Day of Silence
Eleanor Rachel Luger interviews Gina Sharpe
ERL: New York Insight has included three Days of Silence in the 2001-2002 schedule. Why has NYI scheduled the days of silence and what will the format be?
GS: People were asking for them. In addition, they, quite rightly, emphasize the wisdom aspect of the teaching. The days of silence also give our sangha the chance simply to practice together. They offer us a place of refuge, a place simply to be with things as they are.
ERL: What do the days of silence represent practice-wise?
The days of silence represent one of the three aspects of the path. The days of silence emphasize the meditation aspect. They emphasize one’s own practice and one’s own way of being in the world with things exactly as they are. Teachers can point the way, but when we practice, we see the truth from our own experience. No teacher can find the path for us; the path is our own to discover within.
ERL: Are the days of silence appropriate for people at all levels of meditation experience?
GS: Yes. People have asked us [Board members] to do things for advanced students. However, we would rather not categorize students as advanced or beginning, though we recognize that some students are more experienced than others are. We [Board members] have not set up barriers by designating this retreat for beginning students or that retreat for advanced students
I do not feel like anything but a beginner, myself, and I discovered Buddhism 32 years ago. The more I discover my own dharma, the vaster it appears, and the less I feel I know. If I am to see without prejudice or preconception what is true in this moment, the importance of ‘not knowing’ becomes more and more meaningful to me.
Our practice is constantly evolving, and it always can be refreshed. Ajahn Chah said that people are like bottles: When full, you cannot pour any more into them. In other words, we need to be empty vessels if we are going to continue to discover the dharma, the truth of the way things are. Our acquired knowledge is limited, but our intuitive intelligence, which we access through this very simple practice, is infinite. How can we call ourselves anything but humble beginners?
ERL: It took me a while to realize that practice is just that–sitting–and that an emphasis on reading and talking about the dharma and minimizing the sitting component makes for an incomplete practice.
GS: We read and we talk. In our Western culture, that is how we have been taught to learn. We are conditioned from the very beginning to believe that we need to be engaged all of the time. Through constant practice, we begin to see a much larger picture of who we are, and are then able to step back from that small body of fear in which we constantly operate. We can never understand fear or anger or any other of our driving emotions if we try to do it with our minds, because the mind can and does mislead. We only discover this when we are silent and able to observe the mind’s workings.
ERL: What would you say to people who are afraid of sitting at a daylong retreat?
GS: That’s a very good question. I would say that it [a retreat] is not a jail! If you approach a retreat from the point of view of ‘I’ll never be able to sit for that many hours,’ it makes it very daunting. But if you approach it on a moment by moment basis, ‘I’ll be here for the next moment, for the next breath, and the next breath,’ you can do it. Seriously, our experience has been that even beginning students are amazed at how quickly a day of silence goes by!
The physical pain we sometimes feel comes from our resistance to sitting. Most of us have not been still long enough to experience the tightness and contraction in our bodies. That all comes up when we sit. Experiencing the pain feels like a new and overwhelming experience, but it is not. We are simply experiencing what is already there, but has been ignored or unnoticed. And of course, if you sit on the floor, you are in a posture that your body is not used to.
It takes a while to settle into the silence. I find if I sit for 45 minutes or an hour once or twice a day, the accumulated benefit is very apparent. If I go away from that good habit, it takes a while to build it back up. It is the same for a daylong retreat. The accumulated stillness gets quite deep. Boredom and physical discomfort may arise occasionally, but that is the nature of being in the body. The silence and stillness that accumulate from the time and the work put in and the inevitable wisdom are invaluable.
ERL: What are some of the benefits of participating in a day of silence?
GS: A wonderful aspect of a day of silence is being able to sit with other people, which is very supportive of one’s practice.
In silence and stillness, we begin to see and understand the habits of the mind. We have taken a lifetime to develop these habits, which often become unconscious. I have not encountered anything better than meditation to help us recognize the forces of greed, hatred and delusion in our lives. When we stop to look and be mindful of what is happening in our minds, it sometimes surprises us that it is not as pretty as we would like it to be. Only through this seeing can we begin to throw off the chains that bind us. If greed, hatred and delusion drive us, the results of those states in our lives are harmful. When I am able to see greed in my own life, I can make another choice. If I do not know it is there, I can do nothing about it, and I am contributing it to the world. If I can make the choice to act from generosity, love and wisdom, then that is what I am contributing.
As we deepen our own silence and stillness, a larger space opens around us. That space can hold conflicting and divergent views, and we come to recognize that we do not have the answers any more than anyone else does. If we are not able to open to each moment exactly as it is, if each moment is overlaid with old views, opinions and beliefs, then no moment is new and there can be no possibility of being in the world in a new way, no possibility for growth. There is no space for things to be different. If we think the world is this way, or that way, it needs to conform to this thing or that thing, then there is no space to hold the possibility that the world is new with each breath.
ERL: You mentioned silent eating would be a component of the retreat. Why have you included it?
GS: Many of us were brought up to think at meal time you brought everybody up to date about your life and discussed the issues of the day. Actually, this was quite valuable in my family. It is a new experience for us to eat in silence and simply to be with each other quietly. That is one aspect of it. The second aspect of it is to taste your food and be mindful and present with what is happening in this moment, even while doing something as mundane and familiar as eating. For most of us, when we come to meditation and do silent eating, we realize that we never had the faintest idea what the experience of eating is or what food really tastes like. What I look for in my food now is very different from before I came to silent eating. I loved rich French food and going to fancy restaurants. Now I find those tastes too bombarding. The sweet taste of a peach or the sour taste of a plum or the lovely texture of a grain can be quite wonderful, if you are paying attention. I realize I do not need a strong, rich taste to be satisfied from a meal. Just paying attention to taste has enabled me to capture subtle flavors I never knew existed. In a very direct way, silent eating allows us to see the value of mindfulness.