a doorway to insight and transformation
In the Gospel of John, Jesus famously saves a woman from an angry, accusing crowd who wanted to kill her. They ask Jesus a question, wishing to trap him. But instead of responding to the question in the way that they (and we) might have expected, Jesus responds with silence, a silence which opens a space for all that follows.
After Sophie had been practicing meditation for a year, she decided to attend a five-day silent retreat to deepen her prayer life. The venue was in a rural location and an air of gentle silence saturated the whole place.
Sophie quickly settled into the flow of the retreat and the daily eight hours of sitting, walking and eating meditation. On the third day (so often an important point), she met a challenge – the sound of dripping water.
The blue sky which greeted everyone on the first day of the retreat was replaced on the second day by low cloud and frequent rain showers. At first, Sophie simply noticed a faint drip, drip, dripping sound after each shower coming from somewhere outside the meditation room.
By mid-morning of the third day, she was finding the occasional dripping sound intensely distracting and deeply annoying. By late afternoon she thought she would have to run out of the room and couldn’t believe she was finding it so difficult to simply sit there, saying her word, following her breath.
Sophie found her mind filled with swirling, self-judgemental chatter. “Why am I so distracted?” I’m never this distracted at home.” “This is unbearable.” “I must be a hopeless meditator!”
The retreat leader suggested she try to just sit through it, and use the annoying noise and waves of reactive thoughts as an opportunity to cultivate interior peace. Sophie decided to follow the advice and ended up discovering something important about herself and the nature of silence.
From that moment, whenever the dripping sound happened to be present, she simply practised letting it be present. The dripping sound was never more than just sound. Her reactive mind was adding all the annoyance and frustration.
Instead of getting tangled up in her internal chatter about the annoying sound and how useless she was, Sophie practised a simpler, more peaceful relationship with the sound, and gained insight into how she might have a simpler, more peaceful relationship with her life: she greeted all she was experiencing with deepening internal silence.
At this moment, the challenge and opportunity came via the sound of dripping water. At another moment (for Sophie and for us), it might have been an unwelcome email, the prospect of a difficult meeting with someone at work, catching sight of a missed call from someone we fear speaking with, or the prospect of having to deliver difficult news.
As our practice matures, it increasingly resembles what silence is always doing. We allow what is here to be here. We come to see that our reactive commentary doesn’t help us remove what we would rather wasn’t here, but only tightens the grip of our attention on it. Instead of trying to remove or ignore anything, we simply release our attention by returning it to our prayer word and our breath.
As we learn to meet what we find difficult with more silence and less resistance, “whatever it is in us that grasps and craves is soothed and calmed and begins to loosen its grip,” writes Martin Laird, and a doorway to peace opens.
Sophie came to the retreat with a clear idea of how the retreat would look and feel. In the event, much of that went out the window. She met God, and she met herself. And what she thought was ruining the retreat revealed itself as a vehicle of grace. Releasing our commentary on how life should look or feel at any given moment, we are released into a more spacious, peaceful relationship with life.
At the end of the final day Sophie told the retreat leader, “Almost as soon as I started to let the dripping just be there, I felt closer to God and started to notice more and more. I noticed the deep atmosphere of community. I noticed how thoughtfully people were moving about the building, protecting the silence for each other. I noticed the many little acts of kindness during our silent meals, how people smiled and anticipated who might need something passing to them. I touched a place of peace this week that changed everything.”
Jesus’ silence before the angry, accusing crowd opened a space of opportunity, for compassion, for peace, for transformation.
After the crowd had left, Jesus said to the woman, “Where are they? Does no one condemn you?” She replied, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I.”
Just as Jesus opened a space of opportunity by means of his silence, Christ helps us to silence the accusing, judgemental voices within us by means of our deepening silence. We learn to greet life and ourselves with compassion and peace. We discover, like the woman who was about to be killed, that there is no one judging us, there is no one condemning us.
“One of the most important insights that comes from working with silence,” writes Maggie Ross, “is that nothing in our lives is wasted.” Even the most difficult moments, the most painful realities of our life, can become doorways of insight and peace, enriching the soil of our practice and helping to reveal the treasure buried in the field of our life.
In our depths there is only the depthless peace and love we call God.
 John 8:1-11.
 Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness and Contemplation (Oxford University Press, 2011, p.72).
 Maggie Ross, Silence: A User’s Guide, Volume 1: Process (Darton, Longman and Todd).