Sweet Silence

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April 20, 2010

In February, Kibbutz Hannaton, where I live and work, hosted a week-long Jewish silent meditation retreat with over fifty participants. I must admit that it was strange having this many people living here for an entire week without an opportunity to get to know any of them in the conventional way. But their presence made me think about silence and my relationship to it.

Many at the retreat reported relief at not having to make conversation and “be social” in what would usually be a highly socially charged situation (a week-long retreat); yet they also said they felt supported by the group, even if they were not actually communicating with one another. The presence of the group made them feel that they were not alone—especially in such an intense experience that for many participants brought up difficult buried issues.

But why silence?

In a society that values “doing” above all else, pushing us to “accomplish” and “succeed,” experiencing silence allows for simply “being” present in the moment and open to what may arise as a result. Silence is neither tangible nor predictable. It can be uncomfortable and unsettling to be in that place of apparent nothingness. Yet out of that nothingness the most sublime creation can arise. Moreover, society teaches us to measure our worth based on what others think of us. When we are alone and in silence, this is impossible. We are the only measure of our self worth. If I am feeling good about myself, if I love my own company, I welcome silence. If not, the more noise and “busy-ness” the better. When I am in silence, I feel most connected to my own spirit, without the input of others (for good and for bad).

During the months leading up to my family’s move to the Galilee, I noticed a lot of press about the trend of moving north. An interview with one particular woman stuck in my head. She was living on a Moshav somewhere in the Galilee with her husband. Their children were grown, and they retired and bought a piece of land, planted a vineyard, and opened a boutique winery. I remember her saying that living in the country, one has to enjoy one’s own company. There are simply not as many people around.

While my family and I did not move to a secluded house on a hill, but rather to an intentional community that requires much social interaction, meetings, and gatherings, I do find I spend much more time here alone or in silence. In the city, when I went out for a walk, I inevitably bumped into a variety of friends and acquaintances at least every few blocks I walked. When I go back to Jerusalem to visit, it is the same way. But here, when I go out for a walk outside the kibbutz grounds, I can be out for hours without speaking to anyone. I do some of my best thinking on these walks—whether it is about my writing, my relationships, my work, or what I am going to cook for Shabbat.

As much as I treasure my daily solitary silent walks, I don’t know if I would sign up for a week-long silent meditation retreat. One thing I most appreciate about my walks is the way they balance out the rest of my day, in which I am interacting with others and being productive. Moreover, such a retreat is highly programmed so as to force participants into being only inwardly focused. For instance, my silent nature walks would not be allowed because even the activity of walking and viewing nature would be considered too distracting from the work of looking into one’s inner self. As retreat participant Jody Blum explained to me: “That is what the retreat was about, going inside and being with ones deepest, most innermost feelings rather than running away from them, no matter how painful. The fewer distractions there are, the easier that is to do, but believe me, it wasn’t easy!!”

I am a person who enjoys being alone. For me, being anti-social for one week would be a welcome vacation from my life as a mother of six children living in a close-knit intentional community. Yet, there is a danger in that kind of solitary existence. When we are too inner-directed, we lack input from others that can help us see things from a different point of view. That is the purpose of the concept of chevruta, the tradition of studying Jewish texts in pairs. It is also the purpose of having an editor or a business partner, or even a life partner.

I prefer to experience silence in action, and in nature. Each day, I revel in silence when I take our family dog, Tiffy, out for long walks. With Tiffy, there is no pressure to make conversation. Walking with her instead of another human being allows me the space to let my mind wander and benefit from the silence. Sometimes I do turn inward; but these walks also give me reason to turn outward, to smell the fields, to see the stars.

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