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Entering Silence, or, At Least, Entering Silently

September 23, 2011
by Rabbi Chava Bahle

The reality that is present to us and in us: call it being … or Silence. And the simple fact that by being attentive, by learning to listen (or recovering the natural capacity to listen) we can find ourself engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained: the happiness of being at one with everything in that hidden ground of Love for which there can be no explanations. May we all grow in grace and peace, and not neglect the silence that is printed in the center of our being. It will not fail us. –Thomas Merton  

In most yoga rooms, and in every Bikram studio in which I have practiced, there is a written or an unwritten code that once we enter the room, we enter silence, or at least we are meant to enter silently. This is one of my favorite parts of yoga practice.  It is so rare to be in community and hold intentional silence together.

A few weeks ago I broke every rule in the book and had an actual non-whispered conversation with several of my classmates before class about what they considered their favorite postures and which they considered most challenging.  It was a full blown conversation–we didn’t even pretend to whisper–and afterward I felt guilty, since I had initiated the entire thing, but it was wonderful to get to listen to these good folks next to whom I practice but some of whom I barely know. I justified my behavior by thinking, “Well, at least we were talking about yoga.” (1-800-RATIONALIZE, how may I help you?)

I have been on many silent retreats or retreats where I have chosen to hold silence myself, and I admit I LOVE IT.  Maybe it is because I talk for a living that I love being in places of not talking; it is one reason I go the the Abbey of Gethsemani so faithfully every year. The monks never talk to me unless I initiate it, and because words are sparing, precious, the conversations are rich and deep and about important spiritual matters.

Many years ago, I was at a silent yoga and meditation retreat at Kripalu, an had a wonderful thing happen – I ran into my home yoga studio teacher Sandy Carden in the bathroom.  We were hundreds of miles from home and surprised to see each other, so I threw aside the silence for a wonderful catchup session amongst the stalls. Unwritten rule: The bathroom doesn’t count. Right? (What was that 800 number again?)

I was once on silent retreat at Omega with Tara Brach, of my favorite Buddhist teachers.  My dad had been diagnosed with cancer, so midweek I called to check in.  My mother asked if I was meeting nice people, and I could hear my dad yell in the background, “How can she meet anyone? No one is talking!”

Spending those weeks at Omega – moving silently among people who were speaking – I noticed how much of the time, when we are speaking, we seem to be “selling” people on our wonderfulness. I noticed recently when a group of particularly chatty folks came into the yoga room where I and several others were already in shivanasana, how their conversation was so important to them – catching up the previous weekend – that they seemed not to notice that others were there, attempting to hold silence in the posture of shivasana.  I felt a lot of frustration and resentment.

Since I am often an early-to-arrive-silent-shivasana maven, it is often my experience that I feel this aggravation when talkers come in.  I keep having to remind myself that my inner silence is not dependent on outer circumstance. Ugh. It is so much easier to blame people for disturbing me, than to take responsibility for addressing the jackhammer that is incessant inner monologue commenting on their behavior.

It is hard to be silent when we are with others. I know this from being a rabbi and observing how in moments of unspeakable loss or tragedy people often feel a need to say something, anything, to those who are in great pain and how often these attempts to fill the void fall flat or cause more distress. Truly sometimes it is okay just to say, “I am so sorry.  I have no words for this moment, other than ‘I am here with and for you’.”

Silence is a hard practice, and in yoga there is a difference – I think – between entering the room silently and entering silence. One is the cessation of speaking and noise making (remember my warning, mat snappers); the other is an inner gesture of moving to a place of stillness, the place within us that is not constantly monologuing, judging, commenting, selling, believing something, opining.

Attending to the breath is a great vehicle for moving into noble silence.  No matter what is going on around us, with practice, we can use the breath as a vehicle to quiet the mind, slow the inner monologue, and learn to hold everything that is occurring around us in a quiet awareness.  This is part of what Tara Brach called radical acceptance: a non-reactive experiencing of reality. Sounds come and go, thoughts, judgments, desires, and again, we return to the breath, the rising and falling, breathing in and breathing out.

So maybe the practice is to begin by learning to enter the room silently – begin with an agreement to enter and set up in purposeful quietude – and then work toward entering silence.

Rabbi Chava Bahle lives in rural northwest Michigan, near Traverse City, and travels the country to inspire people of all faiths. She is an ordained rabbi in Jewish Renewal, and an ordained Maggid, a Jewish inspirational preacher and story teller.
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