Silent Retreat - Entering a World of Gentle Possibility


In my last post, I spoke about the liberating feeling I had in taking a vow of silence during a recent meditation retreat.  Besides removing the social niceties that can be depleting for an introvert, the practice of silence offers a portal into the mind, and a view of the patterns of thought that give me the version of the world I see each day. (And this includes the truth about my own character.) You can understand that silence would be anathema for many people.  Coming face to face with the ways we delude ourselves can be unnerving.  But I’ve come to believe it’s necessary to find the peace and equanimity I desire. 

So I’m a huge advocate for silence as a well-being practice,  and I am astounded at how deeply I crave it these days.

At the end of my previous post, I made reference to Pico Iyer’s short treatise called The Art of Stillness, and once again I want to recommend that book as a gentle way of getting acquainted with the benefits of being still and quiet.  I read it and re-read it for weeks before entering retreat, and it really fueled my desire to get still.  Not stillness for the purpose of “getting” something—like clarity, insight, calm and ease, although all of those qualities are accessible in stillness.  But I just wanted to be quiet and hold space for nothing and no one, not even my own tortured little soul. 

Practicing the Art of Stillness

The challenges of such an endeavor are not small, and in today’s post, I want to explore another lesson of my recent self-imposed time of silence; it has to do with how we construct our identities.  I’m not a philosopher or a psychologist, so I can’t speak clinically about the process of identity construction. Rather, I bring my own experience to the table, to examine and consider.  This act of self-study is at the core of all reflective practices.  When we take up such a practice, we are examining the mind to see what is really happening there.  In so-doing, we usually find beliefs or habits that actually deter us from being happy or content or open and aware. 

So here’s an example of what I mean.  During the first two days of this retreat, we were still talking.  The teacher was giving instruction on the foundations of the meditative system we were about to practice (sudarshana kria yoga), and giving us a glimpse into the conditioned mind and how it hobbles us.  This is a setting we’re familiar and comfortable with, right?  An authority stands in front of a group giving data; participants listen, comment, ask questions, explore.  All good. 

But during this first two days, because we were talking in such depth about the mind and how it works, I was watching myself carefully, and, as is often the case when you take a close look into your own mind, it was not a pretty sight.  First of all, as a teacher of much of this material myself, I was particularly attuned to the information being given.  I quickly responded when Jim, the teacher, gave opportunities.  And as the conversation went on, I inserted myself more and more, commenting on what others said, recommending books on the topic, even on one or two occasions, offering a solution to a problem a participant brought up.  Sometimes the teacher in me simply will not stand down.  I know this.  I’ve worked on this.  This pattern holds a big lesson for me.

But, e-gad, as I think back on those first sessions, I am so uncomfortable with what I was doing.  Not that anything I did was bad, but it was alarming to see insistent “teacher-Lezlie” in action.  Now, to be fair to myself, what I was offering the group was actually really good stuff.  (There I am defending myself.)   But why did I need to “offer really good stuff” to fellow meditators?  To what end?  I can say (again defending myself) that I wanted to be of benefit by sharing a bit of knowledge. And that is true.

But here’s the point:  in a retreat, you’re trying to get to the bottom of what really motivates you to do what you do.  So as I watched myself, I had to ask why I wanted to insert my knowledge of these topics into the conversation?  Jim the teacher was doing a fine job all on his own. Did I crave a little bit of authority in the group?  Did I need to stake out some sort of position in this group?  And while the answers to these questions are undoubtedly yes, this feels really bad.  And embarrassing.  Like I’m a needy five-year-old vying for recognition or attention. 

After each session, I would go back to my room and write about what I was seeing in my behavior, and it was clear that I was trying to share an identity that I had spent years establishing in my work and friendships.  It was clear that I am attached to that identity and felt the need to bring my old self into this new situation.  I could not withhold this preciously held version of myself and just “be” in the group.  

After a while, I felt so sad about this.  I say it was embarrassing, but more than that it was a revelation of a deep-seated feeling of insufficiency.  In those first sessions, I was not willing to drop into a quiet version of Lezlie, which is a contradiction to the desire that led me to retreat in the first place.  But I think at some level (way deep in my little girl psyche) I assumed a quiet version of me would hold no value in this group of young people.  That feels kind of pitiful, and believe me, most of the time, in no way do I consider myself pitiful.  Just sayin’.

