How did this happen to a shy, tongue-tied Mama’s Boy? How I loved to be under my mother’s wings when other boys teased me or tough teachers intimidated me. She was a gentle soft-spoken person, but would unsheath some steel if she felt anyone dared bully me. My father went the other way and quietly enticed me to read poems aloud to him and his friends. He wanted me to be expressive. I finally listened when he persuaded me to speak in school debates.
Some such thought may have induced me to speak with Satya Narayan Goenka. He was an Indian who had grown up in Burma and become a successful businessman, then met a senior bureaucrat U Ba Thin who introduced him to Buddhism, and, after a long, earnest internship, become an evangelist for meditation. He cared little for formal religion or its rites. He saw meditation as a practical tool to exorcise suffering, achieve focus and develop compasssion. That, to him, was Dhamma, the way to liberation.
Goenka, then seventy, had started 300 meditation centers in 100 countries and taught a thousand trainers to teach meditation. He had experimented with hardened criminals in US and Indian prisons, instructing them to meditate. He had plans for the small Asian country where I was serving as a diplomat and invited me to join a session.
The ‘session’ meant a commitment of ten days, with an evening ahead for preparation and a morning at the end for recapitulation. From the moment I signed in, without any charge, I had to maintain complete silence and say not a word at any time. I had modest, free lodging and decent, free meals, with a hundred others. Our only responsibility was to listen to brief talks and meditate all the time. A UN colleague, whose long legs went to sleep the moment she assumed the lotus position, called it the Benighted Buddhist Boot Camp.
On the seventh day – when reportedly even God relented and rested – late in the evening I was taking a stroll after the day’s labor, when I felt a jab in my lower ribs. I turned to face a Venezuelan friend, who had apparently been trying to draw my attention with hand signals, since any oral effort was verboten. Failing in that, she had simply run up and jabbed a finger. I had no idea she was attending the program and was pleased to see her. I hugged her and, perhaps overwhelmed by the discovery, she impulsively kissed me.
That was the only interruption of our rigorous routine. As I was leaving on the last morning, I looked at the other faces and saw a curious change. We all had a chastened, earnest, sedate look. Inside, I was both tired and excited: tired of grappling with the thoughts that assail you when you suspend your immediate concerns, excited because you feel sure that you can go beyond those thoughts and have a new perspective on your life. Suddenly all your key problems seem a little vapid and petty.
The very silence was a spectacular experience, the very void where new ideas can emerge. The Buddhists have a saying: It is the silence between the notes that makes the music, it is the space between the bars that cages the tiger.
I may not have reined in my loquacious tongue, but I certainly now have a clue how to create the space that can uncage me.