involved the intentional use of meditation and energy work for healing. The other was with my favorite Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron.
I signed up for the weekend retreat with Pema Chodron at Omega Institute for Holistic Studies almost a year ago and looked forward to contemplative time on retreat during autumn, a symbolic time of shedding–what no longer serves–and quieting. The title of the workshop with Pema was called Walk the Walk. It was no accident that I needed these lessons right now.
What kind of meditation/yoga teacher and therapist had I become? Rationally, I can explain, a busy, well-intentioned, slightly off my own path do-gooder. Or quite realistically one that was about to crack.
When we start wearing our badge of “I can do it all” and are constantly reinforced for being busy and productive, the simple state of being might not seem so sexy or appealing.
What did you did all weekend?
I practiced Noble Silence. Okay. Well, then.
Not much more to say. It’s a conversation dead end for many–or the beginning of a rich journey.
Concepts like unseen and unspoken work were a common thread between both of my workshops. It’s the subtle work that connects us to others in an energetic way, without words or touching. It’s a pure way to relate to and experience others and our selves.
Noble Silence is a way to listen without the distraction of storylines that get in the way of who we actually are. According to Lama Surya Das,
“Listening takes place not just through the ears, but with all the senses. Sometimes the best way to prepare our selves to hear in a new and better way is to be still and silent. When we quiet our motor minds — and our motor mouths — we find that we are better able to open our hearts. The ancient practice of Noble Silence helps us begin the process of hearing in a new way; this is a timeless and wise practice that helps us be more sensitive and perceptive. Noble Silence traditionally begins with a vow to keep silent for a specific period of time. It can be an hour, a day, a week, or a month. There are practitioners who have kept Noble Silence for years”.
Our Noble Silence began after the first session on Friday night at 10pm and would last until 5pm the following day. I wasn’t quite sure how thrilled I was to be at the 15 year long awaited weekend to study with Pema, only to be told we will be practicing Noble Silence for the next 24 hours! Wouldn’t it be nice to discuss all this learning with this like-minded and conscious community?
A small part of me was relieved (I really needed alone time), and a larger part of me was resistant (read: uncomfortable). My comfort zone is in conversation, in relating. Among the 500 other retreat attendees, I was sure I’d connect with numerous interesting and insightful souls.
What would I be missing?
I had already had dinner when I arrived with a super cool woman from England and we bonded, whom else would I miss out on? Additionally, I hadn’t met my cabin mate yet. We have all experienced awkward silence, was this going to be one of those moments? I really wanted to honor my commitment to the community vow of Noble Silence and honor Pema’s instruction, but what if my cabin mate wasn’t as serious as me about our common oath and considered me rude? Have you ever mistaken anyone’s quiet nature as arrogance, self-importance, disinterested? I didn’t want to be one of those.
It turned out to be amazing. We smiled when I walked into the cabin and gave a little hushed whispered hello and went on about our business of settling in and gesturing for an agreed wake up time. I slept like a peaceful baby. The entire retreat campus was calm and serene. I walked all over in the brisk, cold fall morning and enjoyed the most quiet breakfast surrounded by hundreds of people, meditated and learned among more common silence and ate another meal among hundreds of shuffling silent feet, clanging forks and mindful bites.
I have to admit, I was sad when the silence was over. I went to yoga after Saturday’s all day workshops with Pema and appreciated the continued quiet essence and personal discipline of silence by many before class started. It felt peaceful. Dinner following yoga was a blur of boisterous conversation and it was difficult to find a place to sit. People lingered longer. They finally had a chance to chat and be social. That evening and the next day, I met some inspiring, like-minded people. My cabin mate and I finally got to get to know each other. She was sweet as can be. It’s the Buddhist thing. Honestly, I haven’t met a whole lot of Buddhist assholes–just saying. What was more awesome is that she thought I was in my early 20’s. When she learned I was married with children and have my own business, she had to ask my age…maybe I should stay silent more often *wink.
After the workshop on the last day, I took the opportunity to hike the grounds and get to know every nook and cranny of Omega Institute–in my own Noble Silence. I came across a couple of deer at the end of my hike. They were standing near the meditation garden, a dedicated outdoor space below a circle of trees, in a lawn in front of a row of cabins. My silent presence didn’t startle them. We peered at one another and they continued to eat. I had never been so close to deer that seemed so unconcerned and unbothered by my presence.
This final encounter with these animals was the moment that convinced me of what was already percolating inside of me. Connection, community and belonging are possible, even in silence, perhaps more deeply because of silence. We can feel connected to people without knowing everything about them. We can grow and strengthen community just by being in each other’s presence and we can nurture a deep sense of belonging beyond the borders and boundaries of affiliation–even between species.
I came home with a greater sense of calm about almost everything. I am not saying I am going to run off to silent retreat any time real soon, but I am committed to saying less and simply being more.
How does silence serve you? What are some of the gifts of silence you’ve experienced? What do you learn about yourself and do you like the moments you keep with yourself?
If you don’t have a regular meditation practice or make space for silence–that means no TV, radio, internet surfing–would you be willing to commit to five minutes a day with me for the next 30 days and then check back in and let me know how it goes?
Email/Facebook/tweet and let me know how your daily silence is going.
Easy tips for quiet meditation:
- Get comfortable and stay comfortable. If you need to shift your position, go for it. This isn’t an exercise in austerity. It’s simply meditation.
- Set a specific time and use a timer. I have an insight app on my phone. It’s actually called Insight Timer. There are a bunch out there.
- Start small and graduate to longer periods. I am currently committing to five minutes, three times a day.
- Avoid judgment of thoughts that may arise. If you have motor mind, simply notice the thoughts, say thinking, and let them go. Repeat and continue.
- Keep a journal on any feelings, sensations and insights that arise following (or during) your silent practice.
- If you fall out of practice, just start again the next day or the next.
Practice Noble Silence for one day in the next month. Consider it a “silent retreat”. You don’t have to sit all day. Live your life: hike, dance, run, work, but commit to a day or half day where you are silent. Let your family and peers know what you are doing and ask them to participate with you. Cut the cord with the phone and all other distractions mentioned above.
Even for someone like me, who suffers from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), it is an amazing way to connect with my own energy and desires on a deeper level.
Go for it and let me know how it goes!
By: Jill Wheeler, M.A., LPC, Therapist, Life Coach, Leadership Consultant, Writer, Yoga/SUPyoga Instructor, Adventurer, Athlete, lululemon Ambassador and Owner of the Wellfit Institute. Connect with Jill on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.