Have a voice during the silence during the retreat

- through Francois Leclercq

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. . . without the alternation of sound and silence, there would be no rhythm. —Thomas Merton

It is the mindset taught and reinforced through improvisation, a mindset in which the here and now is not a fashionable idea but a matter of life and death, on which we we can learn to depend reliably. We can count on the world as a perpetual surprise in perpetual motion. And a perpetual invitation to create. —Stephen Nachmanovitch

The german word unmündig, which translates to "minor", literally means "without a mouth". You might take this to mean "having no voice" or "having no say." This thought came to mind during a recent retreat in Germany, to a place called Waldhaus am Laacher See, which I attended with my husband. It is one of the oldest Buddhist retreat centers in Germany and is a short walk from the village in the Eifel where my brother lives and where we had a family reunion to celebrate his 60th birthday.

Silence is an indispensable part of any retreat, and I was interested to hear how the teacher, Agnes Pollner, a student at Shenpen Hookham, presented its virtues in her first talk. She described the elimination of opportunities for dialogue with others as a safeguard against reactivity – not having to have an immediate response. The space of silence is also an opportunity to free yourself from prejudice: “You don't have to believe everything you tell yourself about yourself and about others. Silence offers us the means to remain in "intermediate states"; become sensitive to the pastel tones of the experience. I enjoyed his exhibits – it's so valuable to be guided by someone else once in a while and to be in the role of a participant rather than a teacher. She encouraged “emotionally intelligent” practice, taking into account the inevitable initial reading of the lives we have led.

Much of my own "reading" had to do with recent family time - three days of living in close quarters with seven adults who don't see each other very often and who share tremendous historical baggage. There's a word of wisdom from a famous meditation teacher – or probably several of them: “If you think you're enlightened, spend time with your family. Well, enlightened or probably not, the nagging, nagging upset I felt about some hurtful interactions over the past weekend was certainly humbling. Of course there were some great moments, especially our collective music. But the combination of being in the country and hearing the language of my childhood and having had this conflict and being silent powerfully brought back that childhood mood of not having much agency and not not be heard or understood. I suspect such inner reliving of painful memories will be common for those of us who had a less than ideal family upbringing, which is probably most of us. How we process these experiences is an integral part of any retreat and we must find our own ways to align the Dharma vision of perfect freedom, joy, peace and love with our personal difficulties. In this process, we gain confidence and growing resilience.

So what form could such internal processing take? It is all too easy to exacerbate our emotional pain expecting it to go away by practicing harder. Experience shows that the most effective path to peace is to find a way to meet the narrow and unhappy inner parts with concern, kindness and acceptance. In this process we access and experience a different way of being; one who is more aware, wiser and more compassionate than the injured and stuck parts. For some it could also feel like the presence of another power, being in the field of something bigger than ourselves. And gradually, the balance can shift from identifying with painful and reactive ways of being to inhabiting a more liberated realm. It can be such a relief to just be able to relax into a natural, open, confident and joyful way of being present, where nothing is a problem, especially not ourselves! The question is what kind of conditions support this inner change.

Retreat structures, including silence, can be supportive, but I sometimes wonder if traditional formats still best serve the process. Traditionally, at Buddhist retreats, the teacher will be the only speaker, with limited opportunities to share what is going on internally, except in occasional short reviews with a teacher or in small groups. Ultimately, we want to find our inner agency regardless of outer circumstances, but I wonder if the prolonged experience of not having a voice in the hierarchical social context in which we find ourselves in retirement might make this unnecessarily difficult. . He can keep us unmündig, with a somewhat infantile lack of confidence in our skills and power. Silence can even trigger an inner state of stillness, which is one manifestation of trauma. At home, in our different roles, we have the opportunity to express ourselves and be reflected as creative, generous and effective human beings who have something valuable to offer the world. Is there a way to have access to this agency experience during a retreat, without it becoming very busy, noisy and full of sights and distractions? I think there may be a way, at least to some extent, and it has to do with using our voice, but not speaking.

“Imagine that you are in the company of someone who talks endlessly about a subject that does not really interest you. Once in a while, you say 'mmm-mmhh.' Let's make this sound now, together, over and over and feel its resonance in your facial bones and other parts of your body. Put your hands on your sternum and feel it vibrate. In addition to being a Buddhist teacher, Agnès is a vocal coach and performer, and her physical and vocal warm-ups, like the one quoted above, were a favorite part of the retreat for me. They were fun and took us into this zone of alert curiosity, being on the edge of the seat with our eyes, ears and skin open, not really knowing what was going to happen next. We started playing with the sounds, letting the hum explore different pitches and textures. The improvisational nature of these exercises brought us into the present moment, off autopilot, and prepared us to risk our apparent control and pride. On the second day, Agnès encouraged us to vocalize directly from the heart, while listening to everyone, also with the heart. I felt like I was in the middle of a swarm of bees making honey. The title of the retreat was “The Awakened Heart – Bodhichitta”, and for me these free explorations were more moving and expressive of Dharmic principles than the chanting and set chanting that made up most of our collective vocal expression.

My first professional training was as a teacher of Dalcroze Rhythmics, a form of music and movement education that relies heavily on improvisation as a creative means of learning and personal development. Even as a 20-year-old college student, I had a strong sense of the spiritual implications of the improvisational mindset – it's a surrender to the true nature of things, unpredictable, ever-changing, self- liberated, and it exposes the illusion of self-other separation. When I enter her mind, the boundaries of Self are released and something greater speaks through my body and my voice in a natural, sometimes ordinary, sometimes ecstatic way. I want to let others take advantage of these opportunities, but improv seems scary to a lot of people. So I tend to smuggle them into my mindfulness workshops and retreats – which have more of a stamp of respectability – under the rubric of conscious movement and sound production. There is ample evidence that humming and other forms of vocalization activate the soothing mode of the nervous system and lower blood pressure. It also gets the energies moving in a silent retreat and gives everyone an equal voice, at least at some stage, maybe enough to feel more fully monde and able to direct our healing and growth with confidence and flair.

Merton, Thomas. 2005. No man is an island. Boulder, CO: Shambhala. (p.134)

Nachmanovitch, Etienne. 1991. Free play, improvisation in life and art. New York: Penguin Edition. (p.22)

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Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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