On noble silence and human behaviour

During the Vipassana 10-day course, we were told to maintain noble silence. It meant not speaking at all to any of my fellow course-mates, even when there was something wrong we were told to communicate it to the servers, who will then resolve the issue for us. The same applied to eye-contact or any gestures that could act as a channel of communication. The purpose of noble silence was to cleanse the mind and prepare our bodies for deep meditation. Frankly I found it relieving. It was a pleasure to not have to care about what anyone thought or said about me, because there was minimal contact.

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This isn’t the actual poster at St John’s, but the schedule is exactly the same. 

Only on the second last day when I was sweeping the floor did I speak to another student, to ask her to move her luggage so I could help her sweep her section of the dormitory. No, I wasn’t being kind or trying to be social, I just needed some action after nine days of not moving. We weren’t allowed to run around the centre or practice any form of physical activity, and sweeping the floor was my way of getting some exercise. I also swept the floor outside the meditation hall, that was how intensely uncomfortable and boxed-in I felt with not being able to move whenever I wanted. Ok now that I’m thinking about it I must have looked rather odd haha. But the broom was available and sweeping was better than sitting outside the hall, because I would get bitten by more mosquitoes.

Noble silence was also ‘relieving’ in a negative way- it showed me true human behaviour. Because we were not allowed to communicate to each other, so if someone did something wrong we had to act like nothing happened, we saw nothing, and we could not ask the person to correct the mistake. This manifested in many ways. During meal times there would be a few people who would rush to the dining table (because it was buffet style) and sniff at the food, because it wasn’t labelled. They would then pick and choose what they wanted. Frankly I was quite uncomfortable with the sniffing because I don’t like the idea of human faces being so close to my potential food. It was terrible table manners, but because no one could say anything, it just continued till the very last day. Also, while the placards indicated one apple and one banana each, there was a lady who took two apples and two bananas. None of us said anything until the server saw and asked her to replace it. We were living according to our own standards and being completely self-absorbed, secure in the knowledge that no one would rebuke us, all because of noble silence. Or just silence, I don’t think there’s anything noble about taking more than your fair share.

There are eight kinds of silence and 12 kinds of noble silence I think- some types of silence includes the silence of coldness, which is what I practise on family members and friends when I don’t like them. People I do not enjoy talking to and do not want to communicate with. Even when I am asked a question, if I think the person doesn’t need to know or is asking a stupid question, I refuse to speak or make any movements. There’s also the silence of confusion, which is what I practise when I don’t know what to say, and I don’t want to be wrong. There’s silence of the hidden, which is all the things I don’t say and the things that I don’t do, a lot of which is tied to my past. And there’s silence out of fear– not wanting to be singled out as a minority, not wanting to express my views. This silence is practiced usually in church because I have a lot of extraneous opinions and feelings that will not meld with Christian teachings (i.e. homosexuality). And finally, there is silence out of indifference.

With noble silence, the types of silence that I practise would be the silence in listening. To listen to each other mindfully and without interrupting. Silence of creativity, in striving for artistic endeavours, like writing, when I am completely still and quiet. Silence of solitude, which is something I practise whenever I have to think or read a book or enjoy my mochi desserts. Just purely appreciating being alone and being given the space and time to think by myself.

While we practised silence in the 10-day course, we were not taught about the reasons behind noble silence. It was only after that course then did I do some basic research and basically it is an art to keep us from speaking every word and harmful thought that comes to our minds, to keep us from causing suffering to ourselves and other people. The right conduct, and right speech. But instead, some people got too comfortable with their own worlds, including myself. For example, we were given three large water containers to scoop water from so that we can wash our utensils and bowls etc after our meals. The water containers were placed outside the dining hall, we all shared the same scooping bowls that were left floating in the container for the next person to use.

Sometimes I would forget to wash the sides of the bowl before placing the bowl back into the water container, there would be remnants of soap bubbles, and the girl next to me would do it for me. It wasn’t intentional, but I have a strong feeling that if I was watching myself carefully, I wouldn’t have done it. Because 99% of the time in real life I am watching my actions and my body language, either hoping to impress people or at the very least, hoping to not offend them. It is only when other people cease to matter then can my brain let go and truly relax. This usually happens after a long day at school or at work, and then when I’m done bathing I just strip off all my clothes and dive into my bed.

There was one time when I was entering the toilet outside the meditation hall, I think it was the break after a session. There was an Indian lady taking toilet paper (there are large rolls per toilet, but none in the individual cubicles) and she did not want the one hanging off the roll, so she tore off that piece and threw it onto the floor of the cubicle nearest to her. And then she took her needed toilet paper and went into the other toilet cubicle. I saw her throwing it on the floor, and she saw me, but I didn’t move or show any signs that I saw what she did or that I thought it was wrong because we weren’t allowed to make any gestures. (I am both obedient to rules and indifferent.) She literally just threw it on the floor of the toilet, which will inconvenience the next person because the floor was damp and muddy from the footprints. It was also a squatting toilet. In real life without noble silence I would have said something because her behaviour was really selfish. But in silence, there is nothing to be said.

