I am just returning from a seven day silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts.
These retreats are Theravada Buddhist or vipassan in nature and involve Noble Silence. Noble silence is more than just not talking. It involves disconnecting from all the common distractions we engage with everyday: communication (verbal and nonverbal), reading, writing, and of course interacting with your smart phone. Silence creates a crucible for contemplative experience. Mental patterns that are usually obscured by the noisiness of everyday life are revealed. Our only hope for changing old mental patterns (that is, the ones that lead to restlessness, anxiety, and self-doubt) is to become aware of them.
What do the retreatents actually do? They meditate both sitting and walking. They eat and they rest. Some also exercise, do yoga, qigong, and T’ai Chi. I did all of these. We spent 9-10 hours each day in formal meditation practice. When formal sessions weren’t occurring, informal practice was happening. Each night there was a talk by the teachers providing encouragement and wisdom (and also a welcome dip back into the world of words).
I started my day meditating at 5:45 AM and ended at 9:15 PM. We sat in silence. We walked in silence. We ate in silence. It is rather remarkable how long a day is when you do nothing other than sit, walk, and eat … in silence.
On the one hand, this is an ideal environment for an introvert. Peace, quiet, and stillness. On the other hand, this silence could be too much of a good thing. Introverts are typically not asocial. While we abjure small talk (not a risk of that this week), we crave meaningful connection with other people. That connection was forestalled during the retreat. Instead, the task was to look inside and cultivate a sense of presence in the here and now. The task this week was to re-establish that meaningful connection with ourselves.
Yet, words continued. While the mouth may have been quiet, the mind certainly felt its prerogative to keep talking. Meditation practice is the continual practice of recognizing how the mind has moved into stories, extricating that tendency and re-engaging in the present moment.
For introverts, this degree of silence is a double-edged sword. One edge is welcome relief from the frenzied, loud, and chaotic extrovert circus. The other edge is being left alone with one’s mind with no distractions. Here, there is the risk of falling into and reinforcing the stories in our minds.
Mindfulness provides the technology to navigate this double edge. Mindfulness takes the introvert’s propensity to look within and provide a content-free lens for that introspection. If there is no content (that is, story), there can be no anxiety, agitation, or suffering.
This moment offers a richness and that richness can become palpable after a few days of silence. Eventually, the mind stops talking or at least stops pushing the conversation with such forcefulness.
As an introvert, I found this week both valuable and challenging. The value is coming to silence, quiet, and presence. Mindfulness and the wider scope of the Buddha’s teachings provide the means to navigate the challenge to get to the value.
The challenge is to be left alone with my mind’s ruminative, obsessional tendencies. Without the welcome activities of reading and writing, the mind is left alone, naked and exposed to awareness. It is amazing how much of the mind’s energy is geared towards seeking reassurance or engaging with mental activities tinged with fear such as rehearsing the future, reviewing the past, and explaining things to imaginary others (well, the others may be real but the conversations are happening in imagination).
The alternative to all this soothing is to dwell in the present moment with awareness. From awareness comes a sense of presence. When the stories drop away, peacefulness, equanimity, and love start to replace fear.
This present moment is real; the rest is imagination. We realize we are process—a verb—rather than a thing—a noun—that interacts with other things.
Introverts are naturally drawn to the interior and can make great yogis because of this predilection. With mindfulness, we can avoid the perils of obsessional thinking and open to a wider field of awareness—that quiet interior where peace can be found.