Just before flying to Thailand, I spent five days at a retreat community called Hollyhock. It’s a humble, rootsy little hamlet on the relatively remote Cortes Island. I knew very little about the program I’d signed up for, only that it was about Buddhism.
It turns out that it was a rather intense regimen of meditation. Our group of fifteen or so spent virtually our entire days (from 7am to 10pm) in some form of meditation. Sitting, walking, dancing and even eating. I’ve experimented with meditation, but never for extended periods. This was a bit of a shock, finding myself sitting in a candlelit hut with nothing to do for hours but stare into my own mind.
In the tradition of Theravada monks, we undertook several Buddhist precepts, including refraining from consuming intoxicants, and refraining from killing people for the duration the five days. We also observed “noble silence” which means we were not to talk or engage other people, even with mere eye contact.
It was quite a difficult adjustment at first. Speaking, whether to explain ourselves, entertain ourselves, or assert ourselves, is something that happens almost automatically. Language is a very powerful technology that we use so readily and so frequently that we lose sight of how we depend on it. Having sworn off it for the time being, I began to notice the places where I normally used it and couldn’t, and it was very revealing to me.
Thoughts Against a White Background
Committed to silence, and meditating for long stretches, one’s mind really slows down compared to normal. The urge to explain oneself subsides, the urge to comment and criticize subsides, and you finally realize the obscene volume of chatter that goes on in there on a regular day. Thoughts become much more conspicuous and easy to identify because there isn’t a torrent of other thoughts to lose them in. You can’t help but get a close-up view of your thought processes, which is useful, but can also be kind of ugly and even disturbing.
One of the first things I noticed was that as long as I was mute, I was unable to explain myself, and so I had to let go of that need. For every action I took, I was not granted the luxury of being able to justify it to the people around me. For example, if I noticed I was standing in someone’s way, I couldn’t offer an apologetic look and a quick “Oh, sorry” like I normally would. I could only move out of the way when I noticed, and allow them to come to their own conclusions about me and my manners, without trying to influence their opinion with my words.
It sounds like it isn’t a big deal, but I found it to be a sobering learning experience. I felt a strangely powerful need to explain my actions, I always have. Without this crutch though, I had to just let the moment stand, in all its awkwardness. Whatever impression they had of me — deserved or undeserved — had to be left alone, untempered by my apology.
There are a lot of explanation-inducing moments like this throughout the day, I noticed: when you don’t know if you’re standing in the wrong line, when you’re a bit late for something, when you miss some instruction you weren’t supposed to miss. Without speech, you have to take full responsibility for each faux pas, by letting people see you as you are, without telling them what you are.
A Case of the Sorries
I have the urge to say “sorry” a lot, I noticed. It became clear to me that “sorry” is often not so much an apology as it is something people say when they’re uncomfortable with how they think they’re being perceived. Sorry, I walked on the grass before I saw the sign. Sorry, I started without you because I thought you were going to be a while. Sorry, I’ve left a bit of a mess but I really have to go.
One day last fall I noticed that same need while throwing around the football with some friends. None of us are that great at throwing the ball consistently, so often it sails too wide to catch and the other person has to go chase after it. “Sorry!” the thrower usually shouts.
I threw a couple bad throws in a row, and I realized I was saying “sorry” almost every time I released the ball, sometimes even before I noticed it was a bad throw. I considered the idea of not apologizing after the next ball, no matter what happened. The thought of just throwing a terrible ball and letting it sail quietly into the neighbor’s yard without qualifying it with a “sorry” seemed almost… scary.
That really struck me — the presence of an almost desperate urge to apologize for my throw. I knew it wasn’t because I felt bad that the other guy had to go get the ball and I wanted to let him know that. It was more like I was saying “I am capable of throwing a good ball, as I’m sure you know, but I didn’t this time, sorry” rather than just letting the pathetic, tumbling ball do the talking. To let the moment speak for itself, and perhaps let the bad throw convince us both that I do indeed suck at quarterbacking, was actually quite a leap. But it was much more honest thn trying to explain it away.
Some people are chronic apologizers and self-explainers, and I suspect their reasons are similar. That kind of knee-jerk apologizing is often a stab at coming off as “okay” when deep down you believe you aren’t quite okay. Some of you will know what I mean.
I realized that words are our go-to way of attempting to control our environment. I never thought of it this way, but whenever we request something, express our feelings, explain our actions, or engage in any other form of speech, it is because we’ve found some reason to believe that adding our out-loud thoughts to the moment would make it preferable to what it would be otherwise.
Certainly this is indeed the case sometimes, it’s one of the first things babies learn. But I think it’s easy to lose sight of why we open our mouths at all: because we want something to be different. So often during silence, I found myself in a moment where I felt the urge to alter it with words, yet I had to let it stand. I learned just how much I grasp at things with words.
Speech signifies an intent to change our reality somewhat, which betrays a dissatisfaction with something about the current moment. There is always a desire for a slightly different reality behind our words. Often it makes perfect practical sense to make reality different — a reality in which the taxi driver knows where you want to go is better than one in which you never told him — but more often we’re grasping at petty and vain things, particularly how we come off to others. We’re trying to shape other people’s impressions of us, which is really a roundabout way of shaping our own opinion of us.
Some people probably don’t have that problem at all, but I’m not the only one who mentioned experiencing this during the retreat. By and large we are a society full of justifiers and apologizers. From business to politics, explaining oneself is ubiquitous in our culture. Politicians try to smooth over their insensitive remarks and closet-skeletons, and corporations have to refute bad press and handle product recalls with careful words.
On these levels it is all very calculated, but among individuals it is often much more impulsive and habitual. When you knock something over, or step on someone’s toe at the theater, chances are the word “sorry” comes out of your mouth almost automatically. We seldom look our blunders right in the face as they’re happening, even for a second, before we try to wrangle it with speech. We deny them immediately with explanations and apologies, as if the universe itself made some mistake by having you do something dumb or clumsy, and you need to set the record straight with the people who saw it.
Since the retreat, I’ve learned to let go of that need to explain myself. Historically, I’ve been kind of uptight about “looking like” a jerk or a moron to someone else. I really needed to feel like I didn’t look bad to people. Being here in Thailand, nobody would understand my English explanation anyway, so I can let the opinion-chips fall where they may and it feels fine.
Having had to bear, without being able to defend myself, whatever judgments I triggered during that five days, I realized that the only opinion I was fearing was my own. You can’t actually “feel” someone else’s negative opinion, you can only adopt that opinion yourself, but we explain, apologize, and shy away as if we were actually saving ourselves from judgment. Ironically, the only reason we feel we need saving is because of the judgment we are passing on ourselves. In silence this is obvious, but amidst the soup of the everyday wandering mind, the signals get crossed and we often try to doctor someone else’s thoughts, as if they somehow mattered.
If you find yourself explaining your missteps away, either out loud or in your head, I bet you’d learn a lot about why that is from an extended meditation retreat. This weird thinking pattern is only one of many that became illuminated by my lengthy time in silence. There is just so much going on in our skulls, and against the blank background of a clear mind, you can actually begin to unravel it all. That kind of perspective is so valuable.
It was at the retreat that I realized how crucial this inner work really is. There was such a drastic change in the internal noise level I experienced, that I know the everyday wandering mind has devastating effects on my decision-making and my quality of life. I can’t deny the importance of daily meditation anymore, things got too clear for me to ignore what my mind is doing when I’m not looking. If you are curious as to what your mental chatter is covering up, a silent retreat may be just what the doctor ordered.
Photo by David Cain