[6 MINUTE READ] My experiences with silence and the lessons they taught me.
I dream of a beach. The currents withdraw with peculiar speed – my footprints sink in the sand. Clear waters morph into foam and disappear into a maze of corridors below the sea shore. I remain standing there. With the weight of a human body and the constant echo of a familiar vocabulary. I search for the sentiment of happiness, to collect in exchange for payments made for airline tickets and hotel bills. On every holiday, there is a strange disappointment that I am still what I am.
I can go to the farthest corners of the earth, but I can’t escape myself. There are residues of emotions waiting like an untidy room that needs to be cleaned, disentangled words from old discussions that have lost their intent and become noise. This is my litmus test for a lost vacation – how much I think – within and about them. There is much to learn from the root of the word vacation. It is drawn from the latin word vacare, which means – to be empty, to be vacant, to be free. In a vacation of long silences – there are no stories to tell or pictures to share. It is a celebration of all that is anonymous.
Stephen Hawking recently said that before the big bang there was nothing. A universe of vast emptiness where even the compelling idea of time wilted away into a reality too profound to grasp with the ordinary tools of the senses. This is where we have all come from.
It is said that the practice of Vipassana was the original form of meditation that led the Buddha to enlightenment. It travelled the world for 2500 years, progressively being diluted and repurposed to fit in with the convenience of the times. Except for a small monastery in Bhutan, where it was practiced in its original form, before being brought back into the wider world through a Marwari industrialist who defies every conventional image of a meditating monk.
In a further break from tradition, the ten day silent retreat that he conceived would be free of cost. The path and the practice were too valuable to be squeezed into a commercial transaction. The only option for reciprocity was provided after the course, either in cash to meet the costs of a future aspirant or through seva at the next retreat.
At my first retreat I managed a single room. To avoid the accidental conversation of gestures and the inevitable collision of curiosity. There were two beds on a cement finished floor, wrapped around by a chalky white wall. One naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. An aluminium door to the attached toilet. No cloak of ambience to hide behind. A nudist colony for the mind.
By Day 3 I occupy the quietness in this room. Observations become artifacts nailed onto the bare wall. Thoughts fill the vacuum left by the absence of purpose, like furniture strewn across the floor to make it functional. I am affected by the satvicness of my routine. I sit on my bed and feel a sensation of desire climb onto my body. I watch it remain there and do nothing. It deflates and fades away. A small victory from being habitually overwhelmed by the senses. I get drawn into judgements about myself – it crowds out the potential for anything inspiring to occur.
The practice of Vipassana involves an awareness of the waves of sensations that arise and fade on the body – the first stirrings that echo into the various thoughts and feelings that cross the mind. The conscious cultivation of calm awareness towards them builds a biological detachment. It can be stronger than a moral choice but not enough to avoid the seductions of the self.
Because an idea is never simple enough. Tucked within the seeds of every insight are also the roots of defeat. Which is why the most brilliant minds are often tormented. The simplest ones, disarmingly free.
Being calm or agitated are conditions, like the shadow of a tree. When we possess this calmness or agitation, they transform into who we are. It makes being calm impossible, without also creating the potential to be the exact opposite of calm. Like every shadow, that must retreat into the dying light and return with the rising sun.
The first three days of the retreat are when people drop out. Unable to stand what remains when the distractions from emptiness have been withdrawn. I try hard to imagine this fear. Of being lost within oneself. Of being unable to remain when the productive use of time and its languid passage become equivalent and cancel each other.
A memory of uncertainty and awkwardness returned. The kind that make my eyes hesitate during a conversation, when the burden of an unacknowledged truth feels lighter than the obligation to be an honest man. They recur every day, like an unwanted guest intruding an intimate moment with relish. After each evening round of meditation, I walk around in quiet agitation. Perturbed by the extreme tranquillity of my surroundings. Yearning to re-imagine a faultless elegance in my persona. In silence, it feels impossible to escape the traps I have laid within myself to navigate the world.
On the train back home from the retreat, my mouth has adjusted to a fresh equilibrium of inactivity. A lingering incompleteness remains – drawing me back into the comfort of memories. I am on the second leg of a one lap race. Aware of the visual geometry my new red spikes lend to my stride. I maintain a smooth rhythm, using the neatness with which they wrap around my feet to mimic the kind of athlete I aspire to be. There is warmth, not just in innocuous memories, but in the terrain of time through which we travel to reach them.
I return from this trip unfulfilled. Except for the frugal meals and soundless corridors, which left behind their beneficial footprints.
Just as moral certainty obscures the contradictions in our own hearts and idealism ignores the frailties and illogic that the world of humans stem from – the effort to understand what endures is constrained by our search for definitive clarity.
Learning is never a linear objective experience. It mingles like bacteria, unseen and chaotic, leaving behind the lightness of instinctive discoveries. Those moments unfold quietly like a mystical experience. They become a form of gentle self- extinction.
To remain quiet is to not talk. A pose to the world around us. To remain silent is to dissolve from the gravity of thought into an original fullness.
A few years later I was in a taxi winding up the hills of Dharamsala. The cool shade of the trees shimmered on the bonnet as we drove away from the valley. I don’t know why, but I feel more ready.
I sink into the warmth of my blanket. I wake up to a distant gong followed by a prayer bell passing outside my door. I walk in semi darkness, like a transition from one dream to another. I sit in the hall of endless patience. I find a corner table in the canteen overlooking a blank wall and eat. I pause at the perch that overlooks a dense forest. Watch squirrels as they stop to watch me in return.
Silence can’t be intimidated or manipulated. It spreads to fill the room without wanting to. It is no longer there when we try to hold onto it. It eludes intent and embraces surrender. It is a way to experience the world and a way to die from it without resistance.
10 days went by in relative silence.
(A condensed version of this post was published in ‘The Speaking Tree’)