August 16, 2016

22 Days of Silence.


(Elyane Youssef) Author's own, not for reuse

“The world is never quiet, even its silence eternally resounds with the same notes, in vibrations which escape our ears.” ~ Albert Camus

Last month, I went to India for a 22-day spiritual retreat.

I took two courses: Introduction to Buddhism and Vipassana meditation—both were held in silence.

As a naturally quiet person, I would comfortably retreat to my room for days without having to maintain real communication with friends and family. I didn’t consider the silence that I had to maintain throughout the courses to be much of a threat to me.

However, it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be and it definitely wasn’t the same silence I was used to experiencing in my everyday life. Whether we know it or not, we aren’t really silent throughout our day. We still greet the people we live with, we still maintain communication through our phones, and our minds are often distracted by our surroundings.

My courses were based in Dharamkot, a village in the middle of the forest. We had to give away all communication tools, including phones and laptops. In Vipassana meditation, we had to refrain from reading, writing or communicating in any way. When someone crossed our path, we were asked to walk with our heads facing the ground so we couldn’t engage in eye contact.

I can honestly say that during these courses, I experienced real silence.

Silence is underestimated and often feared in our society. Some of us simply consider it useless and most of us just can’t keep silent for a long time. And if we are truly silent among other people, we get a lot of “Why are you so quiet? Are you okay?”

The truth is, when people are silent we think something is wrong, uncommon, frightening. But, that’s only because we haven’t experienced its restorative power.

I believe if we did, we wouldn’t fear remaining in silence, we wouldn’t stop other people from having it, and we would definitely work on experiencing it every once in a while.

Below are the lessons I learned through silence.

1. How to listen better.

I always thought I was a good listener until I had to remain in complete silence. The fact is, when talking decreases, hearing increases. Never before have I experienced sounds like I did during these courses.

Dharamkot forests have cicadas that sing at night to avoid predators. At 7:30 p.m. sharp they start singing and stop around 8:15 p.m. I know I wouldn’t have even noticed them if I was on my phone or talking. Even after finishing my courses, I could always tell what time it was when cicadas started singing.

Not only could I listen to nature better, but also I could listen to my own breathing and movements better. Listening became the new talking and helped cultivate an awareness that doesn’t normally exist when we’re busy talking.

2. How to look inward.

Talking is an activity that is connected to the outside, while when we are silent, our focused energy is automatically directed inwards.

I believe the thing we can hear the most when we’re silent is ourselves. In Vipassana meditation, I could listen to my own intuition and instincts better as I was the only person I was allowed to communicate with.

Moreover, through silence, I could look inward and inspect the thoughts and emotions that I was experiencing. Mostly, we are terrified to actually listen to the tape that keeps playing in our minds. But, once we let that voice be, we will figure out that it isn’t as controlling as it sounds. We learn to listen to it, how to react to it, and befriend it.

3. How to be a better watcher.

Just like silence allows us to become better listeners, it also allows us to become better watchers. Having lived in the forests throughout the courses, I learned to see nature and people from a different perspective that didn’t include judgmental behaviour.

Generally, our judgments are further developed through conversing. Living with people who we are not allowed to communicate with eliminates unnecessary judgments. I could see my fellow students at the Introduction to Buddhism course as equal human beings who were sharing in growth, compassion and kindness.

Moreover, I could watch nature better. I could see how spiders weave their webs for weeks, how beetles unfold their wings to fly, how monkeys play and how earthworms curl themselves into a circle when you touch them.

4. Realizing we are all one.

There is a sense of oneness in this universe that we can’t experience unless we are silent. By becoming better listeners and watchers, we also become conscious of the life-energy in what surrounds us.

By staying silent, I could experience oneness with animals, insects and people. I could feel it with trees, plants and rain.

5. Realizing that real communication has no words.

We were raised to believe that words are our only means of communication. But are they, really? One hundred students were in the Introduction to Buddhism course and unlike the Vipassana meditation, we were allowed to communicate through gestures and eye contact.

Believe it or not, I connected with these people more than I ever did with anyone in my life—and I didn’t even know their names. I came to realize that authentic communication comes from our energy and our actions. We lived together peacefully without having to speak one single word.

I’m now convinced that words are not necessary—they cheapen the essence of our emotions, while silence elevates them. When we don’t speak through words, we speak through energy.

6. Realizing everything else is in silence.

We undoubtedly live in a busy world and sadly, we believe this preoccupation to be the inherent structure of our existence. Nonetheless, when living in silence, we can notice the silence that is taking place around us. It’s in the trees, the rain, the people—and within us. Silence is everywhere, but rarely do we behold it.

That being said, I’ve learned that below the distraction we live in lies a great deal of silence. The whole universe is silent, but we can neither know it, nor experience it as long as we are constantly talking.

This silent retreat was one of the most beneficial experiences I have undergone. Once I was able to practice it on the outside, silence on the inside fell into place—outer disturbances no longer bother me when I connect with the silence that lies at their core.

By putting silence into practice at least a few hours a day, we can begin to truly understand words.



Author: Elyane Youssef

Image: Author’s own

Editor: Nicole Cameron

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