I spent my silent retreat in the outfield at my local community sports park, and was not interrupted until the last hour of my sit, at which time I took the opportunity to walk around, then walk the mile and a half home, continuing my meditation. Taking this time in silent repose was like visiting a very familiar place, one that, when revisited, made me wonder why I don’t come more often. While I did not gain any new revelation, I did revitalize my connection to God and to my callings. I also spent some time reflecting on my meditation, a sort of meta analysis of the various phases and plateaus experienced in prolonged silence. In this paper, I would like to summarize some of the varied, progressive stages of silence that I experienced, along with the specific events and phenomenon I observed during this particular retreat.

1. Choosing a Time and Location

drugsetsettingFew of us consider that preparation and planning for meditation are an actual part of the discipline, but they are often critical to success. Paradoxically and humorously, I learned this lesson as a young unbeliever, when, before attempting my first acid trip, I read an influential book entitled Drug, Set, and Setting: The Basis for Controlled Intoxicant Use.[1] In it, the author explained that, due to the intense nature of the LSD experience, one ought to find a place that is safe and comfortable for a period of at least 4 hours, which I did, and that was one of the most impactful, memorable, and positive experiences in my life.

For this exercise, I took a weekday off of work, and on such days, children are typically in school, so the park, which has half a dozen multipurpose fields, a playground and a dog park, was entirely empty for most of the day. The weather was sunny and cool, so I set up my blanket and my zafu (Buddhist sitting pillow), and I sat.

2. De-escalating

glassesI took off my glasses, and arranged myself into a comfortable position (which took a few adjustments, in part due to the sun – I started facing the sun, but then decided to face away from it and feel the warmth on my back, giving my eyes a rest). During this stage, I encountered the usual experiences. The busyness of my mind, which had been interacting with my wife moments before, planning my visit, and unpacking and arranging my things, was now swirling into the ether as I took some deep breaths and focused on the feeling of my breath in my nostrils (a Vipassana technique that I love to use to calm my mind).[2] [3] The focus on the physical sensations in my face made me aware of the dissipating pressure that my glasses had made on my nose, the tightness of my jaw and cheeks, which I consciously relaxed, and the swirl of thoughts which I was now ignoring, allowing them to slip away into said ether.

De-escalation typically takes from 10-20 minutes, depending on how busy your mind was before sitting, how stressed and tense your body was, and how familiar you are with the process – I find that I can cooperate with and hasten this relaxation more now that I have practiced for a while, in part because I am consciously relaxing each part of my body that presents itself to my awareness (or, as taught in Vipassana, I consciously scan slowly down my body from head, looking for sensations or pain to let go of), and returning quickly to focusing on my breath in order to keep the process moving, instead of getting caught in eddies of thought.

It would, however, be a mistake to think that this stage holds no spiritual value or instruction for us. In each stage of meditation, our bodies, our spirits, and God’s spirit, can use the present experiences to teach us. For instance, certain persistent thoughts that fail to dissipate may present a foci for an increased awareness of a current fear, desire, or preoccupation that should be addressed. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will instruct us about this very thing. Perhaps a pain in our body turns out to be a place where we are storing emotions such as fear, longing, or even poor physical health. All of these present opportunities to know ourselves, and find remedies for what ails us, spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

During my sit, I happily did not find any strong impressions or instruction during this stage, although I did consider that I desire to take better care of my aging body, which is considerably less flexible and heavier than it ought to be.

3. Awareness of the surroundings

As we disengage from our turbulent inner mind, and before descending peacefully into our interior, the exterior sounds (and sights if our eyes are not closed) intrude into our awareness. However, such intrusions are not unwelcome in our meditations, but another input to consider as we open ourselves up to the awareness of self and the instruction of God.

During my sit, I became very aware of the birds around me in the park, so I listened for the various calls and tried to identify them. I heard the chittering of sparrows, the cackling of blackbirds, and the cawing and churring of crows. I remembered Jesus’ teaching on how God feeds the birds, and momentarily rested in God’s care for me. I hoped the birds would come closer to me as I sit in stillness, but they did not. I considered Saint Francis and his affinity with nature and animals, and wondered what a more nature-based meditative life might reveal about God. A large group of crows gathered in a tree noisily, and I was amused, remembering that a group of crows is called a ‘murder.’ What a bum rap those birds get! Cleaning up carrion is an important job!

