Coast Chronicles: The Sound of Silence

Annie Godwin, Alora Ekvall and Marianne Mott just returned from a three day silent retreat at the Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie.

The world’s been awfully noisy lately. The media’s been shrill. Facebook has been a knock-down drag-out. The traffic in the early morning Twittersphere has been — ahem — unprecedented.

The noise of the election was deafening. Not just for adults, it seems, but for our kids as well. So was it really a surprise when Marianne Mott, black-belt practitioner and occasional meditator, starting thinking about a three day silent retreat at Great Vow Zen Monastery outside of Clatskanie, Oregon; and that when she mentioned it to her teenage daughter, Annie decided she wanted to come too?

Wait — a teenager at a silent retreat? Or, even more improbably, two teenage girls who’ve been best friends since they were two-years-old? Well, unlikely or not, Annie and Alora, Ilwaco high school juniors, wanted some peace and quiet. Or at any rate they were curious enough to give it a try.

Marianne wasn’t convinced at first. She went over the schedule with the girls step by step — three days of silence (!), a 4:50 a.m. wake-up bell (!), hours of meditation beginning at 5:30 a.m. every morning (!), oriyoki (ritualized vegetarian meals!). Were they sure this sounded OK? Yup, they were sure.

So last Friday on the last day of school before the holidays, Annie, Alora and Marianne headed to Clatskanie to experience the sound of silence.

“We wanted to try something new,” said Annie.

“Yeah,” said Alora, “sitting at home trying to focus quietly in my house isn’t always easy. I have three brothers and a sister, all younger than me. But sometimes I do try to meditate outside in a forest by my house. There is a circle with the four elements — there is some quartz, some volcanic rocks, river rocks, all making a big circle. I sit in the middle.”

“I never really meditated before,” said Annie. “We were nervous.”

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Alora. “I was nervous I would mess up or trample on a sacred shrine or something.”

“During our tour before the meditation started, Alora and I walked across the sacred space,” said Annie. “The monks said, ‘we don’t usually walk through there.’”

“It was the area in the temple between where the Roshi sits and the Big Buddha,” Marianne explained.

When asked about the silent part, Alora said, “It was hard at first, our first night when we took our vow of silence. It was hard because Annie’s my best friend! But being quiet for so long gives you time to reflect. It was like an eye opening and you think, you think about everything.”

“They had these little cushions you would put on a mat, in rows, and you were able to chose which cushion you wanted — there were bean bags and stuffed ones and also these weird benches,” said Annie.

Zafus, round meditation cushions, come in all types, but the most common is stuffed with buckwheat hulls. The seiza or meditation bench is used if you want to meditate in a kneeling position; they are wooden, low to the ground — just high enough that you can rest your butt on them and tuck your legs under and behind them.

“They made all their own cushions,” said Alora.

Marianne commented, “I was in the middle of the girls and I was aware of when they moved. They did exceptionally well in the sitting part. They were one and half hours session with breaks every half hour for walking or posture adjustment. Annie was in a half lotus position the whole time.” Alora is a cheer leader and said she had some ankle pain, “I was pretty sore.”

Annie and Alora were the youngest meditators that had ever come to a three day seshin or meditation retreat. What did they think about the experience?

“I learned how to sit and focus on the now, the present moment,” said Annie. “Alora and I are young and our minds are always running into the future.”

“But you can’t live in either the past or the future,” said Alora. “I found out mainly that I could sit still for longer than five minutes. The silence part was hard but in the end it helped me. I think I’m kind of wild and high energy and I talk a lot. The retreat gave me more patience and taught me to have more manners and to be more understanding about people and their actions and mistakes. Overall it helped me be a more caring person — not to judge and be more loving.”

“After I left the retreat, I felt like a different person. I felt a warmer feeling in my heart — I bettered myself.”

Annie added, “We told quite a few people when we got home and they thought we were crazy sitting for eight hours a day in complete silence with complicated meals. They thought that was something they could never do.”

Both girls admitted that there is a lot of unrest at school about the election. Some kids are afraid. Some are haughty. I got the feeling that, just like us adults, they didn’t really know how to talk to each other about our world. The meditation experience seemed to calm them down. They liked it; they want to do it again, “but longer this time.”

I applaud these two young women for deciding to try something new, something that seemed a little strange, something that took commitment. That’s the blessing of being young. It’s the time to explore, to take a risk, even to stop talking for awhile to see what’s inside your own head and heart. After we finished our conversation, I felt uplifted. In ten or fifteen years, these young women — and other young people like them — will be leaders in our communities. It gave me hope.

Annie and Alora both mentioned that one of their favorite things about the retreat was the Metta chant — a vocalization that increases one’s capacity for loving kindness. There are a variety of ways to say this prayer, but the essence is this: “May all beings be safe, may all beings be happy, may all beings be filled with loving kindness.”

In fact, it’s not so different from the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address in what he hoped would bring together a divided nation. They were delivered just 14 days before he was assassinated and are now carved on the north wall of the Lincoln Memorial, “…malice towards none, charity for all.”

May we keep these words in our hearts as we enter the new year.

“…with malice towards none; charity for all.” On March 4, 1865, only 41 days before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln took his second oath of office. Lincoln’s second inaugural address previewed his plans for healing a once divided nation. His speech can be found inscribed on the north chamber wall of the Lincoln Memorial.

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