"Words are just noise. Words are only noise. Repeat after me."
So begins the title track from Bowery Electric's beautiful second album "Beat," a phrase which became a mantra for me as I did my best to participate in this week's silent meditation retreat led by Rabbi David Cooper, the author of "God Is A Verb." Upon his arrival, there was a staff debriefing at which we discussed behavioral boundaries and expectations, and while most people weren't thrilled about the effects the retreat would have at the center, I was ecstatic. Of course, there was quite a catch: I was the only one in my program observing silence, and in no way did I anticipate the unfortunate rift it inevitably created within my close community. It was an interesting and challenging week to say the least...
Remaining true to my experience last winter at Massachusetts' Vipassana Meditation Center, I began observing silence and avoided eye contact early Monday morning in our field while kneeling in the soil and weeding beets. Eva was on the other side of the plant bed and, for some time, she too remained silent; but finally- almost luckily- I was alone with the beets, the weeds, and the subtle sensation of breath subtly moving in and out of my nostrils. Tali, the farm manager, gave me instructions regarding other tasks to complete, and while she spoke, my eyes remained averted. I only nodded to convey understanding. Walking barefoot in the mud back to my bike, my friends' smiles and hellos were left ignored, and I pedaled away quickly to join the others in silence at the cafeteria.
Ironically, what I thought would be my safe haven from the everyday clatter became a comedic exercise in ignoring the Russian kitchen staff who, upon learning I was keeping silence like all the other "crazy zombies," reveled in making that endeavor nearly impossible. I suppose if they weren't so cute, I would have gotten a lot angrier: 21 year-old Russian party girls aren't people with whom you can stay upset for long. And so, each day I stood in line, spooned food onto my plate to their stifled giggles and soft, unintelligible whispers, then found a window-facing seat and ate slowly, trying to maintain a meditative state. A door would slam, a chair would squeak against the floor, someone would cough or sneeze, and I'd find myself mildly annoyed. For my part, I hardly even scraped a utensil against my ceramic plate, and would lift my chair before moving it backwards or forwards, still pretending it wasn't futile to expect complete quiet. Most staff and people on my program ate elsewhere, so I was thankfully alone with the other retreatants.
There was a sitting that night, and I arrived shortly after finishing dinner. Feet padded around the room as people found comfortable pillows then awaited the resonant bell to begin. I breathed in its vibrating tone and watched my thoughts become less scattered, but my allergies were unfortunately acting up, leaving me to alternately contemplate a void and my runny nose. A half an hour later, the sharp bell marked time again. We walked around the periphery of the room with muscular motions so slow and deliberate that we appeared still, then returned to our floor spaces for a second session to close out the hour. Noticing members of my group paying me more attention than I preferred, I returned home to draw up a note and hung it next to the hot water heater in our kitchen, a place that gets constant traffic:
"If you wish to observe silence until Shabbat, please write your name below. Also, specify if you wish to avoid eye contact. For those not participating in silence, please only speak to those who are when completely necessary. Thank you!"
Underneath this was two columns for participants' names and preferences for eye contact. Though intended as an invitation for others to join me in silence, not-so-secretly it was also the most non-confrontational and roundabout way of telling people to leave me alone. Smiling, I signed "Zachary" and "no eye contact," then fell asleep.
I filled my plate with food the next morning at breakfast, and mainly ate alone in my room, listening to Loscil really loudly in my headphones to try and tune everyone out. And for the rest of the day, focusing on my meditation and ignoring everyone became easier and easier- even amidst their laughter and chatter. As the song says, "words [became] noise" (no different than whistling breeze, passing engines, rickety gear-shifts on my rusty bicycle chain, or the chorus of insects and birds), and if I held my focus strongly enough, the english language was just gibberish within a sonic tapestry I largely disregarded.
But, another thing started happening as a result of my withdrawal, something I had never experienced for such a prolonged duration before: a grasp of time and space extending outside my own frame of reference to become an out-of-body, meta-recognition of the present. A "macro moment." Instead of lasting only seconds with humbling, grateful sighs escaping as you wonder just how in the fuck your journey brought you to such a beautiful place, I entered a museum of this time in my life, and wandered its exhibits for a couple of days. Its walls seemed to fade in and out depending on how present I was able to remain or how distracted I allowed myself to become, but I was there- as myself but watching myself- going through the motions. And I wondered something about what Rudolf Steiner had posited. If it's true that when we die, we re-live our lives in reverse (but at a higher speed) to learn how karma unfolds, do we do so as active participants or passive observers? Because in truth, I felt I had been given that opportunity- at least for my consciousness to embody that sort of spirit essence. I was granted invisibility and the unique perspective of profound separation, all without a voice to clarify just how my ego felt about it.
