Speaking with silence

On retreat in the mountains of Colorado, amid alpine Ponderosa pines gnarled and majestic, aspens shivering in an afternoon breeze, sudden gusts of wind, torrential rain, thunder and lightening followed by crystal clear blue skies, I sat in silence for 14 days with 90 others. The silence was not total, but each day always began in silence, which lasted until after the mid-day meal; some days were entirely spent with no words spoken at all.

In silence and stillness the mind eventually settles and internal chatter slows. As the urge to speak recedes, emotions heighten. Feelings intensify, senses quicken, colors brighten, natural sounds become more obvious and the air feels sharper. Awareness grows: the wind whispers in far-off distant waves, washes over the craggy peaks, and hissing ever louder, flows across the tree- and grass-covered valley floor. Like a great beast, our huge white tent inflates and deflates, as if breathing. A mule deer family wades into a small pond nearby, swallowing water in deep gulps of relief at our arid 8,000-foot elevation. A mated pair of hawks call out to each other from the highest treetops, declaring that this is their home, their land. In a moonless night, the Milky Way stretches in a distinct glowing arc from horizon to horizon, the sky so filled with stars that space itself seems flannel soft. In silence, it seems, everything is changed.

Despite the wordless quiet, food is properly prepared, delicious meals cooked, served and eaten, dirty dishes washed, tables cleaned, floors swept, carpets vacuumed – all the necessary jobs are done, each of us taking responsibility for one task or another. We become masters of gesture – wave of the hand, nod of the head, flick of an eyebrow, a simple bow, a quick smile. Ninety strangers have come together and begin to live like close family – caring, careful, thoughtful.

No advocacy or argument in silence – opinions, points of view and objections disappear. By necessity, courtesy becomes the currency of communication, and wordless acts of kindness our local economy. We gather up each others’ dishes, hold doors open, wait patiently in line and smile in recognition. The silence and the sitting meditation practice have made us sharp and soft, alert and gentle, aware and compassionate. With each passing day we sink ever deeper. We have fully fallen sway to the grace of silence.

Before words, before thought, before dreams, there was silence. We actually dwell constantly in silence, and need but quiet mind and body to sense it. It speaks to us in its own language, one ancient yet familiar. Sometimes we try to run from silence with distraction and entertainment, but we cannot actually escape the reality of who and what we are.

Like clouds, we arise within emptiness, take shape for a short while, and then simply fade away. Confused, we want ourselves and all we love to remain solid and lasting and so we suffer terribly with the fear and sadness of loss. In silence, though, we hear and know the truth: that we are cloud beings that will not last, not one of us, absolutely none at all, and that you, and I and everyone else are of the same perfectly pure primordial energy which has always glowed, glows now and will yet glow forever.