A Noble Silence

My Vipassana retreat in the beautiful mountains of Worcester in the Western Cape brought with it challenges, but along with these, came many gifts. One of which was what is known as the Noble Silence ,in Buddhist tradition defined as “where one does not speak if one does not need to”.

I’ve never really given it much thought, but we humans always seem to find a reason to talk, whether we need to or not. Of course, it’s good for connection and communication. But is it possible that the opposite of talking can be equally, if not more beneficial?

I’ve experienced a weekend silent retreat before, and a few hours, on another one, but never a full 10-days of not only not speaking, but zero communication: no gestures, acknowledgment, eye contact, no thank you’s, pleases … no ‘sorrys’ (as we South African’s love to say) and no celebrations or the odd – well done! (Those I can assure you would have gone a long way to cheering me up after a painful hour or 10 of meditating). And there’s more… no writing, no reading, no phones, or any other devices… 10-days of no, no, no – to achieve the big YES!
The big YES is the gentlest arising of and letting go of, “stuff” that’s been holding us captive most of our lives. It’s the very reason one goes on a 10-day Meditation retreat and why silence is mandatory. It’s also one of the main reasons I took three years of contemplating this retreat before I mustered the courage to do it.

The most common question asked of me upon my return from retreat surprised me, it was not how did it feel to meditate for 100 hours? Instead, it was: “did you REALLY not talk for 10-days?”

Whilst completely counterintuitive, and never wanting to speak to strangers as badly as I did during this time, I came to embrace and appreciate the silence, so much so that when the Noble Silence is broken, I felt quite dejected. I’d like to share my experience through ten reasons why I now value the gift of silence.

1. Time:
The most precious resource available to us and something we all have too little of. Time to just be. To reflect, unpack, time to do what my many teachers have been asking of me to do for the past seven years – to simply BE, to value time, to become present, and learn what that moment has to offer.

I now know why the many books, teachers, teachings, and apps on becoming present – it’s simply not easy to do. We’re usually in a hurry to save time not to cherish it. Eckart Tolle will be proud of me, – I eventually understand and treasure the now.

2. Fear:
The silence was terrifying at first, silence leads to inner quiet, which leads to listening, and soon after, leads to change. The silence became like a warm, soft fluffy blanket on a cold and rainy day. I just kept melting into it and letting whatever needed to arise do just that.

3. Mindfulness:
Silence offers a heightened awareness in the present moment – it offers what mindfulness strives to achieve – the ability to notice and accept one’s thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, as they are. You literally feel your world expanding and possibilities arising.

4. The sound of silence:
I’ve always loved the song by Simon and Garfunkel now I’ve had the privilege of experiencing my own sound of silence. There were times when I was convinced that should a pin drop, the whole valley would hear it – but then a different type of silence set in, one where nature was in full control. At dusk, it was a choir of birds as I’d never witnessed before.
I felt like I was eavesdropping on some important conversations. I left there wishing I could speak ‘bird’. The silence here meant no man-made sounds. No lawnmowers, trucks, hooters, voices, radio’s – just insects, birds, and trees blowing in the wind. Sublime, yes.

5. The texture of silence:
I do not speak in metaphors, but this was so real. The texture of silence was sweet and full, a tad sticky – a bit like candy floss but not as messy. It leaves you wanting more – the heady childlike feelings of the after-joy of being at a funfair.

6. The gift of silence:
The gift of safety. A time to reflect – to expand into oneself and invite people, places, and experiences from the past to come up, to arise from the tightly sealed boxes deep within my subconscious, revealing memories – evoking emotions of joy, sometimes regret, pain, satisfaction or shame. All of it freely arriving in my consciousness, engaging briefly as I gently allow both, the emotion and memory to dissolve – leaving me feeling lighter, free. Without silence, my vulnerability for these experiences would have had me judging them, judging me, or at worst, suppressing them again. I had the safety of silence to play in – the most extraordinary gift of all.

7. Nature:
This deserves a second mention. The sounds that broke the silence. From the tiniest insects living their best lives beneath the thick layer of pine needles and old autumn leaves to the very discreet, (what looked like a) Flemish Giant rabbit (whom I since Googled) who visited me twice as I walked the paths through the largely unkept, magnificent gardens.
Then there was a family of guinea fowl, four adults, and six of the tiniest hatchlings. It clearly takes a community to raise a child. This brings me to the cacophony of bird sounds. I’ve mentioned this before but it’s important. I’m not a ‘birder’ (ornithologist I believe) but you needn’t love birds to be awe-inspired by the conversations they have. There were times when they would all ‘talk’ at once and other times only two would dominate–perching 200 metres apart, sharing their stories of the day. The mere fact that `I noticed these birds was something unusual for me. The last time this occurred was in those very memorable, first 21-days of Lockdown back in March 2020.

8. Self-care:
You can imagine the pain that arises when sitting for up to 10-hours a day in meditation.
One quickly becomes aware of the areas – physically, intellectually, and emotionally -where some TLC is required. Yet it is the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence that fulfills much of one’s self-care rituals on this course. In the past, it was a visit to a physio or chiropractor, maybe even a massage. I now understand and accept that whatever the sensation, thought, or emotion, if I acknowledge it, (and it does not form part of a bigger issue) it goes away. It really does. (Still to this day, and its’ 2 months later). I’ve realised that a different kind of self-care can also be trusting and not reacting too rapidly to the sensations in our body. From hunger to a headache, from lower back pain to my old shoulder injury that somehow decided to taunt me while sitting very still – by not engaging with these as they emerge, the need to react and address them dissipates within seconds, minutes or days. A whole new form of self-care.

9. Questions and answers:
Oh, the questions we never ask ourselves, until the time is expansive, and the air is thick with secrecy and care.
What’s that about? The most powerful question in coaching – one that provides even more powerful answers when emotions arise or memories from childhood return for supposedly no reason when a new sensation arises to replace another when concern for a loved one overwhelms you to the point of tears – the answers come.

10. Tears:
Not crying tears, but soft, gentle, mostly unexpected and very welcome, weeping tears. Weeping can be described as a complex phenomenon, that brings up, and releases memories.
It comes with sensations that one is taught in Vipassana not to react to, this including the gentle sensation of tears on one’s cheek. The aftereffect of these tears is a sense of freedom, joy, even exhilaration. I have too many, yet too few, words for this, those who have truly wept will understand.
Whilst highly recommended you needn’t attend a 10-day silent meditation retreat to discover these benefits. You could simply add ‘silence’ to your existing practices. Maybe add 30 minutes on either side of your walk, your meditation, your yoga, or glass of wine. A meditation teacher and retreat co-founder, Sharon Salzberg describes a Noble Silence as ‘an intensification where you don’t have to present yourself as interesting or funny – there’s a lot of freedom and joy in that”. I agree wholeheartedly.