Silent Retreat: Healing from the inside out…

The following block is a chapter from my published but unreleased book, From Illness to Stillness: Uncovering Your Innermost Being-

“We must look at ourselves over and over again in order to learn to love, to discover what has kept our hearts closed, and what it means to allow our hearts to open.”

—Jack Kornfield (founder of Spirit Rock)

About a decade ago, I was entering a 28-day retreat at Spirit Rock, a Buddhist-oriented meditation center in Woodacre, California, one hour north of San Francisco. I had done many 5-day silent retreats, several 10-day retreats, and a 20-day retreat. Each one was unique. They provided a space to rest deeply, in a natural environment, without the regular day-to-day distractions and conditioned ways of going about things.

When I went on this long retreat, I was not sure if I would walk out, hobble out, or crawl out at the end, or if the same person would be there, but I did not care. In fact, if good fortune smiled on me, the ego-centered mind would cease its constant chatter, all the disturbances, worries, grief, sadness, insanity, illusion, and delusion abating, the life force becoming purified in the stillness. In this state, reality would be impossible to ignore.

When I went on this silent meditation retreat, I prepared myself for a surprise gift from and the innermost being. The stillness would be throwing me a “Get Real Party.” I would not be returning back home with traditional gifts for family and friends—no, the presents would be intangible and include an enhanced sense of spaciousness.

I got lucky and was left in the unknown where all beings were seen as my family and every heart was my home. While in silence, I became aware of all the distractions that kept me occupied in my day-to-day life, creating havoc, mayhem, and insanity. After a few days in retreat without these distractions, the chatter and the insanity died down, as I basked in the vast, open space that meditation provides. Meditation was not only the six to seven hours a day of sitting in formal meditative posture, but was happening all the time now.

As the retreat deepened, slowly disturbances begin to recede. As they pulled back, I saw them for what they were: figments of imagination and memories that had been spun into stories. I saw how empty and meaningless these energies were and how they did not serve me. Then grace rushed in and blossomed as the feeling sense of “I am.” Aided by noble silence, I began to notice, with ever increasing depth, the only permanent reality there was.

Without all the baggage filling me up, this vibrant presence, which had always been inside, was allowed to spread. As the retreat unfolded, this underlying reality easily took center stage, beaming a light on hidden, unconscious personal baggage. As I sat in silence with this inner beam, hour after hour, day after day, I discovered that this silent presence welcomed all of me with openness and love. Then an eternal, silent dawning emerged from within. I realized that my beliefs, judgments, and repressed feelings were not real. The light of awareness revealed that all of my demons, problems, and enemies were made up. As the silence penetrated, thoughts still arose, but they appeared like soap bubbles, which popped the moment I recognized their transparency. The belief that thought has reality occasionally returned, in the form of various trance states, and attempted to lure me back to unconsciousness, but I could not stay sleeping for very long. A broad smile spread across my face most days. A full belly laugh erupted into internal chuckles. I cried tears of joy. The realization that I am always free, have always been free, dawned upon me. I uncovered this great stillness inside, and the endless search for more, to be enough, disappeared. Life then became a movement into the depths of the true Self.

When I first began to truly become a conscious spiritual aspirant, I read about samadhi, the spiritual state of consciousness. Samadhi can be translated in the yogic context as “absorption or the highest stage of meditation.” Really, samadhi is the natural state, but held in great esteem because most of humanity has masked their natural state with so many layers of unreality. Samadhi is not an achievement of any kind. It is here, always, already present.

On Day 11 of the retreat at Spirit Rock, I was in my room, when suddenly everything seemed to recede—and the mind was not only still, but it seemed to have vanished and so had “I.” There was just a witnessing of the unfolding of all things. The body was still, and then the lunch bell began to gong, and the body got up and moved toward the dining hall. Silently bodies began to emerge from dorm rooms, walkways, and march down the hillside. There was amazement, watching the bodies, the turkeys, the hawks, all of nature—all of them were me and yet none of it was me—all at the same time. I went through the buffet line and the hands reached for a plate and put food on it without any thought or movement of mind. Sitting down with my plate, eyes open, the beingness in the body poured forth, experiencing what has been called “the peace that surpasses all description.” In that state, “I” wasn’t necessary, “I” wasn’t really there.

