A friend was astonished the other day when I was explaining to him that on the Mindfulness Workshops I facilitate each month that I ask participants to refrain from conversation with each other and if possible to avoid meeting the eyes of another participant.
I got the impression that he felt this was a big ask especially after learning that most of the people who rock up to my day workshops have never attended a retreat before. Afterwards I discover that for the majority the silence has been a powerful experience forming a foundation for their sustained investigation of self. Most say that they began by feeling apprehensive and even a bit resentful or anxious about the silence requirements framing it as a bit unfriendly or unsociable to other people or to the partner or friend they had brought along with them for the day. As the silence deepened they experienced it as a release and as profoundly restful as well as giving new energy.
Why is this I wonder? I sense that when a group of people come together and talk that put invest energy into creating a profile or 'face' for the other person or other people in the conversation. What is it that we desire to convey to the other about our self and our interests. We prove ourselves in conversation or by keeping silence we become absent from the gathering or perceived as being shy, inept or rude. Keeping a collective silence opens up a new way of relating, at least in potential. Individuals are free to be with themselves, investigating and observing their breathing, or body scanning or whatever the exercise of mindfulness meditation is at that point, but must also be attentive to others especially at meal times when food is prepared, shared and bowls washed up and put away without speech.
Sometimes my reflection as the day progresses is along these lines. "Nicholas, when you were young you desired to be a monk and stayed in many monasteries moved by the powerful rituals, the simplicity and the silence of such places and imagined your life among books, sharing these rituals and being in community" The silent mindfulness days serve as a kind of secular monastic experience and although not religious they seem to take on a sacred quality and engender among those who come a sense of community. People are not conscious that the days have a monastic feel about them at all but released from the burden of speaking they seem to slow down, open up and behave in thoughtful compassionate and appreciative ways.