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This side of silence

 BISS (Germany) 21 May 2019

(Originally published: 12/2009) What happens when one spends a weekend in silence together with 22 strangers? An experiment. Claudia raises her left eyebrow, looks at my torso and smiles. Does she like my shirt? Is she flirting with me? Or is she trying to subtly let me know that I have dropped food on myself? When you don’t talk, everything is possible. Claudia, me and 20 other people who have never before met have entered into a voluntary adventure. We will spend a weekend together in silence and to meditate.  - Günter Keil

BISS

Courtesy of BISS

What happens when one spends a weekend in silence together with 22 strangers? An experiment

 

Claudia raises her left eyebrow, looks at my torso and smiles. Does she like my shirt? Is she flirting with me? Or is she trying to subtly let me know that I have dropped food on myself? When you don't talk, everything is possible. Claudia, me and 20 other people who have never before met have entered into a voluntary adventure. We will spend a weekend together in silence and to meditate.

 

It is called 'retreat' - an external and internal retreat from everyday live. It has nothing to do with 'wellness' or flowery new-age concepts. A Buddhist teacher explains the rules which sound like life at a monastery: Wake up at 5.30am, first meditation at 6am, then breakfast, housework, meditation, lunch, meditation, lectures, dinner, meditation, to bed at 10pm. The full monty. And in particular: we are to keep our mouths shut. Silence. Around the clock, from Friday night till Monday morning. Also not allowed: Telephone, text-messaging, radio, iPod, DVD, telly, newspapers, magazines and books. How are we going to last? Doubts are arising but it is already too late. I have arrived this side of silence.

 

The place of speechlessness could hardly be more beautiful: a remote old farmhouse converted to a training centre, 800 metres high in the Alps. Much snow and much countryside. From the city one can hear the sound of traffic. Otherwise there is hardly a sound. The absence of chatter and screaming fits into the picture. But it is unusual, especially for someone from a major city with a job that involves much communication. Some participants accidentally break the silence. "So tell me,..." ich say to a man on the way to the meditation room - and quickly fall silent. Shit. Behind me a girl who did the same chuckles. To find out how long the following part of the programme will last, I point to my watch and then to the meditation room and lift my arms. He understands. One hour, he indicates with his thumb. During the next days, I find that it is indeed fairly simple to converse without words, misunderstandings inclusive. But don't they also happen in verbal conversations? Couples therapists know that.

 

Meditation is hard work. Sit down, close your eyes, relax - as if. What looks so simply when the Dalai Lama does it, can actually drive a novice insane. The lotus position turns into torture. The silence in the room creates strange perceptions: I hear my heartbeat with unnatural loudness. My ears swoosh and hiss. I feel hot, then suddenly cold. I have never felt my own breathing louder. And then the thoughts. With no external sensations (apart from the odd sneeze or cough in the room), I grumpily ponder. The quieter it is outside, the louder the inner voices. "Let go!, the teacher offers and explains that the path to oneself and to inner peace is a stony one. "Stay alert, observe what happens inside you and don't lose patience." Okay. I plod on, despite all opposition. I do indeed manage to get a grip on my negative feelings. In the course of the weekend I learn: Stillness and concentration help to discover or rediscover oneself. This can be overwhelming, hard, beautiful or shocking. But never boring.

 

My scepticism starts to fade. I enjoy the silence. I am surrounded by people but without any of the usual forced communication - it is a relief. By the end of the first day I already see the silence as beneficial. It surrounds everyone like a shield and separates us from the verbal trash of everyday life. But it is also extremely cunning and sharpens one's senses. Thus it turns into a relentless mirror of one's own feelings, moods and fears. With no distractions, food tastes more intensely. I take my time and chew with pleasure on the delicious potato bake which otherwise I would have hastily swallowed. I feel the spice of the chilis expanding in my throat and producing a tickle. I feel the mineral water slowly wander through my body, centimetre by centimetre. Then I realise: I have stopped doing things simultaneously: chewing food while already filling the next fork. Lifting the glass with my mouth still full. Not having finished yet but already taking the napkin into my hands. All this need not be. Completed one after another, these actions will bring more pleasure. At home or in the canteen I am usually done eating within 15 minutes. Here, without pressure or conversation it takes me 35 minutes for the same amount. Another effect the silence has: it leads to new thoughts and observations. I ask myself: Does one get stronger jaw muscles when taking more time chewing? Does the steam from the tea always rise up vertically before curling up? Did the tree in front of the dining room already have 27 branches yesterday? Is Claudia in pain because she is stroking her tummy with her eyes closed or is she simply enjoying the food? Are the eight dark and four light crumbs on the floor from breakfast?

 

Outside it is snowing. Once again we are meditating. Inside the bright room with the statue of Buddha it is completely silent. How do the others manage to be so quiet? Every now and then a blanket rustles, wood creaks, someone lets out a long deep breath. Nothing else. I look over to the window and imagine hearing the snowflakes softly touching the ground. Of course this is silly. But then: Muffled crunching of snow, a subtle sound of shoes - someone walks by, watches us motionless beings with curiosity and then moves on. Does he sense how precious silence feels? Does he know that silence slows down the entire day? It is true: The silence takes away our restlessness. We don't run around or bang doors but we do put things back in their place more carefully. Everything happens more consciously. "Care" our teacher wants from us. This he gets. Everyone feels it: we don't want to go back to how things were in noisy reality. On the last day of our weekend we have no desire for small talk, music, radio or newspapers. Let the world turn without us. Life in slow motion feels good. And the silence is wonderful. Yes, I think to myself: the less input one hast o deal with, the greater the impression it creates. And who knows, maybe now I will become rich. After all, silence is golden, is it not?

 

We are allowed to talk again. We do so with pleasure. "How did you like it? Where are you from? Did you sleep as well as I did? Could you give me a lift in your car?" My voice is strained and I have to get used to it again. But soon it is fun to be able to engage in verbal exchanges. Less fun is the return to the noise all around us. Everywhere seems too loud and too crowded. A constant brutal attack on the senses. How come I never noticed the noise in which we live? Why do we do it? I want to go back to the safe zone. But that's not possible. I am back on the far side of silence, in reality. What a shame.

 

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