I noticed the ball field fence about 40 yards away, and for a moment, felt trapped. I then remembered that even prisoners can have freedom in Jesus and in the interior life of faith, and that I was certainly not in any way trapped, for I was about to step outside of time itself, and the fence was no barrier. And so, I closed my eyes to continue.

4. Awareness of inward thoughts

Very different from the superficial thoughts of the mind are the more inward patterns and thoughts of the heart. Rather than being based on current interaction with the world, interacting with people and the environment, and managing personal movement and activities of the day, the inner thoughts are based on fears, desires, unresolved emotions and needs, and deeper thought patterns designed to protect the self and give life context – that is, our world view suppositions. This is where we begin to move into our subconscious, raising such patterns into conscious awareness. This process is rightly called enlightenment in Buddhism, self-awareness in western parlance and perhaps insight in the therapeutic context. The roots of our behaviors, reactions, and self-concept can here be accessed.

At this level, we can observe ourselves in a third-person point of view, asking ourselves “What do I think about, what is really important to me, what consumes my subconscious resources?” I have found that non-judgmental self-observation of this sort is a powerful tool for personal development and character formation. Similar to the practice of brainstorming, where the inner ‘critic’ is put outside the room until all ideas are allowed to present themselves, when we resist the urge to fix or judge the inner thoughts of our hearts, the deeper ones, the deeper self, is allowed to surface in the safety of non-judgment.

4.1.  Discovering and Healing Deep Emotional Hurts

Having practiced this discipline over the years, I am aware that sometimes at this stage, deeper hurts can surface, and become the focus of meditation and interaction with God. Real emotional and physical pain can surface, and these must be dealt with before we can progress to deeper levels. Resolving these issues can take years. When I was in my late 20’s, I hit one of these land-mines of the soul in that I had deep injuries to my self-concept that grew out of my parents’ divorce at age four.

During a two to three year period, I plumbed these depths and found much healing and solace in (a) masculine recovery work, (b) inner child work, and in (c) gaining a perspective which allowed self-acceptance and appreciation without condoning the broken and sinful thoughts and behaviors that also found home in my soul. That is, through (a) seeing and appropriating the true, healthy masculine in my soul, through (b) understanding the stages of psychosocial development and how I could heal those unfinished developmental tasks via a combination of self-reparenting and God-parenting, and through (c) understanding the theology that man is both beautiful and broken, I was able to emerge from this period, ready with a foundation on which God could build a healthy person.[4] [5] [6] [7]

Having dealt with many of my deepest hurts to a significant level previously, my experience entering into my inward thoughts during this exercise was not one of encountering pain between me and my created self, but instead led me into the inner landscape of my passions, many of which already had some developed structure and plans in process.

4.2. Short-term, Time-bound Concerns

This plateau of spiritual, but time bound concerns, to me, is the familiar ground of communion with God that I experience in normal prayer, as well as in sermon preparation. Having not yet stepped out of the flow of time into the timeless presence of God (though at this point, I could decide to merely worship God and forgo any thoughts of current spiritual passions and concerns), I have the opportunity to enjoy spiritual dreaming, planning, systematization of thoughts and doctrines (formation of new rubrics), all in the presence of God who alternately gently guides or merely allows me to dream freely in His presence.

Rather than entering into my long term goals and passions, I discovered that I was concerned about my upcoming 50th birthday party. Some of my lifetime friends and close family members will be traveling to California to celebrate with me, and I realized that I wanted to give a memorable speech at my party in order to make their trip worthwhile. I thought of presenting what I have learned in my 50 years (still a sophomore!), and I preached/wrote a draft of what I would say. I did not write it down, but I suspect that I will be able to recall it when I get to actually preparing it (though often, inspiration should be captured immediately because it can not always be retrieved from memory – but I did not bring a journal, just my bible).

