Seven Days of Silence (and no device)
"I am confronted every day with the complete disappearance of the old civilities. Social life, street life, and attention to people and things around one have largely disappeared, at least in big cities, where a majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to phones or other devices--jabbering, texting, playing games, turning more and more to virtual reality of every sort."
Oliver Sacks in "The Machine Stops" New Yorker, Feb. 11, 2019
Exactly one hundred strangers, selected by lottery, gathered to observe a week of silence and meditation. Almost a thousand people wanted in mainly because of the main speaker. We were allowed to chat at the first meal Saturday night but went silent afterwards and were instructed to avoid all eye contact. Sunday morning brought the "great renunciation" by which we turned in all devices to be locked away in the safe as if they were the most precious things we owned. The daily schedule cycled through 45 minutes sessions of sitting and walking meditations with meals at 6:45, noon and 5. An hour of Buddhist teaching was offered every night followed by more meditation. I had plenty of fears and anxieties going in, wondering how I would get through the week intact. I even imagined having to leave early because I just wouldn't be able to take it.
To my surprise and delight I loved almost every minute of it. I was up for a new and challenging experience. What a gift to be able to hand over the devices and leave the digital, virtual world behind and become more immersed in the real one. And yet we often use our devices to escape the real world because we want or need to. I discovered that at least in that setting I was happy to be as present as I could be to the here and now.
Even though none of us knew each other and would not get to know each other in the normal ways to which we are accustomed, we became a community. Gathering in the meditation hall several times a day to be in silence together was both strange and powerful and carried me through the week, reminding me of our much more familiar weekly gatherings when we do something so central and important to life.
The humble and wise teachings of Joseph Goldstein were a highlight. He is one of the first American teachers of insight meditation and one of the most popular writers and speakers on mindfulness. He taught us about the reality of impermanence, the interconnectedness of all things, the suffering caused by cravings and grasping, the freedom and peace that comes from mindfulness and awakening. I got to meditate on these things and see how they are at work in my own life. I did not encounter anything in the week that felt contrary to my faith. God felt present but at some distance and I continue to ponder what that means. Maybe it was just being out of familiar patterns and settings. The center used to be a Roman Catholic monastery and just before entering the meditation hall I passed stained glass windows of Christ at the table with the beloved disciple and Jesus praying in the garden. I was so pleased that these reminders of my faith had not been removed. Upon entering the hall the custom was to look upon a statue of Buddha on a table and place one's hands together in honor of him. With every session, encounters with Christ and Buddha were always immediately connected. Images of them were on either side of the same wall. Indeed as we have been learning in our adult forum series, you can learn a lot about your Christian faith by knowing more about Buddhism (and other faiths for that matter).
Thank you for your support last week enabling me to attend this seven day silent meditation retreat in a quiet spot in north central Massachusetts (Insight Meditation Society). I hope it is the beginning of a more consistent daily meditation practice as I continue to learn more about how it works and why it's worth it.
It would be rather Buddhist of me to say that much of the week long experience cannot be put into words (how do you describe silence?). But one more thing I can share is something called Metta meditation, a practice meant to stir up loving kindness toward loved ones, difficult ones, planet earth, and even the whole universe. You came up in many of my sessions and one was directed particularly at you as a beloved community. With all of you in mind as one, I wished for these three things:
May you be happy.
May you be protected and safe from all harm.
May you live with ease and well-being.
May it be so, Ross