Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Noble Silence

On a gorgeous summer afternoon I arrived at a picture perfect locale where I was about to be housed, fed and initiated, over a ten day period, into the subtle art of meditation. Nestled on rolling hillocks in a small area cleared amidst a wooded paradise in Quebec were the residences which would shelter me and 45 other enthusiastic meditators over that time. I wondered how all of us could be accommodated in such snug quarters. While shelter was not an issue in the summer, with the possibility of camping in the great outdoors, I pondered over how we would all survive the long haul with just 5 toilets one of which had a shower, putting it off bounds when someone was having a bath. I soon found that the answer to this and many other questions, existential and prosaic, was “noble silence”.

On arrival I was escorted to a little attic. In that tiny space, where the roof came sloping down, the ceiling was not high enough for cots. My guide urged me to pick out one of the spots of the floor where 4 mattresses had been neatly laid out. I immediately took territorial possession of my little rectangular space and arranged my things on the shelf provided beside my bed. Soon my three roommates arrived and one of them greeted me with a distinct grimace, obviously a little taken aback by the humble setting. This did not bode very well for us to live in such close proximity for 10 days. The one toilet and shower that 8 of us would share was also so tiny that I realized I would need creative acrobatics to change inside. So modesty had to go out of the window first. Soon after, I embraced humility when I handed over all worldly possessions to the course managers. I was only allowed the bare minimum – simple clothing and basic toiletries.

Once this ritual was completed, we were served a light evening meal. Within that 300 square feet dining room, the cacophony was loud enough to make my ears pop. Then at 8 p.m., the announcement was made. As we were each assigned a spot in the solemn meditation hall, we were informed that we would observe noble silence from that moment on, for the 10 days that followed. This meant no speech or even eye contact with anyone. We would basically be exploring the “within” devoid of any distractions. No books, no writing materials, no music and absolutely no contact with the outside world except in a dire emergency. Men were segregated from women and we each had boundaries within which we were confined.

The next day began early with a 4 a.m. wake up call. This was followed by 12 hours of meditation with intermittent breaks and just 2 meals, breakfast and lunch. All we did that day and for the next 2 days was observe our breath. The first three days were excruciatingly painful on many levels. The forced silence and the consequent inability to respond to sensory stimuli, the physical ache from sitting cross-legged on the floor, back and neck straight, and the sheer boredom of doing nothing other than observing one’s breath. I looked forward to mealtimes, where at least I could savour food and see who ate what and how much of it.

I felt physically weak and emotionally very fragile on day 3. Just when I was ready to give up, day 4 happened. On this day we were actually initiated into Vipassana, an ancient Indian meditation technique rediscovered by Buddha about 2500 years ago. We were taught to observe our physical sensations. The isolated setting, 4 days of intense mediation and noble silence later, a magical transformation began to occur, which completely altered my perspective.

Three things happened. First, the mind having slowly begun to divest itself of its habit patterns, no longer craved sensory stimulation with intensity. It did not shirk unpleasant sensations with feelings of aversion, either. It also did not clamour with the need to feel important and to project the “I”. The thick fog of conditioned responses in the mind gave way to reveal a gorgeous pantomime full of possibilities. The hills came alive, the sunset caught my attention, the flowers beckoned to be admired and the ants to be observed. There was time to ponder without the baggage of “things to do” and “oh I wish this moment could last”. There was just a zen existence, of remaining in a state of being. Second, and on a very practical level, silence and self observation fostered order, accommodation and empathy. For eg, I did not hog the shower since I knew my roommates would not be able to knock on the door to tell me my time was up. I went to great lengths to avoid interfering with another’s space since I knew if someone did that to me I would have to forbear without protest and did not wish that on my neighbour. But for the silence we could not have managed such a harmonious existence within that small space with its limited facilities. Third, it was impossible to stand in judgement of people. Without the clutter of thoughts brought on by conversations, one had time to ponder over one’s reactions. One gained insight into how the mind conjures up images that suit it and, how with no way of confirming if those perceptions are true, these images do not last. Here, silence was a great unifier. No one was better or worse than another. On the last day, when the silence was broken, I found out how my initial perceptions of people deviated from what they were once I had spoken to them.

My twenty year quest had culminated in a technique which, with regular practice, presented the possibility of equanimity. Whatever your persuasion in life or your motivation, you will agree that our world would do well with a little silence. To quote one enlightened soul, Ramani Maharishi “Silence is unceasing Eloquence...It is the best Language".

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