Our meditation hall looked a bit like this — image via Dhamma.org

 

I recently came back from a 10 day meditation retreat, dedicated to learning a meditation technique called “Vipassana”. There is much to say about how hard and how impactful that experience was for me, but for this post I wanted to share some quick observations through the lense of a community builder: Can we build communities without speaking? Does closeness need interaction and speech?

For 9 out of the 10 days Vipassana participants are asked to follow complete silence: no talking to each other, no glancing at each other, no winking, no verbal or bodily communication whatsoever. The organizers encourage participants to create a sense of social isolation for themselves, arguing that it will help with the progress of the meditation. Men and women are strictly separated and have their own facilities throughout the course. There were about 50 men and 50 women.

As a community builder, what struck me was how close I felt with my fellow 50 male meditators after 9 days of having exchanged not a single word, didn’t know their name, had never looked them in the eye.

Here is why I felt close to them:

  • We had gone through a pretty demanding shared experience, getting up at 4am every day, meditating 10 hours every day and exhaustedly falling asleep around 9.30pm each night.
  • Many of us were going through some pain, either physically or mentally, and even if we didn’t express it visibly, I feel like we could sense that in each other.
  • We were spending a lot of time close to each other, living together, sharing dorms and bathrooms.
  • I started to build stories in my head about the people I kept seeing every day. I gave them names, I dreamed up why they were here, how they were doing.
  • Everyone is asked to remove their shoes when entering the meditation hall. I started to recognize people’s shoes and associate them with specific people: “ah my friend [I have never talked to] in the front row on the very left is already here this morning”.
  • Over 9 days, I started paying attention to people’s little quirks and uniqueness. For example, there was a guy at lunch that every day only ate plain rice and yoghurt, clearly not interested in the veggies or salads that were available. I noticed how much chilly some people added to their food.
  • In a beautiful way, even though I was observing people, I wasn’t judging people for who they were, and I didn’t feel judged either. People not interacting with each other also meant that I was free to be my “true self”, not worrying about what they might think or say about that.

The silence is lifted

On day 10, the “noble silence” rule was lifted and we all started to talk to each other. And it truly felt like I had known these guys forever. Closeness, apparently, doesn’t need interaction. A strong shared experience and physical proximity can be just as powerful in building trust and intimacy.

The flip side of this was that the inability to communicate had resulted in me projecting certain character traits into people that their speaking self didn’t have. Their voices sounded very different than what I expected they would sound. Their speaking self had a different character than their silent self.

Still, I walked away with a feeling that there is something fundamentally nourishing and powerful in bringing humans together in an environment of silence. Maybe there are smaller, more practical ways to bring silence into community experiences that do not take up 10 days? Curious to hear what you think!