I love guided meditations. Whether in person with a teacher or with an audio recording, I find the sound of verbal instructions can make it much easier to meditate. Good instructions do more than remind me to be present when my awareness drifts. They also help bring a different perspective to my experience while in formal practice, and allow me to notice and work with parts of my conscious awareness that I might not even notice otherwise.
So it was a little disconcerting at my first day at a recent retreat led by Jon Kabat-Zinn to discover that silence would be the order of the day. JKZ’s background includes plenty of Zen practice, and he exudes the air of a roshi as he strides on to the raised platform, silently sits cross-legged on his zafu, and begins to meditate, his eyes closed, his hands in a classic mudra. Before long, the participants figure out that this is what they are supposed to be doing, too, and the room gradually becomes silent.
How long would this silence last? There was no way of knowing. But it often lasted a half hour to 45 minutes at a time, with no indication of when it would be over until the sound of Jon’s tingsha bells announced it.
I was unprepared for the struggle to follow. Try as I might, it became difficult to be mindful for more than a few seconds; if I just allowed my brain to succumb to the daydreams that came in swarms, I would soon fall asleep. The longer we sat, the more anxiety set in. I soon realized that I was going to have plenty of time to sit with some stuff that I had avoided being with for a while, and there would be no escaping it. I loved the Noble Silence of the rest of the retreat; but the silent sitting eventually got me so agitated that I had to leave the meditation hall and I almost left the retreat.
The next day was much better, thanks. But the experience got me thinking about silence. As helpful as spoken instructions, bells of various kinds, and peaceful music might seem to be, they can also serve as a distraction from doing the work of mindfulness meditation: observing the activity of the mind with an attitude of kind acceptance. The reason this work is so necessary is the same reason it can be so difficult to do. We don’t like much of what comes up in our awareness — judging thoughts, craving thoughts, painful memories, emotions like shame and guilt. Most of our mental strategies are designed precisely to avoid having to confront this stuff, because it hurts. TV, social media, drugs and alcohol, and any number of other activities serve as useful distractions. And even when we sit down to meditate, we can find pleasant things to keep us mentally occupied so we don’t have to be with ourselves.
The problem is, when we distract ourselves from our difficult stuff, we’re shutting away part of ourselves, perhaps a part that is being so difficult because it needs recognition and healing. Only by being willing to confront and accept all of ourselves — even the parts we hate or are ashamed of — can we see what drives our thoughts and emotions and come to recognize the source of our mental suffering.
Silence turns us back on ourselves. It takes away our defenses and makes us look at what’s there to be seen. And it gives us plenty of opportunity to learn the vital skill of responding to suffering with compassion — especially our own suffering.
So when Practice meets this Sunday, January 12, 2020, at 8 pm Central, we’ll share some silence. Practice Circle is the SBA’s online meditation and discussion community. We meet via video conference on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Practice Circle is free to attend, and everyone is welcome. Just click this link on Sunday evening to attend.