Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Word-less-ness: Being Silently

Three days in to a five-day meditation retreat, this was my situation:

I’ve taken and lived a retreatant’s version of the Five Precepts: no harming any living being, no taking what is not offered, no speaking, no sex, no intoxicants.

At three days of silence, I’ve lived wordlessly for longer than I’ve ever done since I began talking at (my mother reports) six months of age.

The days are filled from before dawn to long after sundown with sitting and walking meditations, alternating. All in silence. After the first two hours on the first day, sitting meditation becomes progressively more uncomfortable – excruciating, if you listen to my ever-suffering mind. Briefly, the lotus blossom opens and transcendent clarity opens without notice, without words. It sustains and then subsides, its space and openness re-cloaked, re-filled with the muck of pain and suffering.

Late in the afternoon of the third day, I take a pen and write this note to my meditation teacher:


I’m a bit frustrated with myself. I had one of those peak experiences this morning, and I spent the rest of the day in aches and pains and aversion and samsara.

Is this really the path? Does it get easier?


I fold the note and pin it to the section of the bulletin board for notes to Howie, and I go outside for a period of walking meditation.

The simple framing of my situation in words reignites my conceptual mind enough to allow me to see a space between the seeing and the suffering. My suddenly-word-re-enabled mind crafts responses from Howie to me:


Yes, it’s the path. Easier? No.




Yup. Now go back to meditating.

I resolve to retrieve the note, as the very forming of the words has created the space I needed between the pain and the suffering. When the bell in the courtyard signals the end of the walking meditation, I return to the bulletin board and find that Howie has already collected the note. Ok. I return to silence and wordlessness.

The next morning, I find his response folded around my note, both pinned to the board. His note, of course, is much kinder than any I’d have written to myself:

Hi Sean,

Some days are dukkha days. Some days are sukkha days. Learning how to find our composure with both is the way… The by-product is more ease and consequently more pleasure. Hang in there. It is actually a sign of deepening when things get crazy.



A most kind response to a problem that had resolved itself as soon as words were reintroduced into my mind.

* * *

I’m fascinated by the wordlessness of my time there. I became acutely aware several times of how much word-ing intervenes between experience and comprehension, how much dualistic word-ing shapes experience to fit dualistic models and understandings.

The longer I lived in silence – even for just the few days I was there – the quieter the word-ing part of my mind became. That was useful as it allowed me to see a bit more clearly what words would otherwise have obscured. But when the word-ing part of my mind subsided, I lacked the usual tool set that allows me to maintain a separation between my body’s pains and my mind’s suffering.

Makes me wonder what might be built with intention and awareness in such a space.