In October I attended a five-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh at Deer Park Monastery. My intention was to remain connected, as much as I could, with inner quiet.
Meditation practice has helped me to find an awake, calm, imperturbable presence. I feel it as an inner quiet. But in daily life, I rarely remember to rest in it. I hoped the retreat would allow time and space for returning to, relaxing into, the peace of that quiet.
One thousand people attended the retreat. A massive crowd! In the packed meditation hall, we sat inches apart. The dining hall and outdoor tables were packed at every meal. But with the shared practice of noble silence during meals and at nighttime, and with a collective focus on mindful breathing and slow mindful walking, there was peace and calm, even in the throng.
When we weren’t in silence, I chatted with friends from prior retreats and the far-flung network of Sanghas. I staffed the Mindfulness Bell magazine table and had lots of warm conversations there. The talking was heartful, joyful, as we were all happy to be on retreat with our beloved teacher and like-minded friends.
Still, talking is talking and there was a lot of it. Somehow, despite the hubbub, I was able to remember my intention and return to inner quiet. Even during a conversation, when I let myself become the quiet, it hushed the voice in my mind and let me listen attentively. And beyond amplifying my listening, the quiet was a place where I let go of agendas (like to get a good spot in the lunch line or to sit at the front of the meditation hall). The quiet was spacious and unattached. Inside it, I unhooked from musts and itches and urges. I was just there. Noticing. Being. At rest.
Sometimes the inner quiet merged with outer quiet. Our Sangha has a practice of stopping, every time we hear a bell, to be still and focus on our breathing for three breaths. When the bell sounded at breakfast one day, I felt the sigh of our collective movement and noise calming down to stillness. It was remarkable to feel this in a room of several hundred humans – like watching a turbulent lake grow calm, its peaks melting back to smoothness. Eventually the water becomes so still that it perfectly reflects the clouds
The inner and outer quiet weren’t based only on physical silence. One morning, when the Sangha followed Thay up a mountain in walking meditation, slowly climbing with awareness of each step, I looked at the crowd of hundreds walking ahead of me. I saw many heads bobbing like little waves and felt the momentum of our bodies moving forward as a river. There was sound, there was motion, but in our gathered awareness was a stillness, a presence below and within our rustling and swaying.
I felt it again at the top of the mountain, when Thay sat on a small mat and cushion and all of us gathered in a large circle, facing him. A couple hundred people sat. Others stood in an outer circle. Thay sat and looked at us. We looked at him. Nothing happened, but I felt our collective quietness, our palpable awareness, and it made my body feel like a smile. It was a respite – not lazy, but charged with simple thereness. There was nothing to do but to be there utterly.
Back home after the retreat, I am still able to melt into the quietness. But I miss being with 1,000 people. Their presence, their stillness, so sweetly amplified mine. It helped me to realize that the outer and inner quietness are one and the same. To be with all those people, to feel my awake inner presence as one with theirs, is a feeling of home and contentedness beyond all loneliness. My drop of water was fortified by merging with the ocean.
Now, when I touch into the inner quiet, I miss the Sangha physically, but I feel the limitlessness of that presence. We can go home to our quiet, our abiding presence, at any time. It is always waiting for us.