4.3. Long-term, Time-bound Concerns

Finishing this sermon, I focused on sinking deeper into my inner world to see what else was of concern there. I next discovered my ongoing desire to pastor people and a church that would be participatory, formative, and discipleship-oriented. Accessing this deep desire led me to spontaneous prayer to God to help me accomplish these desires. I struggled with the balance of waiting for God and taking initiative, and again realized what God has been teaching me for the past few months – that no one is going to come along and ‘recognize my genius,’ but rather, that I need to gain the tools of an entrepreneur in order to make the dreams of my heart reality.

familyOver the years, God has taught me the value of waiting, and contentment – the valuing of what I have currently and my relationship with Him as the ultimate ground of satisfaction. But lately, God has been challenging my penchant for preferring the #2 position in an organization – where someone else forges initial ideas, builds teams, and takes the brunt of the difficulty of birthing a new work. I prefer to modify and perfect, not lead. So I prayed about next steps, though I did not come to any complete plans or conclusions.

My other deep concern is for my marriage and my family. I desire a closer friendship and spiritual partnership with my wonderful wife. We sometimes lead worship together, and it is wonderful. However, my kids don’t see me pray that much, and we aren’t involved in ministry together yet (they are ages 10, 8, and 6).

5. Worship

Having addressed the deepest desires of my heart, I could now enter into timeless fellowship with God. A time of worship and thanks is refreshing and healing. What a wonderful time.

6. Silent Fellowship

Beyond words is the time spent silently with those we love – a communion of souls without words. I spent some time with God like this, without concern for time passed. No deep revelations, no conversation, only the deep peace of repose with God. There are no words really to discuss this, since words and ideas do not flow much in this space.

7. Emergence with Awareness

Once, when returning from a 10 day silent retreat, friends of mine said “We can’t look at your face, you’re too…holy!” This reminded me of Moses when he descended from the mountaintop after spending 40 days with God. The peace and presence of God are real things that can come from extended silence. And although I would not say that I emerged this way from a mere six hours, I did have the experience of inner calm that gave me the inner space into which I could sit back and observe my surroundings deeply. I picked up my things and began the two mile walk home, bringing my experience and calm with me.

I walked by an old farmhouse and observed the mailbox atop a homemade post consisting of an old iron wheel and some other metals. I thought how such a small thing could be overlooked, yet for someone, that was probably a labor of love. I passed a field of horses, and enjoyed the beauty of their frames. As I got into town, the bustle of cars and streetlights began to make my pilgrimage more distant. I remembered that I wanted to take better care of my body, and appreciated that the walk would help me. I began to do curls with the bag and folding chair I was carrying in each hand.

As I got home, I was welcomed by my wife and children. I soaked up the children’s affections, and hugged my wife gently. “How was it?” she asked. “Nice,” I replied. I had had no revelations or great insights, but merely had spent time in helpful repose. So there was no more discussion. I settled back into the rhythm of my life. Papers to write, books to read, phone calls to answer. But with underlying clarity, peace, and a desire to return to the familiar place outside of time.

NOTES

[1] Norman E. Zinberg, Drug, Set, and Setting : The Basis for Controlled Intoxicant Use (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

[2] S.N. Goenka, “Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N. Goenka in the Tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin”, Dhamma.org https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/about/vipassana (accessed 2014-11-22).

[3] “Vipassanā” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vipassan%C4%81.

[4] Andrew Comiskey, Pursuing Sexual Wholeness : How Jesus Heals the Homosexual (Lake Mary, Fla.: Creation House, 1989).

[5] Daniel G. Sinclair, “Healing Injured Masculinity: Series Permalink” http://www.wholereason.com/2007/05/healing-injured-masculinity-series-permalink.html.

[6] John Bradshaw, Homecoming : Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child (New York: Bantam Books, 1990).

[7] Daniel G. Sinclair, “Is Man Basically Good or Evil?” http://www.wholereason.com/2010/10/is-man-basically-good-or-evil.html (accessed 2014-11-22).