By Dr. Rohi Shetty
“Silence is not merely an absence of noise. Real silence begins when a reasonable being withdraws from the noise in order to find peace and order in his inner sanctuary.” ~Peter Minard
Meditation courses have become increasingly popular throughout the world. Among them are the ten-day residential Vipassana meditation retreats that originated in Myanmar (Burma).
One of the unique features of this course is the rule to observe “noble silence” for the first nine days of the course. Noble silence means that we do not communicate with fellow meditators for the first nine days of the course, neither verbally nor by gestures.
The format of the Vipassana course is designed to deliver maximum benefits in exchange for our investment of ten days. As with all the other course-rules, the rule of noble silence is flexible. Though we cannot communicate with our fellow students, we are free to communicate with the course organizers about any material difficulty. We can also meet the meditation teacher and clarify any difficulties we may face in their meditation practice.
Still, many of us find this requirement of total silence daunting. Though we want to “sit” a Goenka Vipassana retreat, we hesitate because we are not sure if we can zip their lips for ten days.
However, much to their surprise, most participants find it surprisingly easy to follow this rule once they screw up the courage to join the course. There are several reasons for this.
- Support of the other course participants
Since all the other course participants practice silence, it seems “natural” to be silent not only in the meditation hall but in the entire meditation campus. One experience that many cherish is the silence during meals. Also, by remaining mindfully silent, we are supporting the meditation practice of fellow meditators.
In addition, every Vipassana course usually has “old students”, who have attended one or more courses earlier. These participants act as role models and set a good example for those who are attending a course for the first time.
- Rare chance to be silent for nine days
In routine day-to-day life, it is difficult, if not impossible, to remain silent for a long period. We have to communicate with family, friends and co-workers at home, at the office and everywhere else. Even when we are alone, the world is too much with us, thanks to TV, cell phones, newspapers, and internet.
On the other hand, in a Vipassana course, silence is an integral part of the meditation practice. We are also cut off from all external contacts and distractions. (We have to deposit our cell phones before joining the course!) Within a day or two, most participants start to enjoy the silence and view it as a gift rather than a curse.
- Silence and meditation are mutually beneficial
During the course, participants discover from their own experience that the practice of noble silence is the most beneficial course-rule. When they remain silent, they are better able to focus on the meditation practice without any outward interruption or disturbance. Verbal silence plays a crucial role in stilling the mind and developing mental equanimity.
- Silence helps to avoid dissipation of energy
During the course, Vipassana meditators realize how much physical, mental and emotional energy they conserve by the practice of silence. They realize the truth of Kahlil Gibran’s words,
“You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.
For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.”
- Silence protects you from negative talk
During the meditation course, Mr. Goenka not only emphasizes the importance of noble silence but also explains the four types of unwholesome speech in everyday life.
According to the Buddha, these are:
- Deliberate lies and half-truths
- Idle gossip and frivolous talk
- Harsh speech and destructive criticism
- Backbiting and slander of others
Right speech means avoiding these four types of wrong speech. Anyone who abstains from these four types of “wrong” speech is automatically communicating in a positive and constructive way. If you can’t avoid wrong speech, said the Buddha, it is better to be silent.
Join the conversation:
Have you ever joined any silent retreat?
What was your experience?
Let us know in the comments below.
(21 March 2017)