When I told people about my plan to spend time at a Buddhist monastery, most of them asked: “Will you have to be quiet?” As if being quiet were a punishment.
Silence scares people, somehow. Usually our lives are so loud that we can’t hear ourselves think. And actually, we don’t really want to hear ourselves think. Our minds tend to chatter on and on. Our thoughts seem to be out of our control – slamming us with accusations, questions, doubts, itchy desires that can’t be scratched. So when we’re in a place with no TV, no radio, no phone, and no traffic, we’re forced to listen to our own minds. It feels like being stuck in an elevator with someone who won’t shut up.
What’s really scary is not the silence, but the fact that our minds are like that obnoxious stranger in the elevator.
Staying at Deer Park Monastery, I noticed two kinds of silence. The first was the silence of nature. The monastery is a 400-acre desert sanctuary, mostly uncluttered by humans and our raucous toys. There’s no roaring traffic, no growling machinery, few beeping appliances. The inhabitants are monks and nuns who hold “noble silence” every evening after dinner, through breakfast the next day. Many meals are shared in silence (giving us a chance to eat mindfully and savor the food, which is hard to do when we’re lost in conversation). Of course the monastics make noise – they talk, sing, chant, and fill the valley with the sounds of meditation bells. But there is a shared respect of silence. What’s heard? Trees rustling, insects clicking and whistling, coyotes howling like hyenas. Any modern city-dweller would find the monastery quiet enough to hear their own breath.
The second kind of silence is a deeper silence, which is stillness. It’s there behind all the noises, below human voices and cricket songs, between breaths. It is spacious, vast, patient. At the monastery, and in Buddhist practice, there is a common understanding that all noise comes from silence and returns to it. It’s like waves coming from water and returning to water.
This kind of silence – stillness – is my favorite thing about meditation. It’s a refuge, a place of relaxing. Once in a while I slip into it, purely by accident. I disappear into it. It’s a stillness that is in all of us (or is all of us) and, inside it, we’re free of identity. It’s spacious and peaceful.
Silence doesn’t have to be scary. It’s hard to explain in words. But after you breathe out, before you breathe in, if you’re really quiet and still, you can feel it.