Recently, my friend Patti wrote very movingly about her first experience at a silent retreat. She is pursuing a course the Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School and this retreat was part of their training. I think she was very brave to put her feelings into words and then share them. I know that, for myself, I have mostly avoided writing about my experiences at sesshin. In part this is because they are private and need to stay that way but, in another way, I avoid it because I feel that I simply have no words to describe what it is like to spend a week not speaking, keeping my eyes lowered, and foregoing any social niceties. However, Patti has inspired me to take a chance and be a little more forthcoming. I think the world could benefit if more people spent more time sitting in silence, so if reading Patti's account of her experiences or what follows intrigues you enough to consider taking yourself into silence, then it will be worth it. Maybe.
The first time I did a sesshin, it was a during a weekend in Brooklyn. I arrived on a Friday afternoon and it ended on Sunday morning. Finn and Lucy were still of an age that required constant adult presence so I had to arrange for them to have somewhere to be on the Friday and it all felt very complicated. Indeed, I spent about three-quarters of that sesshin, or maybe something like seven-eighths, feeling like I should not have abandoned them, that I should not be there and plotting how I might leave. The only thing that stopped me from leaving was that it would mean I would be too embarrassed to ever come back and I knew that never coming back was unacceptable, so I stayed. On Saturday night, I finally allowed myself to really be there. The whole world looked exactly the same - I am sure that anyone looking at me would have said that I looked exactly the same - but the whole world had shifted and I know I can safely say that I was not the same person that I had been one second before. That moment of transition, from resistance to acceptance, was a true turning point for me. It never would have happened if I had not been in silence during that time. I needed the silence - even as it was filled with the stories I was telling myself, often at very high volume - in order to come that moment.
But the silence was hard. I really didn't understand it and I had a hard time understanding people not looking at each other or using any kind of facial expression to make contact. I took it personally and was wondering what was up with these people, all walking around looking so dour. When the silence was lifted and everyone opened up and became outwardly animated again, I was totally taken aback. How was it possible that these stone-faced people were suddenly so friendly and alive?
I really didn't understand it but I knew I wanted more. Ever so slowly, I have come to see the silence as a wonderful gift. To sit in a room with 100 other people (sesshin at the Monastery get crowded!) in complete silence, with only the birds singing outside, is a beautiful and profound gift. Also, the silence makes the words that I do hear become filled with such strength that they can go deeper than if I had heard them among the chatter of my everyday life. I once read a book about the history of art and the author pointed out that, in medieval or renaissance times, most people had no visual imagery in their lives save for the one painting they might see when they went to church (and that might only be very rarely depending on their circumstances). Imagine the power of that one painting! I think of that when I think about how I receive the words I hear during sesshin. There are so few of them and their power is immediate and strong. Fortunately, the people wielding the words are doing it with exacting attention to what they are saying and with an understanding of their impact.
Leaving a week of silence and returning to social niceties is a difficult transition. I always have a moment (or longer) of dreading it and wishing we could just go on a bit longer. I suspect most people do. But
I always come around and find new delight in being able to chat with my neighbor. Perhaps there is something worthwhile in just that right there.
With an infinite number of ways we can choose to spend our time, the choice to be silent can seem crazy or a luxury or impractical or just stupid. I would suggest that it is critical, vital even, to our ability to be able to step forward in this world that needs so much more care and attention than it is currently receiving. I wish that everyone might not just find an opportunity to experience it but make the opportunity to do it. Make it happen and then let's see what happens.