Embracing the Freedom to Drop Our Identity

In regular life communication, we give a lot of effort to identity construction. We make small assertions in virtually every interaction we have and slowly construct a comfortable identity, one we hope others will find appealing.  It’s a drive to let people know we are persons of worth, or value, or intellect, or discernment, or humor, or bitterness or grief or whatever.   I have a place in the world.  I am worthy of attention. It’s what humans do—create a version of self for others to respond to.

But why do this in the very place that you’re given the freedom to not do this? There are times when it’s good to drop identity.  I came to the retreat desperately seeking quiet, equanimity, insight.  What did I hope to gain by being the vocal student in the room, a version of myself I’ve carried around for decades?

Talk talk talk talk talk:  that’s what I do.  Judge, analyze, criticize, label, describe, blah, blah, blah.  And both spiritual and psychological traditions tell us that this behavior can be a severe barrier to experiencing our deeper nature.  I know this, so what is my problem?

My guess is that my talking was as much about avoiding buried issues as it was about repeating habituated behaviors.  (I may not be a psychologist, but I certainly sound like one in this post.) It is easy to keep repeating a pattern that we live with every day.  Retreats are about helping us get quiet enough that we can see the patterns underneath behaviors that keep us running down the same path all the time.   As the days of silence began, and I had to stop my familiar conversational strategies, I was able to give attention to the underlying needs that keep me connected to a certain form of identity.  I began to remember that my need for worthiness is not connected to what I know or what I can talk about.  Silence was skillfully re-directing me to a way of being that would affirm and reinforce an identity of inherent worth.

A Course in Miracles says, “Nothing you do, say, or accomplish can establish your worth.  Your worth has already been established.”  This is a game-changer.  How might I have behaved in days one and two had I remembered this statement?

Can You Let Go. . . In Order to Be?

In his book of Celtic wisdom, Anam Cara, philosopher John O’Donohue says, “We have to let go in order to be; we have to stop forcing ourselves, or we will never enter or own belonging.” And, he says there is one thing that is absolutely essential for developing a real sense of individuality, and that is silence. He says, “If you are afraid of your solitude, . . . you will never enter your own depth.”

Please understand, as I listened to our very kind and experienced teacher in this retreat, I was in no way critical of him.  I liked him.  I wanted to like what he was saying.  But I began to see that some of my questions to him carried an undercurrent of doubt, and so I tried to tamp down my critical and judgmental tendency.  I had a lot of agreement with him on topics of mind-training, contemporary psychology, and meditation, but at one point it became clear that the tradition he embraces equates consciousness with the concept of soul—something my tradition does not do.  So I kept asking him about that, and wondering how to square his approach with mine.  I was doing what the familiar Lezlie identity always does:  gather data; try to figure things out.

Oy-Vey. . .

Of course you see the ridiculousness of what I was doing. I was throwing up a screen of resistance to coming into silence by giving full attention to what was intellectually bothering me. My default mode was running full bore.

But thankfully, I did get a grip.  My purpose in this situation was to watch the fact that I was bothered, judgmental, annoyed because the retreat was not geared toward what I thought I needed.  In fact, what was unfolding before me was exactly what I needed.  To wake up to a pattern that was stalling me in the cultivation of peace and equanimity. 

Who gives a rip about data, for god’s sake?? Every single condition of this retreat was giving me the opportunity to practice patience, tolerance, acceptance, kindness, open-heartedness—and stillness.  I was being called to accept the wisdom and insight that is always available to me, no matter what kind of clothing it is wearing.  And it was leading me to simply get quiet.

A Practice That Invites Us to Start Anew

O’Donohue says, “If you have a trust in and an expectation of your own solitude, everything that you need to know will be revealed to you.”  This is another pertinent quotation from Anam Cara, a book I read seventeen years ago, and should have read again before going on retreat.

So, my grip on a certain part of my identity was not a good thing.  And I am not proud of my attachment to a version of Lezlie that just was not appropriate on silent retreat.  And, too, I was astounded at how immediately I dropped my previously held desire for silence and equanimity and jumped into that version of self. 

But there is a good side of this.   I’m grateful I have a practice that allows me, over and over, to start again.  To see anew.  To allow the natural and easeful unfolding of Life to happen without my having to say a word.  Big lesson.  I get it.  And one of these days, I’ll have to get it again.  And when the lesson comes back around, I hope to bring to myself  the compassion and patience I want to offer the world.

One last thought from John O’Donohue about silence and solitude.  He offers these practices as antidotes to our suffering, our craving and clinging, our anxiety and fearfulness, our endless chatter, and futile identity construction.  Through silence, he says, “we will enter into a world of gentle possibility, a place of ease, delight, and celebration.”

May all of our days be filled with gentle possibility.


Lezlie Laws