By Chris Faatz
At the sound of the bell, the world stops. Two hundred people, whether walking, eating, or conversing, stop, smile softly to themselves, and breathe quietly. The first lessons of a first retreat with Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. The retreat site was nestled in a long, narrow canyon, and although only a short walk from the busy Pacific Coast Highway, it was both quiet and beautiful. Images from nature abound in my memory: the scuttling of lizards' feet through the brush and across dry creek beds; the sharp tang of eucalyptus pods; the intoxicating dazzle of countless stars splayed out against the sky each night.
I slept in a dorm with several other men. We woke before light to the sound of a bell "inviting us," as it would at frequent intervals throughout the week, "back to ourselves." We washed and dressed, then walked unhurriedly, enjoying our breath, letting our feet "massage the Earth," down a dark gravel road, the mile-long, pre-dawn walk to the meditation hall for an hour's group meditation.
The world wrapped in silence. Five days and nights of minimal conversation, punctuated only by the bright call of the bell, the little dialogue there was conducted in virtual whispers. "The Great Silence," a period of no speech, lasted formally from nine each night until nine the next morning. But the silence lingered through the day. I habitually live my life at full throttle—my mind rushing, engaged in eight simultaneously pressing tasks, slowing down just long enough to gulp another cup of coffee and two Advil. I found the practice of quiet, of silence, insidious; with every part of me protesting vociferously, it began to well up, a great, dark tide, filling me bit by delicious bit. The whole person slowing, relaxing, my attention quietly returning to things too long passed by: the taste of water, the tones of voice that lie like music behind a conversation.
Buddhism teaches that it is in the minutiae of each moment that our lives are lived. Clenched in the fist of our society's incomprehensible intoxication with speed, we easily lose touch. The smell of breakfast cooking. That first sip of coffee, a scalding thrill to the tongue. The smile of a friend. Breathing in. Breathing out .
Group meditation was held morning and evening in a large hall, with wide windows overlooking an arroyo packed with eucalyptus. We would sit, in a series of giant circles, facing outward, toward those windows. Each morning as the light rose, the calls of waking birds rose with it, louder and brighter, reaching crescendo, glory incarnate.
I'd never sat so long before, legs crossed, back straight I was convinced my death through torture was imminent. One morning, at the end of the session, the woman next to me asked if I was having problems. I assured her I was. She, it turned out, lived at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, where she taught posture. She introduced me to the Burmese way of sitting that avoided undue strain on my beginner's anatomy, and, that distraction aside, the rest of the week I was swept away, deeper and deeper into the silence. Being quiet is the first step in clearing one's mind enough to pay attention. And, to pay attention is to take the first stumbling step towards waking up to the world, to experience every moment in its utter, naked, beautiful simplicity, and to realize that it is in that very moment—when the acorn falls, when the cat stretches under your hand—that you are alive.
I'd read widely on the power of silence to change one's life. The writings of Thomas Merton, the Desert Fathers, Buddhist and Taoist texts had frequently touched me deeply. But, I quickly found that infinity lies between the experience and the word on the page. However compelling, the word softens and falls away, and you are alone with the silence, and at its heart—yourself.
The practice of silence brought quiet to my busy-day mind, long roiling, noisy, and out of control. As I fell away from worrying over my future, and questioning my past, I found myself face-to-face with who I was in that very moment—nothing else. It was by no means all pleasant As things slowed, everything showed up: not only Mr. Nice, but Mr. Dingy and his cramped and ugly friends arose eagerly as well. People I'd neglected, or dealt with unjustly. Lovers and family members that I'd hurt or slighted. Times when I'd cheated, been nasty, or lied. A sometimes arrogance and an often foul temper. But, good things were there too: a deep welling of love for my wife, my family, my friends. And a reconnecting to what is essential—living a good life, in kindness, above all.
Camp Hess Kramer was rife with such experiences parents breaking into tears over how they'd raised their children; executives agonizing over the social effects of their careers. People were finding themselves alone with themselves, and pain was everywhere, in the very air we breathed. And yet, it was welcomed as a necessary step to recognizing who we were, to coming back to ourselves. And, as we opened within, we found ourselves opening to one another, reaching out in spontaneous love and understanding, to others in their pain and guilt. It was agonizing, sure. But, much, much more, it was exhilarating.
Inevitably, I left Camp Hess Kramer on the run, needing to catch a plane. But as I exited the plane in Portland—mindfully, one step at a time, massaging the concourse with my feet, my eyes brimming with tears at the sight of my wife ("How many Jack Daniels did you have, Mr. Mellow?") I knew, in a great, giddy, rush of understanding, that my life, having been touched by silence, would never be the same.
Chris Faatz is a bookseller and freelance writer in Vancouver, Washington, and a member of the Portland Sangha.