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“But you can’t make me care.”

Also, in the first two days of meditation, there was a fan at the meditation hall behind me- there are four rows of students, in front of the first row there is one fan, and behind the last row there is another fan. The issue was, the fan in the front row was oscillating perfectly, but the one at the back wasn’t. So we would position it in the middle so that it was ‘fair’. But towards the end of the second day (or maybe third day, I can’t remember), there was a lady at the front, sitting towards the right corner of the hall who decided that she also wanted the fan at the back. It was a bit ridiculous to me because she was literally in front of the front fan, and the one behind me couldn’t oscillate so when she crossed the hall (four rows of students) to turn the fan towards her, she caused the currents of wind to completely miss everyone on the left side of the hall. I.e me and about 9 people. But we weren’t allowed to make gestures or say anything to her, and we weren’t allowed to move either.

Thankfully by the next session I think someone alerted the server, who then tied a piece of red string to the oscillation string (the one you pull to make the fan turn) to the switch, and secured it so that the string was taut and it would continuously turn, providing wind to all students in the hall. I was a bit mad at the lady because I could see the students around me sweating more and moving more, plus she already had a fan right in front of her- it wasn’t like she was in the middle of the hall. I think my mindset was that things have to be fair, there is a standard of parity that everyone should adhere to. For a while I was unable to practice equanimity and watching my bodily sensations rise and fall away, all I could think of was the beads of sweat forming on my forehead and upper lip.

Smaller things were the sharing of pillows. When I got to a session late, I realised that one of my pillows were gone- I had three. Most people had two to three pillows. I looked around and then I realised that the girl next to me took my pillow, but she gave it back when I looked around. I thought to myself- she probably took it because she has only one pillow and so if I have three, I should share. And so, I rearranged my spot and passed her the pillow, without making eye contact. When the session was over, she left first, and when I glanced at her spot I was like “wtf?? She has four pillows? Then why did she take my pillow in the first place?” I know, I know. It seems petty. But when you are meditating for ten hours, pillows are very important or you will suffer butt and leg cramps. And she didn’t just have normal pillows, she got an extra-large one that was used as a seat- make that two seats, and three normal pillows. I still didn’t say anything, I decided that I could live without three pillows. But I totally judged her until the end of the course when I actually got to know her as a human being.

Practicing noble silence was freeing for me as a loner and a highly introverted person. I didn’t feel pressured at all by the fact that I didn’t have to talk to anyone. Because in my mind there was a barrier between me and other people, and I was so comfortable with silence that by the third day I was changing openly in the dormitory, just taking off my clothes and sometimes not even bothering to wear a bra. We were all a little guarded and uncomfortable at first, it felt like a prison hall. But after a while we just started removing our clothes casually, as if it wasn’t an open environment.

In my mind, there was a question. “Who are we, really, as human beings?” Are we really the humans who talk to other people and have day jobs and commitments and families, or are we really unable to be ourselves until we are alone. So much of what I did- that talking to people, behaving politely, wearing non-revealing clothes- is tied to a social contract that says that I have to do things a certain way.

Love takes off masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

-James Baldwin

I can’t just wear a bra and a transparent tank top out to a shopping mall, some nosey aunty is definitely going to scold me. But if there were no restrictions or self-imposed guidelines, humans might live differently. Without that social mask or the need to be polite. Especially to our relatives. It’s kind of ironic how some of my grandmother’s relatives can be offended when I don’t turn up for CNY, but they have done nothing for me to want to attend that ‘family reunion’.

In silence, I was fully self-absorbed. Because I was unable to connect to other people, I could only observe their body language and guess at how they are feeling that day. But I didn’t even know their names, their jobs, their ages. Without that connection, I was only able to feel my own misery and I could not see them as worthy human beings to care for and to smile at. And observing body language doesn’t help without context, and after a while I stopped because it just felt like I was directing them as puppets in my head, directing my own play and writing my own script.

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Noble silence only works if everyone is practicing it together, if I were to take a vow of silence on my own, with everyone else communicating around me, I would be an outcast. Which is why slotherious is important to me. All the things I cannot say, or all the things that I don’t know if my friends would want to hear. I have great friends, but they are not me. I am the only person who is able to inhabit my body and understand my brain, and practice equanimity when things go wrong in my life. To look inwards and to look at my mind and my heart, that is what I want to do for slotherious. As a record of my only life.

We are all special and unique, yet strangely the same.