Speaking about silence

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Part of a series of teachings and short talks given during the Manjushri and Yamantaka Winter Retreat in 2015.

  • The purpose of silence during a retreat
  • Looking at our old associations with silence
  • Examining the impetus to talk
  • Silence in retreat is respectful of ourselves and of others
  • Making some space to examine the identities we’ve created, begin to dismantle them
  • The benefits of researching and meditating on a question that we have before asking it to another person

Speaking about silence (download)

01-16-15 Speaking about Silence - BBCorner

I wanted to talk about silence because silence is a key part of doing retreat. Often people feel a little bit nervous about silence, or they don’t understand why we’re doing it. They think that it means shutting down and not communicating with other people. And very often sometimes in families if there’s silence at the dinner table it means somebody’s really mad and there’s going to be an explosion soon. Then you come here and all your old associations with silence come in like “somebody’s mad … they’re unfriendly … they don’t like me … I can’t communicate ….” All these different kinds of preconceptions come.

I think it’s important to make sure that silence here is not because of any of those things. It’s because we’re all here for the purpose of looking inside of ourselves and purifying our minds and doing some intensive work, and when we talk a lot we distract ourselves. And especially when we talk we create a personality. We talk about what I like, what I don’t like, where I’ve traveled, who I’m in a relationship with, the problems in my relationship, what kind of career I have, on and on and on. And we just create so many identities and so many opinions (that of course we don’t think are opinions, we think they’re the reality of who we are) and then we tell them to other people. And that’s not at all helpful for our mind when we’re trying to really examine those opinions and those self-perceptions in our meditation and really ask ourselves, “are these true or not true?”

Keeping silence gives us, for ourselves, that mental space where we don’t need to create an identity to convince other people of, or an identity to convince ourselves of, or an identity to solidify. We’re really giving ourselves a break from having to create that identity so in our meditation we can examine the piles of identities that we’ve already created and try and dismantle some of them. So the silence benefits us. It also benefits the other person because other people are trying to do this kind of internal work, too, and by being silent we’re respectful of their meditation practice. Because if we chat or we start talking about this and that we not only distract ourselves, but we distract the other person as well. Silence is done out of self-respect and respect for others.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t talk at all. You know, “That pot of boiling water is on the edge and it’s about to fall over on somebody, Zopa, you’re in silence so, you know ….” I mean, come on. So when it’s necessary for safety reasons, of course we talk. But we’re just trying to really …. It gives us such a good opportunity to look at this impetus to talk all the time. How I always want to add my opinion. Whatever is said, I want to add my opinion, I want to add my story, I want to make a mark. And like … what does it feel like to not do that? “How are they going to know I exist? How am I going to think that I’m a smart person if I can’t offer an opinion?” Okay? So it’s very interesting for making us pause and really monitor our own motivation for speaking, and what speaking does for the construction of the “I.” And to ask ourselves what is our motivation for speaking? How much of it is for me and how much of it is for the other person? Does the other person really need to hear what I’m saying? So it’s a good chance to really stop and watch that and ask those kinds of questions.

Of course, when we have a teaching and I say, “Are there any questions?” Then it’s fine to ask a question. Or when we have a discussion group. But to even watch sometimes our questions because sometimes all these questions pop up and we have a tendency rather than to think about them and try and answer them ourselves, or go to the library and look up an answer in the book, “Well, I’ll just ask somebody else and then they’ll tell me the answer and I don’t need to think about it and I don’t need to research it myself ….” Without thinking that maybe thinking about it ourselves is part of the process of learning, and that researching it also, if we have to put some energy out, we might remember the answer better. Whereas if we just rely on someone else to tell us the answer without having to think about it ourselves then we usually don’t remember and we ask the same question again later. Because we got an answer, we wrote it down, then we forgot it. We didn’t think about it. So even as questions come up for us, think about them a little bit. Write them down, but ask them to yourself in your meditation. In the break time go and see in one of the books if you can find an answer. Or listen to one of the talks online to try and find an answer. If you still can’t find an answer and you’ve thought about it for a while, then ask a question. But it can be some really good practice for us in kind of researching things ourselves, and also in respecting other people’s time. So it’s a good thing to do that.

I get so many people writing me personal questions that I had to make a decision that I can either write books or I can answer email, but I don’t have the time to do both. And so some people, you know, I might answer one or two questions, then every few days they send a question. And I can tell that they’re not thinking about the answers I give at all. And they’re not thinking about the question before they ask it either. So then I usually don’t answer. And then the funny thing is they usually forget about it. Because the question popped up one day, and they thought “oh, well, I’ll get the instant answer like this,” but then they forget it the next day. Whereas if you’re really meditating and you want to find an answer to something it stays with you and you think about it and you look at it this way and that way and the other way. And then when you ask a question you have some thought behind your question.

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