Going Into Silence: A Silent Retreat
August 26, 2018
Once upon a time, I stopped speaking to the world. I turned my speech setting to “off”. I turned my voice inward in an effort to know my own heart. It can be hard to hear it at times—with the clamor of so many other hearts in my ears—and at that time, I had lost track of it completely. It was a shifting point in my life, as I’m sure many others have experienced. A series of events was leading to the fast dissolution of my personal and professional life as I had known them, and I had been frozen in place for more than a year. I was rendered almost incapacitated by fear and ambivalence, struggling to see a path forward yet unable to move.
I went into silence with great and selfish intent, seeking to listen to my own thoughts for once and perhaps to come away knowing myself better. Writing has always forced me to consider my words more carefully. Putting them on paper makes them somehow indelible. Irretrievable. Irreplaceable. So, I was forced to think excessively. When I wasn’t observing the interior of my own mind, I observed the world around me, translating my thoughts into a series of notebooks that I always kept on my person.
The place I chose for my retreat was a Forestry Camp, owned by my alma mater, which I had attended 8 years previously, and had held a special place in my heart ever after. Many of the students who attended that camp felt as I did, and returned periodically to reestablish that connection and replenish their inner peace. As it happened, the time I had available for my retreat was during the summer, when Forestry Camp was active, and it was filled with 25 or so eager and energetic new students. During that summer, I became an unexpected part of that group, even in my silence.
You may think taking a vow of silence would be lonely; that I might have even sought out loneliness to make such a state easier to endure. But I was not alone; far from it. Those of us who have attempted to lose ourselves in the forest outside humanity, in any capacity, know how truly difficult it can be. So, I existed in a silent bubble in the midst of humanity, with only my paper and pen to define my separation. It was a bubble invisible yet palpable, punctuated by laughter (the only voice I could not contain). Most people around me, students and staff alike, respected my bubble, either leaving me in peace or approaching me with quiet curiosity. Those who entered did so most often with their own pen and paper; silently, like myself.
Inside the bubble with voices turned off, we became a little bit psychic. Empathy reverberated and spilled onto the paper in endless waves of knowing. We all felt it; those who set aside the bonds of spoken language and embrace the written word. It is a stronger bond by far, I discovered; one that appears to stretch great distances, and weather many seasons. This phenomenon was not part of my planned retreat; I had not anticipated much interaction with other people. It was a silent retreat for me, after all. But, in the end, this unexpected insight into humanity (my own as well as that of those around me) became one of the most important lessons I have ever been taught.
I discovered one of the interesting and unexpected parts about existing without a voice was that I had far less control over my interactions with people. I couldn’t very well start a conversation, and I found it difficult to be short or dismissive on paper. So, many times I ended up in lengthy discourse with people I might have overlooked or avoided in the past. Many of those people appeared uncomplicated on the surface. Not simple minded, but more as if they didn’t have much depth of experience or personality. I was reminded over and over, not to take people at face value when they would suddenly open their hearts and bare their souls to me. I learned that people can appear to be puddles, flat and shallow, when in truth they are lakes; you have no idea how deep they are until you dive in.
I spent 30 days in silence, and at the end of it when I started speaking, it seemed that everyone wanted to ask me about my experience. Even the students who had avoided me cautiously all summer made a point to find me when I was in camp to ask their questions. Some of them told me that my presence in camp had felt peaceful and calming. Others said they didn’t understand what I was doing but wanted to respect my privacy and didn’t want to disturb my silence. But now that I was speaking again, everyone had a million questions for me. In my last week, I made up for lost time. I cemented the friendships that began in silence and made a few more as well. When I left, I felt it was not only with a better understanding of myself, but also with a much deeper understanding of people in general.
Though my time in silence did grant me the reflection I was seeking, it was the people around me (rather than my solitude) that put an exclamation point on the most transformative lesson of that summer; one I wish everyone had the good fortune to be presented with: Sometimes we need to stop speaking in order to hear what others are trying to say.
It seems a simple concept, but how many of us truly sit and listen to the world around us? How many really look at people, and take time to notice who they are? How many of us are willing to let down our guard enough to let them in?
I am no guru. I have not reached enlightenment, but I believe I got a glimpse of it during that time. Now, when I catch myself being dismissive or judgmental in my mind, I think of the students from that summer. I remember the trust and respect they granted me and I look a little harder at the person I am and the person I’m speaking with. I listen a little closer to what they’re telling me and try to quiet my own thoughts long enough to let it sink in.
I try to be as wise as I became when I stopped speaking to the world.
—Written by Lisa Riley
(Image: Annette Benedetti)