I recently returned from a mindfulness meditation silent retreat. According to the brochure, this looked to be a peaceful experience of luxurious silence free from the NOISE of everyday life. I spend most of my time listening to others or otherwise silent, so this seemed to be a step further in a direction I already knew.

Boy, was I wrong. Nothing could have adequately prepared me for a week of the silent treatment.

How’s that?

Recall a perfume ad from the 80s that famously claimed, “If you want to capture someone’s attention – whisper.” The corporate equivalent would be, “If you want to make a PR splash -- leak it.” Following a week spent sitting in complete silence with some 40 others, I borrow and amplify this captivating slogan; “If you want to blow someone’s mind – say nothing.”

Nothing. That’s what I learned from dutifully meditating 18 times a day for a week in silent retreat. I don’t mean not just nothing useful. I mean nothing. No, thing. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Yep, I graduated, Cum Laude, by learning “nothing,” absolutely.

It was one of the most significant lessons of my life.

Sure, volumes of research support many clear benefits to mindfulness meditation. From weight-loss to stress management, mindfulness meditation has become a near psychological panacea. But my intent here isn’t purely scientific, it’s phenomenological – to describe the psychological experience of mindfulness meditation because sometimes experience IS the best teacher. What follows is my personal account, individual results may vary.

“Nothing” is surprisingly difficult to describe despite its frequent and familiar use. Think about it. How would you describe, “nothing?” It’s not so easy, especially if you’re trying to describe it without resorting to what it isn’t. To define “nothing” requires “something” (e.g., words) that in themselves belie the phenomenon – by definition. Okay, okay – enough of the philosophical dribble. To my own defense, there were a lot of eggheads at this retreat. (“Is that Havarti cheese you’re having?” “Hale, yes!”)

To be honest, I didn’t get all the way to nothing. And I’m pretty sure no one else did, either. But that doesn’t sell the experience short. Getting next to nothing is good enough to render two blades; one that sharpens the senses, another that pares the tenses. (OMG! I’ve become one of them!)

On the first, sensory level, one cannot fully appreciate just how much “noise pollution” there is in our world until going deaf and dumb for a week.

We live in a cacophony of chatter and tempest of man-made sounds. Proof? The cocktail party phenomenon. We’ve evolved to unconsciously register personal information (our spoken name) from the noisy clamor of people and machines competing with pyramiding decibels for our attention. (Ever notice how television ads are louder than the show and frequently use shouting salespeople?)

After a week of sitting, eating, and living with 40 other mutes, where the only noises I heard were footsteps, breathing, coughs (why these happen ONLY when mediating, I don’t know), blinking and even swallowing, (among other gastrointestinal chimes), I’ve developed Extraordinary Sensory Perception. Initially, I chalked this up to simple sensory deprivation, any twitch seems a convulsion after watching a person-statue for ten hours straight. But there’s more. A lot more.

In fact, this wasn’t even simply a personal experience, but rather a group one. But not so fast, not right here right now. For now, let’s stick with my newfound superpowers of observation.

Like anything of real value, the “prize” (i.e., nothing) didn’t come without a significant challenge and some time. I’d never meditated before much less meditated and kept my yap shut for a WEEK! I was so ignorant upon arrival that I did’t even take note of the fact that at least ten other participants exclaimed, “Wow!” when I told them I’d never even sat still for more than ten minutes (and that’s inflated).

By the third day I learned what “WOW!” meant.

It was after three days of forcing myself to sit still, that the witty “sayings” and paradoxical stories were no longer amusing. I winced with every “fortune cookie” cliche, longing only for the cookie and groaned (silently) through circular arguments that would eventually deny, and then justify, themselves. I’d just about had enough of nothing.

I wouldn’t have been the first to check out. This environment was COMPLETELY different from the wild and woolly world of work. I’d become quite comfortable in a world where stopping for a yellow traffic signal is a capital offense and “get to the point” is the refrain of executives who seem to be saying, “I don’t have time for you” (although most really do have the attention span of a flea). We’re all under HEAVY pressure to dump the story and get straight to the chase. What a waste.

The heightened ability to notice what another is thinking or feeling merely by their posture and steadiness is very useful, especially to a guy that makes his career by seeing in people what others don’t. It may be the job applicant who “manages” what they tell me. It may be the individual I’m coaching that feels compelled to point out the errors of senior management. Before this retreat I was pretty good at this. Afterwards, I’m even better. I see, hear, smell, etc., more than ever.

But the experience did more than merely sharpen the senses – even as valuable as that was. Indeed, development of the senses paled in comparison to the {almost} revelation of “nothing”, or more accurately, the state of “nothingness.” (Although they aren’t identical, I use “nothing” and “nothingness” somewhat interchangeably here, let’s not get picky).

Psycholinguistics (aka, psycho-babble) aside, “nothing” is easier to experience than it is to define. But to experience “nothing” is no lay-up. That’s probably why the spiritual retreat used every hour of a full week. (We had seven hours to sleep, but still maintain behavioral and social austerity. (No talkie.)

The journey to nothingness involves managing one’s attention by ascribing more and more of it to fewer and fewer stimuli. A blurring distinction between things previously seen as discrete is the result. Traditional “boundaries” of human-imposed mentality fade away as our man-made words lose their relevance and governance. How does one describe the weight of a kilometer? The thoughts of a rabbit? The self-imposed phenomena of past and future? (neither of which really exist)

It didn’t make any sense at first, and I dwelt in the world I knew at the expense of not recognizing the world around me. How beautiful it is. How balanced. How wonderful.

