Part of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class is a day-long retreat and in class last week another participant asked (with terror in her voice and eyes) if it was true (she had “read ahead” in the text and learned) that we were going to be completely silent the whole time and couldn’t make eye contact with other people.
The instructor laughed and somehow managed to evade the question… he’s really good at that: evading questions. In an attempt to create space for possibility and allow for every experience to exist without judgment he tends to evade. After a lengthy discussion about how the person felt about it an answer came: it was true.
I sort of knew this going in or hadn’t thought about it at all but either way wasn’t surprised or alarmed about the silence until the day of when I found myself wondering what that was going to be like and how/if I was going to be able to do it. What happened that day, however, was much different than what I might have imagined. I believe that I truly went in without expectation but the absence of expectation seemed to come from authentic ambivalence about the whole thing (note to self: someday try being without expectation without being ambivalent… it might work) so I can’t say what I expected, but I wouldn’t have known to expect this.
The day consisted of regularly cycling through different mindfulness practices: walking meditation, “sitting,” body scan meditation, guided meditation, yadda yadda yadda… and it wasn’t a particularly pleasant for me. I experienced a lot of physical restlessness which manifested in physical discomfort (ouch, that hurts. oh, my butt is asleep. ack, my jaw is tight. ooh, my shoulders are achy) but I experienced it mindfully in that I just noticed it… and didn’t react except for the times when I did react and then I just noticed the reactions. “oh, hello backache. i’m going to adjust my posture. i adjusted my posture.” really deep shit here, people.
When it came time to break the silence at the end of the day I noticed I didn’t want to, but I didn’t really know why. I hadn’t had the time of my life or anything. I wasn’t thrilled and delighted to have experienced all of the things I had experienced, but I still didn’t want to let go of the silence. There was something (ahem, forgive me) quieting about it.
The instructions for breaking the silence were to partner up with someone and at the sound of the bell whisper to them for a minute about how the day was for you, then at the next bell sit in silence with each other again for a minute until the next bell when the other person would share through whisper for a minute. At the last bell we could (still whispering) have more of a conversational share. My partner and I decided that neither of us wanted to break the silence yet so we chose not to… which was awesome… and as the bells rang we started to open up to the silence and remarked to one another about how it felt and how the fact that we had never actually spoken before added an extra dimension to the “breaking of the silence.” It seems that in our interactions with one another as people our social masks are created and donned and in silence, just in our own experiences, we don’t have to “think of what to say” or “do” or how to “be.” We just are.
The whole group got to participate in sharing about how their day went and many people, who seemed to have profoundly positive experiences and were very grateful for them, shared. In reflecting back on my experience (instead of listening fully… oops) I wasn’t getting a lot. It was an experience, I had it, it wasn’t overwhelmingly pleasant, but it wasn’t painful either… it just was. And then the judgment came. Little (and sometimes big) voices started up “you didn’t do a very good job today.” Or “you sure did move around a lot. you were so restless and you gave into it… it didn’t even help and you knew it wouldn’t” …”you really need to learn to sit still.” …”you’re not grateful enough.” “you didn’t get anything out of today… what a waste. shame on you.”
Geez! So, in silence… mindfulness came with ease. The experience was what it was… and when the soft shroud of silence was lifted it allowed the critics and judges back in the room. Wow. Who knew?!
I shared my experience and the teacher helped me see that the judgments I was hearing now were no different from the twinges of restlessness I experienced during the silence, the only difference was my response to them… and if I just noticed the judgments they would be as neutral and pass as freely as the wiggles did (or they won’t. and that’s okay too).
In silence, I found a peacefulness without perfection… now it seems the goal is to find that peace with my voice too.