Saturday, January 31, 2009


I'll be disappearing from the blogosphere for the next month; on February 1st I'll enter a thirty day silent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I thought, as my last blog for a while, that I might share some writing on the practice of silence. These are excerpts from an essay in a book manuscript that I'm hoping will find a publisher in the next year: Not Dwelling Anywhere: Essays From a Time of Pilgrimage.

"We’ve always been around – the people who go apart to some high hill or cave, the people who go on walk-about alone, the people who choose to marry Christ and listen for his whisper. Maybe others would do this if they could, but not all lives have room for such a luxury. And maybe, for some, there’s fear in the thought of silence.

I remember the first time I heard of the possibility of a silent retreat. It was the winter of 1983, I was eighteen, and I was in Washington D.C, living and working with a radical homeless advocacy group. My mother had an old friend in D.C., Tilford Dudley, a socialist lawyer who had come from Illinois during the Roosevelt. His wife, Martha, befriended me. She was a poet and birdwatcher, and I was living in the heart of poverty and concrete, faced with suffering on a scale I’d never seen before. She would scoop me up and take me on long walks along the creeks and forests outside the city, taking care of me in her quiet way. One day we were walking in the hills, our feet shuffling through dry leaves, and she began to tell me about another young friend of hers who had just returned from ten days of silence. We were both baffled by what that might be like, both intrigued. I can remember that we were walking beneath a bridge. I can remember something in me lighting up like a new star.

Six years later I finally made my way to my first retreat. It was a women’s vipassana meditation retreat, held in a Catholic convent outside Santa Rosa, California. It was late March, and the grassy hills were green as the finest brocade and covered in wildflowers. I remember two things from that retreat: realizing with relief that I actually didn’t have to believe all the ridiculous, self-centered thoughts in my mind, and moments of walking in the hills when pure joy flooded into me, so intense that I wondered whether my heart could bear it. The salmon had found its home stream.

Living in silence is not what it looks like from the outside. I think from the outside it seems like a form of asceticism, a relinquishment of community and relationship for some higher good, a voluntary descent into darkness. It doesn’t look like much fun: people in silence tend to look serious, if not downright dour. The inside of a person on retreat is a whole different story. Suzuki Roshi said, “I just try to teach my students how to hear the birds sing..” When I shut my mouth, I can start to hear, and it turns out that what I can hear is beautiful. Ditto with what I can see, what I can taste, what I can smell, what I can touch. Suzuki Roshi could have just as easily said that he tried to teach his students to look at a tree, to eat an orange, to meet another human being.

Ordinary life is, I think, like being wrapped in layers and layers of cotton wool, protected and defended from our direct experience. Silence unwraps some of those layers. I remember coming out of a retreat and reading a newspaper in the airport. There had been a disaster, as there are always disasters, but this one went right to my heart. I sat on the plastic chair with the newspaper in my hands and I wept. And I was glad to be weeping: it seemed like the sanest, most deeply human response to such news.

I never know what will happen on a retreat. I’ve learned over the years not to assume anything, and certainly not to plan for anything. With stunning accuracy, what needs to be healed appears, spontaneously and often in direct opposition to what I would like to have happen.

In the second year of pilgrimage, I spent a month in silence. Within the first day, a huge pain and sorrow appeared in the center of my heart. I had no idea why it was there, or what had triggered it. I’d spent my previous long retreat in a state of happiness and bliss, far beyond what I had ever known, and I half-expected to continue that bliss. Something had other ideas. For thirty long days I learned about courage. I sat with the pain, opening wider and wider to it like a woman in labor, learning to hold it with compassion, learning not to run away. When the retreat ended, so did the pain, as mysteriously as it appeared. What I do know is that those thirty days changed my relationship to great emotional difficulty, my own and that of others.

I think it can seem like a retreat is a retreat from the world, a retreat into solipsistic naval-gazing Paradoxically, to spend time with others in silence is intensely intimate. I spent a winter at Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery, more than ten years ago. Every morning we would wake well before dawn and walk down to the meditation hall beneath the bare-limbed trees in the cold mountain air, the way lit by kerosene lanterns. We all wore black Zen robes, so in some ways we looked alike, but by the end of the first month I could recognize every person in the dark by the way they walked, the tilt of a head, the gesture of a hand. Even from the back I knew my fellow-travelers. There were no locks or keys at Tassajara: it was inconceivable that we would steal from one another or hurt one another after sitting hour after hour together in the hall, the roar of the creek filling all our ears, the same gruel filling all our bellies. I learned to trust at Tassajara – to trust the inherent goodness and kindness that arises when those layers of cotton wool begin to come apart.

Tomorrow I’ll enter that silence again, as I have so many times before. I’ll sit with my own mind and heart, not knowing what will happen, trusting the silence. I do know that a few days into the retreat my heart will begin to open on its rusty hinges, and I’ll be filled with gratitude – for the courage of the people who sit around me, for the depth of this tradition, for the beauty of the world. Whatever else happens in a retreat, gratitude is always there, like the delicate scent of a single stick of incense, as natural as the blue of the sky."

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