Yet, then the museum walls would fade. I'd hear my name sung almost as a taunt, Sveta and Lena approaching and smiling from behind. "How are you, what are you doing today?" delicately in thick, Russian accents. Gala covering her mouth to quiet her giggles, her ice blue eyes on mine as I looked away frustrated but hardly able to stop grinning. The bubble burst. I was back to pouring balsamic vinegar on greens, grated cheese and walnuts as people stared into space. Yulia brought out more barbequed tofu and quinoa on a hot pan, uncomfortably setting it into a basin of hot water heated by a blue flame, then snickered at me before slinking sexily back into the kitchen. Defeated, I surrendered to a chuckle and found a new spot to sit and start all over again.
Wednesday morning, Avodat Lev was held in the forest again. We were asked to find a "prayer partner"- not a person but an object- and meditate or pray with it as we wished. At the triangular base of soil created by three trees, I found mine in a small, crooked fern. There's an idea that all things are constantly praising God, and that when we recite blessings, we're merely joining in that constant, eternal process. But, it was in meditation- not in prayer- that my "prayer partner" in this trinity of trees brought me to a place far from the forest. I was in my childhood home, the house in Evanston that my dad still shares with my sister Shana and the spirit of my mom.
I walked down the sidewalk which is cracking from years of rain and up the stairs to our white storm door. All the details were so vivid in my mind's eye: its brass knob and the handle on the other side upturned; the four squares of glass on the inner door revealing the front hallway to the bathroom, and the woman's ghostly ceramic face that hangs inside; a staircase covered from top to bottom in a soft, patterned rug whose center is worn nearly threadbare from over thirty years of footprints; pairs of shoes neatly lining the entry way; coats and hats covering the halltree's hooks and umbrellas resting against the dark, reddish wood. I pressed my finger against the yellowing doorbell and heard its familiar, descending harmony. I felt the sound in the back of my throat as if in anticipation of guests on the holidays. Then I was inside my house at the top of the stairs, looking down at the faces behind the door's paneled glass. It was my Aunt Paulette and Uncle Al holding gifts in a large, red, department store's shopping bag. Ding-dong. I heard the sound so clearly, and like the bell signaling a meditation's beginning or end, it pulsated in my skull as I breathed. Ding-dong.
Then, I mentally toured the house. I started downstairs, entering through the front door after another depression of the doorbell. My mom was on the phone, her voice singing sweetly with genuine cheer as she washed dishes in the kitchen. She turned over her shoulder at the sound of the door closing behind me, cradling the phone with her neck. "My boychick is home," she'd say smiling. I took off my shoes and went upstairs, rounding the banister and up two more steps before going into my dad's office, the carpet going from flat, creamy knots to thick, storm cloud gray strands. Manila file folders lined the wall where the bookshelf ended. Yellow legal pads filled with the ink of my dad's chicken scratch cluttered the desk next to his computer. Photographs of Ferraris and Jaguars were set on foam core or framed next to Father's Day cards from a much younger version of my sister. "Daddy, I love cuddling with you. Love, Shana." Two small speakers filled the room with jazz made faintly fuzzy through radio frequency. "Hi, this is Marc. I'm not in right now, but if you leave your name and number at the sound of the tone, I'll be glad to call you when I return. Thank you." Beep. My dad was sitting at his desk, looking through papers, concentrating with his head down. "How's my favorite boy? Muah!"
I went through his door and into my bedroom, and attempted to remember all of the different ways it had looked over the years: different orientations of my bed, posters that had come and gone, the Sri Lankan mask hanging in the corner in between windows, the way my ceiling looked before I created constellations with putty and glow-in-the-dark stars; then, tiny, blackened marks on my windowsill- the aftermath of bubble gum wads placed there from between my first love's fingers. Carefully, I tip-toed through the scarce available space on my sister's floor as she read in bed while listening to the television (I still don't understand how she does that). "Ackabee," she beamed. I saw the stairwell again and gazed into the bathroom to my right, having a hard time remembering the wallpaper pattern before the walls were sponge-painted. Stripes? I floated into my parents' room, into their bathroom, and then I flew out of the window to land on our neighbor's front lawn. Where would I go next?
I chose to stay right there, but changed ages. Up Lincolnwood Drive we went, my parents on either side holding the tiny hands of a three year-old me. "One, two, three, weeeee!" They swung me high above the ground over and over again. Sprinklers oscillated or waved on summer lawns as fireflies blinked brilliantly in twilight. We would've made it to Baskin Robbins on Central Street, and I would've licked a light green scoop of daiquiri ice nestled in a sugar cone, but I didn't make it there: I was back in the forest with a heavy heart and my eyes open and stinging, blinking out the tears that made my fern appear blurred. I rose and stretched, then trudged alone to the pasture where I had parked my bike. One of the white baby goats stood at the doorway of the chicken coop among the hens, and it seemed to be smiling perceptibly. I wiped away more tears.
