I was walking on a sidewalk at night and saw a cute skunk up ahead. It moved around a little, but did not get off the sidewalk. My common sense kicked in instinctively, and I stopped in my tracks. I marveled at how this cuddly, furry little creature commanded such respect. Even top predators know what a force the skunk is, and avoid it if they have any sense. Skunks know how to set boundaries. It occurred to me that I too was making space for myself and setting boundaries at that time, because I was on a silent retreat at a monastery.
I go to a monastery twice a year to partake in a self-imposed time of silence—usually a few days. There are monasteries of different religions, and most are gorgeous, out-of-the-way places where generations of practicing monastics have been praying, meditating and living for over a century. I most frequently go to the Benedictine Sisters Retreat at Sacred Heart Monastery in Alabama, but I’ve been to Magnolia Grove in Mississippi, a Buddhist monastery under the auspices of the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, to Yogaville, Virginia, an ashram started by Swami Satchidananda, and Thomas Merton’s Gesthemane, a Trappist Monk Abbey in Kentucky. When I’m home I get asked by curious friends, “What do you do there?” The answer is, “Nothing.”
There are only a few things you can do when you’ve volunteered to do nothing. Without reading, writing, looking at pictures, cooking, or accomplishing anything, I am left with meditating, yoga, walking, or laying down. The idea is to allow the mind to have no distractions, no input. Most people I know tell me that they could not do such a thing; they would go crazy. And they might be right. Before one attends the silent retreats at Sacred Heart, one must go through a sort of orientation weekend to get used to what this practice entails: being alone with one’s thoughts day and night. It isn’t for sissies.
At the end of some organized silent weekends, participants are asked to share, if they are inclined, how the experience was for them. It is not uncommon to go around the room and hear a number of people tell how difficult and miserable it was for them. They are not upset about this. They’ve come prepared for what can happen, and have signed up for an adventure of being real with themselves, not for pretending to be blissful or forcing themselves to feel good. Some call the process of letting the painful mind states arise “unloading” or call the process “purification.” Repressed emotions and thoughts are free to rise to our awareness or conscious mind when outside clutter is eliminated. There is an understanding that the psycho-rubble can be addressed and/or released as it rises to the surface when the din of everyday life is silenced.
As I painted this piece, I realized that the skunk’s attributes well reflected some of the aspects of the silent retreat experience. As I said, skunks set boundaries like a pro. They are quiet, and seemingly benign in manner, but they are not pushovers. To represent other features of a silent retreat I gave the skunk an old-fashioned bathing suit and umbrella, and both are for protection—especially compared to bathing costumes of today. To be on a beach is to vacation from the cares of life. The umbrella has drops on it, perhaps from a recent rain, to show that both sun and showers are kept away while this removal from everyday life is happening. A monastery is a refuge from outside influences. I find silent retreats to be the height of luxury—a break from absolutely everything.
When I set boundaries to clear space for whatever mind states I have, I can then allow them to be, and endure the good or bad feeling of it. Becoming familiar with my inner happenings has gotten easier as I paint this series of work, go on silent retreats, and take time each day to be quiet. I’ve found inner felt states to be more genuinely informative and reliable as indicators of the “truth” about myself than intellectual analysis. The feelings (which doesn’t always mean emotions) of the moment have a unique energetic flavor and texture. Accessing them takes focused attention and requires that I allow myself to be as real as I can. If I am still and quiet and listen carefully with my presence, not my ears or mind, I can feel energies, pulsations, movement, pain and pleasure…really a whole world of sensations. And along with it there is space and a sense of self in there. A quiet sense of awareness. It’s empty in a good way. It doesn’t need anything to complete it, to be added to it. It doesn’t need other moments or places to be more interesting. It is peaceful and satisfied. I find it more often if I am willing to practice accessing it come what may.
The distractions are fine, too. Yoga teacher Sally Kempton taught me that my thoughts and interferences are also a part of the energetic pulse of life, not to be labeled as “other” and different than the good stuff of being in the moment. This one wise tidbit opened a big hole in my limiting idea that I had to shut out certain mind states to produce better ones. Even the pesky chatter of the mind can be seen with gentle acceptance. It is easier to place my attention inward when I give a respectful nod to the surface mind clutter first. I’m saying, “It’s all good, and I’m just taking a little time in here for now.”
The longer I go without getting silent and going inside, the more I habitually focus on the thoughts and distractions that are offered up outside me. That mental chatter is only a perceived version of the reality of the world, honed and directed by my personal take on things. It isn’t necessarily bad, but I miss out on the limitless, grand, fascinating and terrifying world of myth and possibility that lie within. The regular practice of silence helps me access that terrain more readily, and step ever deeper into discovery there.
I used to worry that if I mediated too much or centered my life around spirituality, that I would become disconnected with everyday life, a cosmic flake with a spiritual superiority complex who shuns anything banal or “negative.” It might be good that I kept my eye on that possibility, because it may have helped keep my ego from grasping onto the uplifting and blissful experiences that meditation can bring. I try to classify the euphoria in the same category as torment. Both are mind states and interesting experiences, and they both come and go. I try to acknowledge whatever arises—without latching onto it and assuming it means something huge. Like the lovely verse from the 2500 year old Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, I am like a glass of muddy water, waiting for the mud to settle so the water is clear. Then I find more and more moments I can rest in that place of no-thought—the vast, clear, place of pure awareness.
As I write this I find myself grateful that I’ve been practicing this search for a while. My inner experience isn’t forbidden, unknown territory anymore, and even when difficult feelings arise, I am more curious than afraid. I made a goal a long time ago that I would get to the point where I considered pain just as interesting to deal with as pleasure. If I’m going to have it anyway, I might as well see what pearls I can glean from it. I find silence the equalizing practice that makes all inner states more interesting, pleasure more enjoyable, and pain more tolerable. And a growing equanimity is only one of the infinite benefits silence can bring.