Being Silent Together

"I live in a retreat center in southwest France where we practice a kind of silence called noble silence. The practice is easy. If we are talking, we are talking. But if we are doing something else — such as eating, walking, or working — then we do just these things. We aren't doing these things and also talking. So we do these things in joyful noble silence. In this way, we are free to hear the deepest call of our hearts.

"Recently, there was a day when a lot of us, both monastics and laypeople, were having lunch together outside, sitting on the grass. All of us went to serve ourselves and then joined the group to sit down. We sat in concentric circles, one small circle within a larger circle, and then another, still-larger circle. We didn't say anything.

"I was the first to sit down. I sat and practiced mindful breathing to establish silence in myself. I listened to the birds, to the wind, and enjoyed the beauty of spring. I wasn't waiting for others to come and sit down so I could begin eating. I just enjoyed sitting there for about twenty minutes or more, while other people served themselves and came and sat down.

"There was silence. But I felt that silence was not as deep as it could have been, perhaps because people had been distracted while getting their food, walking as they held their plates, and then sitting down. I sat in silence and observed this.

"I had a small bell with me, and when everyone was seated, I invited the bell to sound. Since we'd just spent a week together practicing listening to the bell and breathing in and out mindfully, we all listened very well. Right after the first sound of the bell of mindfulness, the silence felt quite different. It was real silence, because everyone had stopped thinking. We focused our attention on the in-breath as we breathed in, on the out-breath as we breathed out. We breathed together, and our collective silence generated a strong field of energy. Silence like this can be called thundering silence, because it's eloquent and powerful. In this silence, I could hear the wind and the birds so much more vividly. Before that, I'd heard the birds and the wind, but not in the same way, because I didn't have the deepest kind of silence.

"Practicing silence to empty all kinds of noise within you is not a difficult practice. With some training, you can do it. In noble silence, you can walk, you can sit, you can enjoy your meal. When you have that kind of silence, you have enough freedom to enjoy being alive and to appreciate all the wonders of life. With that kind of silence you are more capable of healing yourself, mentally and physically. You have the capacity to be, to be there, alive. Because you really are free — free from your regrets and suffering concerning the past, free from your fear and uncertainty about the future, free from all kinds of mental chatter. Being silent in this way when you are alone is good, and being silent in this way together is particularly dynamic and healing."