As I began paring back layer upon layer of denial, assumption, and self-defense that I thought defined my resilience I discovered something radically different, a nonjudgmental curiosity and compassion inaccessible by might. Incredibly, I was becoming mindful all the while finally dropping tons of dull attention I previously thought was sharp.

But here’s the thing. Nothing, it turns out, IS something. It’s just not A thing. “Destination nowhere,” isn’t the goal, it’s the ride, but yet, a ride that actually delivers both along the way and upon arrival, a ride that we need to pay attention to -- If we can. Attention seems to be in short supply in an increasingly distracting world of environmental noise and executives that bark, “get to the point.” To wit, prescriptions for ADHD medications have risen 53% over five years for adults. (Mindfulness is arguably the most useful technique psychology has presented for improving attention and overall concentration. Forgive me for shorting the research, but I’ll stand by that claim.)

Now, I have a job that demands that I be hyper aware of behaviors and attitudes. My value isn’t in seeing what others do, it’s in seeing what others don’t; the person no one else sees in interviews; the you that you don’t know. So far most would agree that I’ve been, “above average.” Now I have a whole new game.

So, what’s the big deal?

Nothing. That’s it. Nothing. It’s amazing what happens when one gets intimate with “nothing.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like a bargain, does it? But that’s exactly what I returned with following this week-long silent retreat practicing Zen Sesshin. Nothing. Maybe that’s why the brochure emphasized the silent meditations and lovely surroundings.

Of course, there’s more to the story or else I wouldn’t be writing anything here. As I do write, it was like nothing I have ever done.

It started innocently enough. Along with about 40 other retreatants I checked in and enjoyed a social (and talkative) dinner. Having never “technically” meditated, much less spent a week in silent meditation, I was not surprised that others were surprised at my, virtually absolute, ignorance.

“So, how many times have you sat?” I was asked. “Sat” is an informal reference to the traditional meditations.

“Never.” I replied to about ten individuals during this prelude.“WOW!” was the singular response from everyone that asked me this question. It wasn’t until one of the Sesshin leaders shared that they’d never had a novice complete an entire Sesshin before that I really began to worry (Sort of, I’m experienced being a surviving novice.)

Beyond any doubts related to my capacity to manage so strongly my thoughts feelings and behaviors, the goal was not to survive – but to thrive. I didn’t want to just “make it.” That would be to reduce the experience to an exercise in self-discipline. I wanted to reap the benefits so publicly trumpeted in scientific research. I wanted to feel and be better.

By the end of the week I was exhausted but energized at the same time. I suppose I was experiencing both sensations independently as they pertained to completely different perspectives of the same experience.

Physically I was okay aside from some aches that come from sitting on one’s posterior for a week. Mentally I was overwhelmed. Everything took on enhanced sensations I could barely withstand. (It does get better)

A friend who is experienced in mindfulness and the Zen Buddhism sesshin strongly suggested a gradual reintroduction to the outside world. I needed to manage myself and my surroundings to avoid overstimulation. I tried. (spoiler alert)

If you’ve ever fallen asleep on an airplane to be awakened by the PA system blaring something at you about your seatback you know what overstimulation is about. I just about jumped out of the plane every time that loudspeaker roared.

A regional barbeque was a bad plan. Nevertheless, this is where I had my first real-world experience with my new, “Spidey senses.” As the live band played loud to compensate for "tonal lapses," I freaked out. I found myself staring at folks and not stopping even when they stared back. Compassion and attention merged to heighten my awareness of others along with a steady sense of concern. Everyone was to be accepted as they were, none as a threat. I can still hear the band playing to the crowd, “What song is it you want to hear?” Whew - don't miss it.

After about three days back, I found my “earth legs.” This was somewhat bittersweet. On the one hand I was much less jumpy, on the other I wasn’t as much in tune. Have your cake and eat it too? I haven’t gotten that far so as to merge the heightened awareness and nonjudgmental thought of mindfulness meditation into my native life. But I think it’s possible with some consistent effort.

I need to make my meditation less convenient to be more germane. Naturally, this requires practice – a primary pitfall for us "distractibles" (that includes you). The benefits are convincing and real but they don’t come with a “one and done” attitude. Life is a chronic condition of stimuli constantly competing for your attention that never go away. But they don’t need to have constant perceived impact. This is where acknowledgement without capitulation to one’s attentions comes into play. In the balance between attention and obsession and acceptance, mindfulness has its utility. You may not be able to fully control your consciousness, but you can influence it and be satisfied.

The same can be said of your social presence. People with strong mindfulness practices always seem to be interpersonaly gifted. Studies and my personal experience suggest that this is not accidental. Emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize and appropriately manage one’s and others’ experience has been credited with more predictive value in nearly any situation than mere IQ. Patience is not only a value, it’s of value.

So, it’s high time for me to re-boost my mindful ways as I prepare for Sesshin II. Now enlightened, I expect to gain even more value from nothing. And you’re welcome to join me!

You just have to sit still.

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Published by R. Chris Steilberg, PhD

Endlessly curious about why people do the things they do and the connections and differences among us. For every 'thing' I learn, I realize more that I haven't. I guess I'm on a full-out quest for relative ignorance.

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