Meditating With Monks: Insight 1 - Silence
Updated: Jan 22, 2019
This 12-post blog series is dedicated to 12 of the most valuable insights that I gleaned during my 10-Days of Silent Vipassana Meditation at Wat Suan Mokkh, a Buddhist monastery in Surat Thani, Thailand.
Having listened to monks speak for 10 days, I can confirm that most of them are closet comedians. In honour of their light-hearted approach to life, I’ve tried to write these 12 blog posts in an amusing and entertaining way.
The 12 insights are: 1) Silence. 2) Expectation. 3) Fatigue. 4) Adversity. 5) Cleaning Toilets. 6) Impermanence. 7) Attachment. 8) Authority Figures & Control. 9) Pace of Life. 10) The Present Moment. 11) The Pond. 12) The Tree.
I hope that these insights prove to be as valuable for you as they were for me.
Insight 1 - Silence
The Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, once said: ‘Open your mouth only if what you have to say is more beautiful than silence’. There's no better way to appreciate the truth behind this quote than to experience silence for 10 days!
Many people assume that one of the most challenging aspects of silent Vipassana retreats is not talking for 10 days. If anything, I found it to be one of the easiest aspects of the experience. Those who know me quite well may be surprised at this – I struggle to stay silent for 10 minutes, let alone 10 days!
Nevertheless, I wasn't afraid of silence. Despite my outwardly vocal nature, I’m quite introspective and spend long periods of time (too long sometimes!) with my thoughts. This has given me experience with confronting my insecurities and personal demons on many past occasions. Because of this, I wasn't afraid that silence would cause them to rise to the surface - if anything, I was intrigued to see what new demons the silence would reveal.
But were you really not allowed to talk for 10 whole days?
During the retreat, silence meant that we couldn't talk to any of our fellow retreat guests. We also couldn't speak aloud to ourselves. However, we were permitted to read Buddhist chants three times a day - before breakfast, before lunch, and during our daily chanting sessions. On Days 3, 4 and 5, we were also permitted to arrange an interview with a monk to ask questions about mindfulness practices or Buddhist principles.
Aside from this, complete silence.
Wait, why is silence even enforced in this way at these Vipassana retreats?
First, it helps us to focus on our meditation practice and seek deeper insights into life, as silence helps us to become more observant of what is going on around us and within us. We become more aware with our own thoughts, pleasant or not, and less concerned with those belonging to other people.
In addition, when we talk to others, we’re often talking and listening in the language of ego - ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’. We talk about what ‘I’ think, what ‘I’ want or what ‘my’ view is. We relate what we hear to how it affects or is relevant to ‘me’. The words we speak, the opinions we share – all are spoken in such a way to construct the image that we want people to have of ‘me’.
Silence didn’t allow my ego to indulge in this normal behaviour. The thoughts of what I wanted to say would emerge, but I wouldn’t be permitted to voice them...
On the other hand, the chants allowed us to use our voice only to express what is considered to be 'Right Insight' in Buddhist philosophy. The purpose of this was to emphasise that 'Right Speech' can only emerge with 'Right Insight'. Both of these are elements of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, the path that leads us away from suffering and towards enlightenment.
Alright, so what did you actually learn?
Overall, silence taught me two valuable lessons (and one sweet analogy!):
1. My opinion does not always need to be heard.
How many opinions do I voice that don’t actually add value, but are simply spoken to attract attention or fill silence? How many of the words I speak are said only to reinforce the image that I want others to have of me?
Being honest with myself, the answer to both questions is, ‘too many’. A lot of this stems from old insecurities, such as a fear of being overlooked and going unnoticed in a group. But being aware of this now, as well as appreciating the beauty of silence and the importance of 'Right Speech', I have the power to change this old habit.
2. If you resist the temptation to voice a complaint, it simply disappears!
On Day 0, 1 and 2, there was so much that I wanted to complain about – concrete slabs, giant spiders, ant bites, and so on. But without the ability to voice it, the complaint could only remain in my mind. My ego couldn’t indulge in the joy of voicing a complaint and making everyone recognise that I was enduring this unpleasantness, that I was a victim of suffering.
Realising this, ego had two choices. One, hold that complaint in my mind and make me suffer more. Two, let go of the unspoken complaint, as it wasn’t serving me to suffer from it if I didn’t get others to recognise my suffering!
Naturally, it chose number two. There was no ‘benefit’ to having a complaint but not being able to voice it! Knowing this, I choose to complain far less nowadays. Not only is complaining an unpleasant trait in general, but I’ve come to realise that satisfying the ego isn’t a good enough reason for indulging in it.
I'll end with this analogy:
Silence can be daunting at first, like looking into the night sky after being surrounded by bright lights. There is only the vast expanse, the unknown stretching out as far as we can see or hear. But just as our eyes adapt to the night sky given time, our mind adapts to silence. And just as we begin to see beautiful stars painting the canvas of the night sky instead of an immense void of darkness, silence begins to illuminate the beauty in what is around us and what is inside us.
The more we allow ourselves to embrace silence, the quieter the voices of our fears and insecurities start to become. Their words, once permeating, intimidating and paralysing, become fainter and fainter, less and less important, as they become drowned out by the beautiful, reverberating sound of silence.
Silence is a wonderful teacher. Permit it to bless you with insight, perspective and understanding.
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making cheesy motivational Instagram posts.