On Keeping (Ig)Noble Silence

meditation hall at IMS with my little meditation bench and many, many unused cushions during a lull time in the center's schedule
meditation hall at IMS with my little meditation bench and many, many unused cushions during a lull time in the center’s schedule

At the meditation center – the Mothership I like to call it – Noble Silence is observed, even if one goes on Self Retreat, which is what I just did for three days: time on my own at the center when there is no specific teacher or course being offered, very little structure imposed from the outside: following the bare minimum rules and follow your own path.  Self Retreats can take place when other courses or group retreats are not scheduled, so the center is inherently less populated.

One of the bare minimum rules is Noble Silence. This is what the web site has to say about this expectation:

… you will be asked to honor what is known as ‘noble silence’ – a quieting of the body and voice that helps cultivate a calm and peaceful retreat environment. This powerful tool greatly enhances the deepening of concentration and awareness. Noble silence also fosters a sense of safety and spiritual refuge, even in a course filled with up to 100 participants.

It’s true. The stillness (it’s not really silence, for bodies still gurgle and feet still make sound when you take a step) is quite something, and even more so when it is embodied by that many people all at once. I did a ten-day silent retreat here once – there were about 80 of us, I think, and the silence was amplified by all those bodies keeping it.

NOT a sign at IMS

And even if it’s just plain ole me: the silence was an important tool to help remind me that I wasn’t on some vacation, I was intentionally setting myself apart as a means of spiritual reflection (and hopefully replenishment).

At the center, Noble Silence is not just for meditation times. It is for all times: eating together, opening the door for someone, what have you. And it is for all forms of communication. This even includes eye contact with all those around you (I am getting better at that but at first, I failed this miserably.) If they are talking that level of no communication, then it makes sense that you may not have your cell phone, and by extension, no other communication devices either – laptops, tablets, everything.

But then comes the hard part, at least for me: Noble Silence “includes not reading, writing, keeping a journal, receiving mail, or otherwise keeping busy and distracted. By leaving at home the many activities and communications that worldly life entails, you offer yourself the gift of stillness.”

Let me tell you: I am not that noble.

I brought books with me: poets and parables. Dharma and dying.  I brought my journal with me, with a delicious pen made for writing smoothly.

Does it count that I read about silence and stillness? Like this, from Wendell Berry?

Accept what comes out of silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

Out of the silence, like prayers

Prayed to the one who prays,

Make a poem that does not disturb

The silence from which it came.

(excerpt from “How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry)

Or this, from Rainer Maria Rilke?

If only for once it were still.

If the not quite right and the why this

Could be muted, and the neighbor’s laughter,

And the static my senses make –

If all of it didn’t keep me from coming awake –

(excerpt from “Wenn es nur einmal so ganz stille ware,” I, 7; translated by Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy )

Or that I wrote about it, like this?

The silence saturates everything here. A welcome weight, slowing me down, a counter momentum to the actual hurling myself in space at rapid speeds in a tin can on wheels and the more metaphorical hovering I do with my to-do lists and my task completion and my calendar-control mechanism moving me through my day.

I did keep stillness, though not to the standards asked in the handbook.  Still I did it more so than I do in my regular day-to-day by far, by far, by far. I kept my body still in meditation practice and sometimes, for fleeting moments of time, my mind followed suit. I did not speak. I mindfully walked the country lanes and along the forest paths.  This time I did not sing in the woods. Or recite a poem at the top of my lungs.  This is progress.

yep: them's my feet, walking in the woods before i left this afternoon
yep: them’s my feet, walking in the woods before i left this afternoon

Since I didn’t keep 100% Noble Silence does this mean that I kept Ignoble Silence? Or that, as in everything, there is still more for me to learn and grow, this being no different than the rest of life?

May it be so.

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