There’s an air of mystery surrounding meditation retreats. For many people, the mystery is why anyone would ever go on one! When people find out that I do them, the first question I’m asked is inevitably, “Do you go on those silent ones?” Followed by, “How can you not talk for a week?!”
I’m amazed by the fascination with this aspect of retreats, and I find it a bit amusing for a couple of reasons. First, as a communicator, I’ve got a lot of activity going on in my head. There’s a pretty persistent rattling in there, meaning that even on silent retreats it still gets awfully noisy at times. To give you some perspective, I’ve done around 60 silent retreats, and while I’ve become a lot more accepting of my inner chatterbox over the years, it still comes up in full force! So, when the silence takes over, oh boy, is that delicious!
Second, there are far worse things to fear about meditation retreats than silence! There can be a lot of discomfort... physical, emotional, both at once. Comparatively, not talking is really no big deal. In fact, if you enjoy your own company, you’ll hardly miss it.
But the curiosity about silence points to the fact that being deprived of freedoms you take for granted can get uncomfortable. The silence can magnify your inner chatter, and in silence you get to see how much unnecessary talking you’ve been doing. Talking about subjects you’re better off dropping, talking as a way to distract yourself from feeling what you’re feeling, talking that interferes with relationships rather than cultivating them, talking because you’re afraid to stop.
Since we take talking for granted, we never stop to notice what’s driving the need to talk. And because we never stop to notice what’s fueling the talking, a lot of stuff comes out of our mouths that falls far short of wisdom and compassion. Retreats give us an opportunity to break the habit of our routines, so we can experience them from a fresh perspective.
In the Buddhist tradition, silence on retreats is called “Noble Silence.” The Buddha liked to take the terms of his day and reinterpret them. So he took the word "nobility" and said that what makes a person noble is not her birth, caste, social status or race. What makes a person noble is her spiritual attainment, which is open to anyone, anywhere. The Buddha equalized the term "noble," making it within everyone’s reach, which was (and still is) a radical perspective.
When he was asked a series of questions about the nature of reality, the Buddha chose to manifest wisdom through silence. But don’t get caught on which questions he was asked. The salient point is that silence can communicate wisdom just as well as words. So, Noble Silence can be understood as that silence which serves to foster wisdom and spiritual attainment. The silence which liberates.
Not all silence is liberating. Sometimes the bravest, wisest choice is to speak up, whether the words come easily or not. But in order to take more effective action in the world, we need to develop a sensitivity and clarity about the degree to which that action is motivated by wisdom and courage, or driven by suffering. Retreats provide a respectful, safe environment for discovering our inner patterns and noticing how they play out in our actions and behavior. It can be hard to recognize how much you’re leaning on a habit, until that habit is taken away.
From a practical perspective, talking is an easy one to keep tabs on in a group setting! Once you see how your habits influence you, only then do you become aware of the forces at play in your actions, and that’s when you start to have choice. It may not always be pretty or fun, but developing choice in this way empowers you with the possibility of true change and growth. I’d say that’s well worth a week of silence.