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Terez Mertes

The Stillness Between the Notes

August 31, 2010 at 8:53 PM

Vajrapani Institute. Santa Cruz Mountains. I arrive on a Wednesday afternoon, stressed and overactive, seeking silence, solitude.

I’ve come to the right place.

As a Buddhist center and retreat facility, the institute offers private cabins for silent retreat. With my bags, my clutter, my mind a symphony of thoughts, to-do’s, worries, plans, I settle in my cabin and commence what I came to do: sit.

Silence is harder than you think. So is sitting. 

Both challenge the mind. Your thoughts fight you like animals, intent on staying put in your head. The music, the soundtrack of your life, your past and future, play on and on, like a movie being run to an empty theatre house. 

At first, you don’t even notice it’s a soundtrack.

Finally you catch on. You are the observer. The rest is stuff.

Morning fog chills the outdoor air like autumn but the sun burns it away and bakes the earth, this parched place that hasn’t seen rain for several months, nor will it any time soon. But the redwoods fill the landscape with green. The retreat cabins are on an isolated ridge. As far as the eye can see are green shaggy mountains, blue sky, pale gold dirt.

A breeze sends a whisper through the pines. 

Otherwise, silence.

The thoughts, they are like a parade, one following another. They beckon fervently, making you think this thought, this one, it is important, I must follow it down the path and see.


The last time I did a silent retreat I brought my violin. I headed to a nearby meadow and made time in my day to practice. Daily practice is important, after all. Following a steadying routine.

It’s also a crutch, clinging to busy when empty gets boring, scary, sad, overwhelming. And it will. That’s part of the process. Arriving over and over at that less-than-comfortable place doesn’t mean you’ve failed. In truth, it’s the contrary.

Hiking in nearby hills one sun-saturated afternoon. My one nod to hedonism: the iPod. Listening to Debussy’s Quartet in G-minor. The third movement stops me in my tracks. I perch on a rock, gaze out at the splendor around me, wordless. I play the movement over and over, each time stirred to tears, the rest of the world, even my thoughts, reduced to crystalline stillness.

This piece, this movement: a flawless balance of sound and space and introspection. I want to weep over Debussy’s genius, this quartet that listeners found baffling and “oriental” at its 1893 debut.

I indulge in another good cry. Then I play the movement again. And again. 

I return to my cabin two hours later, to the peace and serenity, amid a discovery. Silence, I realize, isn’t just about the cessation of noise. The best kind of silence rises from the stillness, that perfect stillness, between the breaths, between the thoughts, between the notes. 

Would I have heard the perfect stillness in the Debussy had I not sat here in silence first?

Something for me to meditate over.


© 2010 Terez Rose


Here’s a link to the Debussy Quartet’s 3rd movement, a stirring rendition by the Dahlkvist String Quartet:

Highly recommended: Quatuor Ebene’s CD recording of quartets by Debussy, Fauré and RavelÉbène-Performs-Ravel-Debussy/dp/B001BWQWKS/ref=sr_1_1

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on September 1, 2010 at 12:06 AM

Just you can have so original ideas!  Well, creativity is certainly in having original ideas and daring to try new things so you're on the good path... : )

Interesting blog.

I have an accompagnist (well the term "accompagnist" should be given to me because she is a much more experienced musician : ) who is always saying at my first rehearshals of something that i talk too much, that it interferes with the music and that professionnals learn to talk less.  When I come back on the 2nd and more rehearsals applying what she said, not talking except for compolsory things and play this "professionnal" game, I'm much better (even if not a real pro...)  Silence must have some good for musicians... she really showed/taught me this!

So you went to the right place ; )


From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 1, 2010 at 3:12 AM

So, are we all rested now?  Less stress?  Feel better?

This is why I like to take breaks out on the deck.  Sometimes I read, but sometimes I just veg.  The hummingbirds are visiting right now.  (Insert smiley face here)

I adore the Debussy SQ.  You have such marvelous taste...

