Last weekend, I had the pleasure of leading a retreat for some mindfulness course graduates. Before the weekend started, I emailed the participants to find out if there was anything they’d like to focus on. One theme stood out in their replies—they wanted time for being in silence.
We live in a world that’s rarely quiet. On a mindfulness retreat, you’ll quite often hear people say that this is the longest they’ve been awake without talking for decades. Our habit and impulse is to speak and to do, and this is reinforced by the technologies and timetables we’ve created, all of which facilitate more talking and action.
This “doing” mode, as it’s sometimes called, is a wonderful part of being human—as a species we have developed the capacity to express ourselves with others, to share thoughts and ideas, and carry out plans. But if we are focused on doing all the time, we can fall out of balance. Constantly in activity, we can lose touch with our inner compass, the body awareness which can help skilfully guide our decisions. Before long, we are “doing” out of habit rather than from conscious choice, stuck on propelling ourselves into the future, and missing out on the experience of the present. Of course, not only does the future never arrive, but when our attention is automatically trained on what’s next, we can fail to spot signs of stress or exhaustion.
A recent study suggested that most people would rather give themselves an electric shock than be left on their own with their thoughts. That’s how strong the addiction to activity can be—we’d rather give ourselves a jolt of pain than face our minds. Yet, if we’re willing to move into the discomfort of quiet, with mindfulness practice as our anchor, we may discover there’s a peace that can come as the mind and body settle down. This “being” mode, as it’s sometimes known, is a place of present-moment sensing, of giving up the chase to get somewhere else and drop into the experience of now. It’s not easy to drop into this mode, but it brings rewards that “doing” never can.
Sometimes people will hear about spending days meditating in silence, and think it’s a waste of time. Or, perhaps more benignly, that mindfulness practices train the mind, brain, and body to function more effectively in the world, and so, secretly, this being in silence is actually a goal-oriented doing. But perhaps we could see it another way—that choosing silence, some of the time, is a manifestation of wisdom itself. Rather than a way of tuning out from the world, or of trying to get somewhere in it, quietness is a radical expression of sanity, a freedom from the constant need to achieve that frequently leads to more, not less, unhappiness. Sitting in silence, with this perspective, is a powerful, counter-cultural act, a demonstration of the importance of spending time in “being,” with no other agenda.
The retreat participants’ requests reminded me of this last weekend. Rather than looking for ways to “improve” their mindfulness practice, the most cherished aspect of spending a weekend on retreat for them was having some space for silence. I joined in it gladly, as my heart too longs for more time in stillness. It may be that the quiet helped us return more wisely to the world of doing, but it was enough, it seemed, that our time in shared silence was and letting go into “just being.”
[Photograph by Markus Spiske/Flickr.com]