Someone asked me earlier in the week whether I’d ever taken a vow of silence and, if so, what it entails.
I’ve practised silence on a number of occasions over the years. The longest is I think 11 days.
There are lots of retreats where silence is par for the course so I guess my limited experience may be of interest to people thinking of going on one of these.
I’ve spent time in silence both around other people and on solitary retreats. I love it.
You’d think that when a period of silence comes to an end the retreatants would be keen to get the million things off their chest that they’ve been storing up.
Actually, my experience is that most people are slow to come out of silence once they’ve got used to it. It’s so enjoyable and you can communicate all the things you need to for day-to-day life without speaking, once you become more aware of other types of communication.
They say only 11% of your communication is the words you say anyway, so perhaps this is not surprising. (The rest of it is non-verbal communication – body language, tone of voice, stuff like that).
What silence is like
Some things I’ve noticed while in silence:
1. Your mind gets much stiller and clearer. The vast majority of our thinking is done in words. When we stop the external babble, the internal babble seems to run out of juice a bit quicker. Of course I was also doing several hours of meditation every day. That may have had something to do with it!
2. You own your experiences. I noticed the urge to communicate pretty much everything at first. It’s the same impulse that leads to sending a tweet or updating your Facebook status, only it happens more instantly, unconsciously, and incessantly. When that’s taken away you have, perhaps for the first time in your life, a private experience. I remember seeing a shooting star and not saying “Hey, did you see that?”. It was just me and the shooting star. Over the years I’ve had a whole bunch of other experiences, reflections, insights and so on, that remained mine, dissolving back into the cosmic soup in their own time, without ever having been shared. Unique, witnessed only by me. You start to realise just how much you seek to validate your experience by sharing it. When that’s not there, you have a whole new relationship with yourself, your life and the universe at large.
3. The depth of your engagement with the present moment (both your ‘internal’ and ‘external’ experiences of it) or with a line of thought, increases significantly. Without this constant urge to share and discuss, there is simply you, your mind, and your sense experience. When you aren’t constantly classifying, interpreting and ranking experiences in terms of their potential interest to others, a whole new world opens up.
(As an aside, near the end of one of my solitary retreats a guy came to read the electricity meter. I’d practically forgotten how to speak at that point – or rather, it didn’t come natural to me to speak. I let him in, he read the meter, and left. He was chattering the whole time and I didn’t say a word. He didn’t appear to notice!)
I know in some traditions people take vows of silence for an entire lifetime.
As far as I know, Buddhism isn’t like that. I think the idea is that a vow like that would prevent you from teaching others. Imagine arriving after many years of silence at a state of profound wisdom and then just sitting with it! What a loss for the rest of us!
Worried if you can hack it?
If you’re thinking of going on silent retreat and worried whether you’ll be able to hack it, my advice would be to go for it.
If you’re a really talkative person you may struggle for a couple of days, but you’ll settle into it. I have a friend who is incredibly talkative and she’s done a couple of silent retreats and didn’t go completely nuts.
Admittedly, she is QUITE nuts, but I don’t think the silence was to blame 😉