Also, the SFS is going to liveeam the opening night gala, in case you are unable to attend.  I saw that somewhere online this morning, and thought of you.  (Another smiley face here)

From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 1, 2010 at 3:22 AM

One more thing, I talk too much too, just like Anne-Marie.  Maybe it's that "E" we both sport at the end of our names.

Thanks for a peaceful blog.  I'll go off and be quiet now...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on September 1, 2010 at 3:48 AM

Thanks for the comments, Anne-Marie and Anne! And to answer your question, Anne, yes, I was very relaxed and unstressed once I returned home, until life and its sticky issues crept up on me again.

But before that? Ah, it was a great hour. A very great hour. ; )

But I must say. Listening to the Debussy 3rd movement puts me right back there...

From elise stanley
Posted on September 1, 2010 at 9:18 AM

for a moment there was a vicarious stillness in the words between your retreat...

thank you

From Terez Mertes
Posted on September 1, 2010 at 12:22 PM

 >for a moment there was a vicarious stillness in the words between your retreat...

Aww, what a great comment. Glad you felt it too! (I cheated and used lots of spaces between lines  when writing this blog.)

From Tom Holzman
Posted on September 1, 2010 at 1:09 PM

What a great experience.  My brother just did a meditation retreat for a week.  Your blog gives me a very good sense of what it is like to do that sort of thing.  I think you are now ready to listen seriously to some Miles Davis.  He always said that the crucial thing about his music was not the notes but the space between the notes. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on September 1, 2010 at 4:11 PM

 A week - ooh, I'd like to try that one of these days. Must wait, tho, until there isn't a clamoring child here in the house, demanding my presence.

> I think you are now ready to listen seriously to some Miles Davis.

My husband will be glad to hear you advised this. : )

> He always said that the crucial thing about his music was not the notes but the space between the notes. 

Ooh, yes!! 

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 2, 2010 at 3:37 AM

Terez, you write so vividly that I almost felt like I was there.  I've never been to a meditation camp, but I practice yoga, and when I'm deepest in trance, I have a feeling similar to what you described.

In the same vein, I recently read this, by Leonard Bernstein.  "Stillness is our most intense mode of action. It is in our moments of deep quiet that is born every idea, emotion, and drive which we eventually honor with the name of action. Our most emotionally active life is lived in our dreams, and our cells renew themselves most industriously in sleep. We reach highest in meditation, and farthest in prayer. In stillness every human being is great; he is free from the experience of hostility; he is a poet, and most like an angel."

From Terez Mertes
Posted on September 2, 2010 at 2:21 PM

 Oh, Pauline, that quote is WONDERFUL. I'm going to print it out and keep it by my desk. It makes me realize how important the being still business is, for my creative writing. Particularly this project I'm working on right now, that's trying to cover all the different facets of spirituality. Interesting to think of silence as being its own spirituality...

Thanks - what a great way to start my day. I'm fretful; I have to go out and test-drive two new cars this morning, without my husband around to call off the hounds (aka car salespeople) that will be there, baying, nipping at my heels, asking what can they do to get me to sign TODAY. (The answer is no - we're in the early stages of shopping for our next family car. ) Ugh. All the more reason to copy your quote and bring it with me. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on September 2, 2010 at 2:26 PM

 >Our most emotionally active life is lived in our dreams, and our cells renew themselves most industriously in sleep.

I also have to comment on this line; it made me smile. When my son was born he was a terrible sleeper and woke up four and five times a night for a whopping ten months. After a few weeks of it, I felt so emotionally depleted, so oddly sad to go to bed at night. Now I can see that what it stole from me is that nurturing sleep consciousness, that dream zone, that renewing zone. I've always treasured my sleep and my dreams - they are such a relief from the day and my overactive brain. I never understood how important the "unconscious" part of sleeping was, until it was taken from me for those ten months.

Glad to see I can smile about it now. It made me pretty gloomy back then. : /

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