Several more periods of samadhi emerged over the next few days, bringing with it something quite peculiar. It could easily be called low-intensity vertigo (dizziness, light-headedness, felt sense of spinning) with high-intensity tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears). For a brief moment, the mind became agitated and went into damage-control mode, but just as suddenly the mind slipped away.

Tinnitus is said to be a symptom of an underlying condition such as inner-ear cell damage, earwax blockage, head injury, or high blood pressure. Or it could be a symptom of Ménière’s disease, which includes a set of other episodic symptoms like vertigo, hearing loss, and a sensation of fullness in the affected ear. Episodes typically last from 20 minutes up to 4 hours. Tinnitus is believed to be an incurable condition, but the Internet is full of links listing remedies and stock full of treatments to minimize its “debilitating, annoying, crazy-making” effects. It is said that 20 percent of the population may have it in one form or another.

I was not about to bite into another label. Intuitively I sensed all was well, that to attempt to medicate it away with acupuncture, herbals, niacin, iodine, a neti pot, homeopathics, cranio-sacral therapy, or Western medicine would not be needed. I saw all those options as desperate ploys of the mind, because the ego-centered mind cannot survive without disturbance or problems. For a minute or so, mind screamed and tried to turn the “ringing” into something horrible, like fleeting flashes of doom. Fortunately, thoughts trying to be grasped were like touching a hot stove, instantly avoided. I could find no problem in it. The mind then tried to distract me, turning the perception of the sound into an old Tommy Dorsey Big Band era tune to keep a separate sense of identity (“me” and the “big band sound”). I sensed that something else was going on and that intense meditation had brought about this response.

On returning home, I found an interesting link on the Internet from a Buddhist teacher named Ajahn Sumedho, who used the term, “meditation-induced tinnitus.” I love Buddhist practitioners, as they have gone into and experienced just about everything via inner exploration. He said, “As you calm down, you can experience the sound of silence in the mind. You hear it as a kind of high-frequency sound, a ringing sound that’s always there. It is just normally never noticed. Now when you begin to hear that sound of silence, it’s a sign of emptiness, of silence of the mind. It’s something you can always turn to…”

The Buddhists even have a name for this, Dibba-sota, or “Divine ear,” where it is said to be a blessed occurrence, not the annoying curse we associate with tinnitus. The Persian poet Rumi even wrote, “A million suns come forward with light when I sit firmly in this world. I hear bells ringing that no one has shaken. Inside ‛love’ there is more joy than we know…”

The Swami Annamalai, a devotee of Ramana Maharshi and a realized sage, spoke of this sound in a talk during the last 6 months of his earthly life in 1995:

“The soundless Sound of the Self goes on all the time by itself. It doesn’t make a sound, it is the subtle sound. If you tune into this sound, you can’t actually listen because it is not a physical noise, yet that tuning in will lead you to the peace of the Self (GOD). That peace is prior to and beyond this very subtle pulsation. When you reach that final peace, that ultimate stillness, the sound will disappear in the Self. In that final place there is no sound, there is only peace, somewhat like the peaceful soundless state that is experienced in deep sleep, however full awareness remains there. It is not an unconscious state.”

“Most people cannot hear or be aware of the subtle inner vibration because it is drowned out by the physical noise of the outer world and by the persistent mental noise of the mind. The only people that can hear this sound are those in whom thoughts have mostly disappeared. One needs to be in a deep level of mental peace in order to be aware of this sound.”

“This subtle vibration is resonating all the time in all people, but virtually no one hears it because of preoccupation with thoughts covers it up…close your mental and physical ears and you will hear this vibration resonating all the time.”

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter what interpretation is closest to the truth. They are all stories. The grasping for answers is endless. So it is best to rest in whatever is, just as it is. I call this peace.

Whatever was happening became the doorway to true meditation, to being fully present in the living moment. I did not need to go anywhere to meditate. I never go anywhere; I am always here. Wherever the body ends up, sick in bed, driving to work, running through a park, getting a haircut, “I am” is always here as the witness. The witnessing awareness is the joy of life—the wonder of earth, sky, and universe, inside this awareness.

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