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Beyond Words and Phrases

by Sheridan Hill

Glimmer, by David Stanley
Glimmer
by David Stanley
I don't know a soul at this remote retreat center, and this is my first time practicing silence. The Southern Dharma brochure pictured a Zen priest beaming like a sunflower in July. His impressive credentials -- a poet with a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University -- and the name of his retreat, "Beyond Words and Phrases," lured me here. Lou Nordstrom doesn't smile all that much: "I've always been accused of being cynical," he tells us the first day.

Everywhere there are notes affixed to the unfinished pine paneling. On the wall by the shower is a memo I read several times, but apparently I am not Zen enough to decipher: "Showering before wake-up time disturbs others. Showering at wake-up time keeps others from being able to use the toilet."

There are no nametags. This being a silent retreat, whose names do I need to know? Instead of labeling our chests with names (which to Zen thinking is not who we "are"), we write our names on a piece of masking tape and press it to an unpainted shelf above our drinking cups. Practical.

The silence is not, as I presumed, unnatural. I imagined staffers and zealous Zen students monitoring wayward speakers, pressing a rigid finger to their lips, "Shhh!" I wondered what I would do if I needed the salt passed or, more importantly, the toilet paper. But the need to speak is generally eliminated by careful attention to detail: condiments are placed on the buffet table and used as we heap vegan fare onto our plates, work volunteers are assigned to constantly check supplies such as toilet paper. And if you need to speak, you just speak. Six o'clock sharp in the dark morning of the meditation hall Nordstrom sits before us in full lotus. "You may sit any way you like, this being America," he says, surveying the way we are planted on meditation cushions like inverted mushrooms. "But as much as possible it's nice for us all to be doing the same thing. In the walking meditation, try to maintain an even space between you. I see that many people like to express themselves by walking apart, but there are better ways to express yourself."

A bird trills in the forest. He cocks his ear to the window.

"And that," we listen as the bird repeats its song "is one of them."

He says there is no inside, no outside. No "out there". It seems Zen is critical of words and concepts. Nordstrom advises chopping off the root of conceptual thought.

"Thought, words and concepts are not form," Nordstrom says. "Do you understand? And on the other hand, they are form. The map -- conceptual thought -- is not the territory, only a representation. And yet, once you see that the map is not the territory, you are free to see it as the territory." He lifts both eyebrows and bobs his oval, shorn head. "Hmm?"

For several years I've endeavored to practice mindfulness: aware of everything present in my mind, in my emotional state, in the room. Nordstrom seems to throw mindfulness out the window and calls us to stop seeing separate parts -- to end all forms of alienation, beginning with the self. My sense of reality is standing on its ear. He thoroughly trashes conventional use of words, concepts and language. I shuffle from the meditation hall wondering why I am a writer. What on earth was I thinking?

In obeisance to the posted schedule, I turn out the light in my dorm room at 9:30 p.m. Sometime after midnight I realize I am taking this all too seriously. I have spent hours trying to imagine no inside, no outside, struggling to drop the duality barriers in my mind.

The next morning, I climb into the back of a half-ton yellow truck with seven nameless others for an hour of service. Wordlessly, we whack weeds and dig ditches along the steep, snaky dirt road. I find a comfortable rhythm with the small scythe, carefully carving out lush Christmas ferns, exotic Solomon's seal and other wild flora. In exactly 55 minutes, the yellow truck appears and we climb in. Bouncing along the road, we look past the truck's hinged gaze at our handiwork, and smile at each other.

Throughout the weekend, our humanness is apparent. One woman appears with bright, freshly applied lipstick for all occasions: meals, meditation and work. I manage to squeeze in two or three cups of coffee each day. My nose tells me that someone slips off for a smoke at all hours. Later, I discover it is the Zen master.

Sunday morning, Nordstrom recites Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot and Zen poets with dramatic conviction. I heave a sigh. I don't have to give up writing after all. He advises us to become intimate with ourselves, with the world, with the moment (being the Zen master, he is allowed to speak paradoxically).

"Let the moment express itself through you. What is this moment saying? If you don't know, that's the right response. Let yourself be in a state of unknowing."

"The most intimate human act," he says, and in the red-hot instant he pauses we all think of sex, "is breathing. Breathing. Hmm?" The almond-shaped head nods vigorously. "And next to that, I think, is speech."

I have been assigned the job of sweeping the dormitory foyer. Despite the fact that we are always taking off and putting on our shoes, it seems I am always sweeping as 25 people come and go in the wrap-around nature. Sunday afternoon, I sweep the dirt under a bench by the door. I realize this is bad karma, but vow to atone for it the next day by giving the whole place a thorough cleaning.

On Sunday night the silence, at first stiff to me, is drinkable.

In the last hour of the retreat, Nordstrom encourages our meditation practice, but cautions against believing it will bring about Nirvana, which he defines as not heaven, not a perfect place but simply the end of suffering.

We are all Buddhas, he says, but we will never come close to realizing it unless we meditate. He assures us that the distance between everyday life and enlightenment experience is one-tenth of an inch, and that in meditation we are moving towards it all the time.

Our parting action on Monday is to lunch together, talking, talking, talking. There is much laughter. I do not want to leave. Slowly driving home through the glorious Blue Ridge Mountains, I feel at once full of the bliss Nordstrom has glimpsed for us and empty, a proper Zen state of being.

Most of what I have learned was imparted to me in silence: it is essential, it is invisible, and so subtle it defies description. Still, it's there.

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Sheridan Hill is exploring spiritual journalism, carefully detailing what we feel and see and sense when we experience the authentic nature of being both human and spiritual. Sheridan began writing about spirituality during a 1971 trip to India. She attends classes at the School of Spiritual Psychology in Greensboro, N.C, and the Jaffe Institute of Medical and Spiritual Healing in Pope Valley, CA. Want to tell Sheridan about your spiritual experience? Write her or see her website

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