A Three-Month Buddhist Retreat (or, The Silence of the Lamas)

A 3-month Buddhist meditation retreat is no less mind-altering than ingesting hallucinogens or traveling to a remote land where nobody speaks your language or knows your culture. But the agent (or angel) of revelation in intensive meditation is neither an exotic plant nor an expensive plane ticket. It is essentially this: silence.

Silence. Why bother saying (or writing) anything about it? Might as well cook a symphony, dance a landscape, embrace a fragrance. Attempting to describe silence with words should be an obvious non-starter – yet of course throughout written history, innumerable poems and tomes have been dedicated to its mysterious power. How human, our yearning to define and contain that which de facto lies beyond the purview of language.

On long retreats, shared communal silence is a basic way of life. As retreatants don the trappings of temporary monkhood, silence becomes a social norm, no more or less unusual than any other facet of group etiquette.

Still, the verbal mind, one quickly learns, rarely shuts up. One spot where I often get ensnared by the deceptive lure of words, ironically or not, is at those exquisite, rarified meditative moments when the mind is free of its usual agitation, the emotions tranquil, and concentration laser-sharp. When graced to enter that zone, I usually hover for a while (it’s a joyous place to be) but then teeter off balance. What throws me off is a subtle but significant misstep: the urge to articulate what the moment is like. The verbal mind gets activated like a hunter of concepts: What is this? How can I describe it? How can I capture it?

Hoodwinked, again and again. It can not be captured. It’s like stalking and collecting butterflies. Once a butterfly is preserved and pinned down it may still be pretty, but it’s fundamentally no longer what you sought.

Ajahn Suhmedo, an eminent teacher in Theravadan Buddhism, offers a precious key to unlock this conundrum. All that can be said of those rarified moments – or any moment, by extrapolation – is, “it’s like this.” Do not try to describe it: it can not be described. Do not try to compare it: comparisons only distort. Just be open to the full, raw experience of now, whatever now it is, and then acknowledge, simply: It’s like this. Sense your way in without the misdirection of words.

Words: our greatest tool, our greatest hindrance. Maybe the biggest koan of all. “I who was to be redeemed by the gift of words,” wrote the poet Czeslaw Milosz, “must be prepared for an earth without grammar.” It’s not only earth that lacks grammar; I suspect nibbana does, too.

All great mystical traditions teach the limitations of the verbal. The first line of the classic text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, reminds us that “the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.” The Vedic Upanishads offer the philosophy “neti, neti”, or “not this, not that”: what can be said of essential truths is only what they are not, not what they are. This path of radical pruning is also the via negativa of Christian mysticism.

Try to describe your experience of being alive now: Anything other than “it’s like this” falls short. No metaphor captures the seamless flow of moment-by-moment experience. No adjective mirrors the ineffable essence of life. No comparison matches this exact moment: It is not like a parade, a carnival, or a twisting river; it is not just like what happened yesterday, or what we learn from books; it is not what anyone else experiences. These descriptors offer a medium to convey and share our lives with as much empathic approximation as we can. They help the way the finger helps when it points to the moon. But no descriptor or comparison is the moment; the finger pointing is never the moon. As for the experience of seeing the moon itself? It’s like this.

The beauty of “it’s like this” is how it uses words to point beyond the verbal. In the realm of the spirit, this may be the most, and perhaps only, meaningful use of language.

So, back to silence: I love it. In an environment of deep meditation practice, it feels intimate. It surrounds and penetrates. It cradles, comforts, and soothes. It is a mirror that reveals truths and bares misconceptions. It opens a tap into a bottomless reservoir of awe.

I have felt silence in various moments as friend, lover, companion, guru, demon, physician, midwife. When in right relationship to it, it helps me befriend myself and everyone/thing else. It is portal, it is refuge. It hints at the mystery of being and the even more impenetrable mystery of nonbeing. It teaches patience and persistence, two skills asked of those who seek life’s deeper resonances. It is the matrix from which everything arises, and into which it all returns.

I fought silence’s courtship for most of my life, thrown off course by fear and discomfort. Now it is one of the most cherished relationships that I hold. Silence and me: we’re good.

But mostly, here’s what can be said about entering a 3-month silence, and meeting it moment by moment with as much surrender and courage as possible: It’s like this.

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3 thoughts on “A Three-Month Buddhist Retreat (or, The Silence of the Lamas)

  1. Thank you for introducing lay people to Silence. It feels daunting to face it and to face oneself. Your blog clears some misconceptions and encourages me to try it in small doses.
    I have request for you. It will be wonderful to read your thoughts in a blog about OCD. As a cleanliness OCD person, I find silence and lot of other normal experiences of life very challenging. I wonder what wisdom can someone like you impart to get better insights into OCD and to find a suitable path to overcome it. Prevalent belief among the clinical and therapeutic experts is that it is lead by biological malfunction of brain and the behavior can be altered through exposure and response prevention.
    I haven’t had success with it. Perhaps a light shown from different angle like what Buddhism teaches about not-resisting an experience to help in letting-go, may be helpful…

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    1. Hello Seema, Thank you for this personal and thoughtful note. I would like to point out the wisdom that is already embedded in your words — the importance of how “not resisting an experience” may be of help in “letting go.” I think you are spot on! But — and it’s such a big but — meditation and opening to silence is a delicate, slow, painstaking process that works only in tiny incremental steps. The challenge is to accept this slow gentleness of the process and not to give up or abandon your efforts. There is no huge sudden relief, no quick change of behavior, no immediate alteration in the deep habits of the mind. I completely agree that OCD is biologically-based — while at the same time, so is everything within us, and so from this perspective OCD can be considered a much more extreme version of the usual insistence and persistence of the human brain that can be tamed, but only with persistent patience and committed effort. I think that if you take this gentle approach and find a way internally to commit to it, you will begin to find pockets of relief and oases of silence. I wish you well in the journey. Steve

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