Monday, January 16, 2012

The Silence is a Gift

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It's Winter Intensive season at Green Gulch, the staff are getting a break from running retreats, hosting guests and dealing with the lay members coming and going during the week (we try not to get in the way but let's face it, it's their kitchen, we're just visiting). I've missed a couple of Dokusan and Monday night dinner and dishes dates in the last two months and the absence of these regular points of contact is really noticeable. When I went up yesterday for the regular Sunday program, which they are still hosting but without lunch or muffins, the farm was subdued. Residents have been keeping silence for the last few weeks and it's a little like walking in on the middle of a Sesshin, you really don't want to disturb the water.

It made me notice a couple of things; the great gift that silence can be, and the amount of the outside world I tend to carry with me up to the farm.

The Gift of Silence

I've heard people say that the silence at Zen Center makes it difficult to get involved in the community. For a lot of people I'd say that's true, if communicating by voice is all you are comfortable with then the silence can be downright oppressive. There's no way to express yourself, there's no way to find out what people are thinking or intending with their actions. All our normal day to day social rituals break down and you're left with just a few gestures. Basic interactions like getting food are highly ritualized and silent.

I know there have been times during retreats that I've felt like a tiger in a cage, pacing back and forth along the bars thinking about all the things I would love to say if I could just get out there and get my claws into some nice juicy conversation. Not doing so requires restraint, patience with yourself, the willingness to try again after you blurt something out. It's a constant challenge, and what you learn in the process is that we're always communicating with each other in a thousand way other than speech.

A lot of relationships I've had have dissolved around the issue of silence. There are a lot of people who aren't comfortable in quiet, they have to have a TV or radio running, or be talking with someone, or more likely at someone. I have a hard time with those kind of people, I start to feel worn out, exhausted from processing the constant stream of stimulus. Getting back to inner quiet in that kind of environment means constantly swimming up stream against the flow.

Accordingly the people I miss the most are the ones I could be quiet with. Sitting together working for an afternoon, on the beach just staring at the sunset, lying under the stars on a warm night. There are so few moments I can remember where the quiet just roared in my ears, I could hear my heart beating and my breath coming and going, the wind whispers and I know that there's someone else here, hearing that and themselves as well.

The silence isn't always easy, but it's a great gift. Silence is the space we all need in order to see ourselves, it's the antidote to the constant appetite for experience and sensation which is at the bottom of all suffering. Silence is the most fundamental form of restraint, since communication is the fundamental tool of social animals.

Bringing the Outside In

When I walk into this kind of silence it's hard not to notice the noise in my head. In fact a lot of the time I'm at the Farm I catch myself actively trying to stay busy. Working on projects, organizing events, volunteering to help out on Sundays, coming up for dinner and dishes, staying over for Dokusan. There's always an agenda, something to do. Some gaining idea. A distraction.

So, after Reb's talk I stopped to say a few words to a couple of people, decided that a walk to the beach would be nice and spent the rest of the morning on the farm road and the beach, picking up the occasional rock, guiding the occasional Sunday visitor, chatting with someone on the beach. All the while enjoying the sun the sky and the clouds but still somewhere in the outside world most of the time, over the hill, into the future, back to the past, over to an alternate future, down into a dark fantasy, sideways back into the wind and chill of the day.


here I am,

a leaf on the farm road,

dancing in the wind,

under the bright white clouds.