The day continued as usual: alone in the field picking at bails of hay, mulching rows of peppers, weeding a bed of onions, and then dealing with the Russians' flirtatious mockery at mealtimes. Outside of the cafeteria, I was affronted by three of them as I tried to get tea. As soon as I put my paper cup on the table in search of a tea bag, Lena quickly poured sugar into it and Yulia and Kate started their rapid-fire whispering, trying to meet my eyes. I pulled at Lena's collar and tried emptying the sugar down her bare back, but Yulia swiftly grabbed her away as she squealed. There was a retreatant walking towards us, so the girls escaped to the kitchen. I just filled my cup with hot water and shook my head, grinning incredulously.
For the last two weeks I had the morning chore of watering the gan (garden), herbs, and seed-saving plants, but that Wednesday at dusk, I happily rode to the pasture early to meet the goats. The pasture manager Aitan and my milking partner Noah were arriving at 8 for a training session and our formal introduction to Zilpah and Angie (the two goats we'd milk each evening), so I had a half an hour to meditate there at the lake's edge. I sat on a bench facing the animals and closed my eyes, listening to the hens coo with an occasional "baah" from one of the kids. A few minutes passed, and I realized it would make a lot more sense to keep my eyes open and become acquainted with my new friends. It was over the course of those thirty minutes that I once again entered that "museum"; this time, it wasn't just one of my life, but of the earth's.
There are three adult goats (two females and one male) and roughly 5 kids, all of whom are bleach white and under a year old. Angie and Zilpah are the mellow matrons, and Omer- the adult male- is the force to be reckoned with on the pasture. While he's a bit of a primadonna, moreso, he is asserting himself to establish the natural power dynamic between dominant males and their young. If he wants food, or if he prefers that a different kid be fed over another, he will chase or ram the young goat out of the way. I sat and watched this happen repeatedly, then witnessed the kids imitating Omer, gently touching their horns in a harmless pantomime. They were learning through repetition: communicating without words and through instinct. And there I was, silently watching patterns develop among the collective, but seeing how each kid's unique personality influenced his or her interactions within it. Movements were echoed endlessly and, eventually, as I beheld this process, it became like holding a mirror to myself.
Like a fractal extending infinitely in- and outwards, these patterns of maturation and evolution have no real beginning or end. They are all simply cycles. We so often forget we are breathing, and we don't focus on the rhythm of our beating hearts; these are both subconscious habits that, thank God, we don't need to remind ourselves to complete every second. The funny thing is, when you look at nearly any naturally occurring phenomena, you realize they too operate in cycles which are out of your control, and perhaps lay within the realm of a subconscious which is greater than (yet inextricably connected to) our own: death and rebirth, sleep and waking, sunset and sunrise, the waxing and waning of the moon (and its effects on our bodies), cell growth and deterioration... These are some of the aspects comprising life at its most pure and basic level, and their every recurrence seems completely new.
Within our mortal framework as men and women, perhaps we share a natural inclination towards perfection, and grow together through these cycles towards that unattainable end only to forget the progress we made once we perish; that is, unless we break the akashic cycle and enter "God Consciousness," becoming One with the creator as some believe is possible. Yet, if we are created in God's image, and indeed have that desire to perfect our souls, does that mean that God is evolving as well, and through His "subconscious" cycles is looking to attain an even higher perfection? Or, since God is truly within us, do we inexorably evolve simultaneously as one Being, a single alive Consciousness?
Rabbi David Seidenberg explained the Kabbalistic concept of angels to me a week before I began the silent retreat. Jewish mystics believe that everything on earth- even individual blades of grass, or the tiniest and most insignificant pebble- has its own angel, and the proximity of each angel to God is contingent upon its order of creation (ancient forms of matter such as rocks have their corresponding angels closest to God, followed by the plant and animal kingdoms, and the human race whose angels are furthest away). The angels' awe of the Creator varies in accordance with their distance from Him, thus explaining the reason rocks and plant life are silent, and why animals and humans communicate with the sonic vocabulary or language to the degrees they do.
So, if it is said that all things are constantly praising God, and they do so not with words but by expressing gratitude in their own inherent fashion, why then do we as humans deem it necessary to verbalize prayer and not learn from our "elders" on earth? Our human race, through the luxury of using words, was the only species to unreasonably demarcate boundaries within what may as well have remained one belief, and forced us to carry the hardest burden in our spiritual ascension! Personally speaking, entering what is described as "universal consciousness" has hardly come from religious observance for me; instead, it has been actuated through intense experience, often while alone. Again, I am referring to those "macro moments" when "time stands still." I can use any of those now-cliched expressions to describe it, but they each illustrate the same all-encompassing perception of our being. And it was in silence- first in the forest and then in the pasture- that I realized that we, too are constantly honoring this energy that animates us all: we do so subconsciously- just as we breathe, and just as our hearts beat. And it is when we shift our awareness to this level of being that we realize thankfulness is intrinsic, and tears of joy are our silent blessing. "Words are just noise. Words are only noise."
"Repeat after me."