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August 2010

The Stillness Between the Notes

August 31, 2010 13:53

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

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