“A retreat is a good idea,” my meditation teacher, trained in the U.K. by a Tibetan monk, said when I consulted him about my persistent urge to get away. “And I recommend a silent one.”
My husband had left me for another woman. I was juggling two kids, in and out of divorce court, and felt my lid about to blow. As luck would have it, I’d just turned 50, too. Even I knew I needed time for introspection, but why the extra burden of keeping silent, I wanted to ask, but didn’t. And why couldn’t I blow off a little steam, listen to music and converse over dinner with other people at the retreat? Life was hard enough. And my teacher knew I wasn’t the silent type.
I spend the bulk of my workday in front of a computer, but at heart I’m a social animal. Though shy as a young girl, once I reached adulthood I became a confirmed extrovert, joining a long line of female talkers on my mother’s side of the family who could easily hold the thread of one story at bay while carrying on the next.
Besides, I’d had more than enough silence for a lifetime. It was so quiet in the rural town where I grew up you could literally hear a pin drop. So as soon as I was in charge of my own life, I moved to New York City, one of the noisiest places on the planet. These days you can hardly even enter a taxicab without a video monitor of the latest news or celebrity endorsement assaulting you. And even McDonald’s gets you a flat screen with more to digest than just your Big Mac.
Several years ago, 20 years after I’d moved to the Big Apple, my husband left, and I was suddenly single again without ready-made companions or a weekend routine. Single friends already had their own cliques; most of my other friends were married. Some thought I should be thankful for time off when the children visited their father. But I missed my daughters. I missed all the racket. And I was hungry for company. I wanted even more noise, especially whatever would drown out what was going on in my head. So much so that I turned on the TV, which I’d hardly watched for years, filling the house with artificial friends. At times, the four walls closed in on me, and I cursed the silence. It made me feel all the more alone. The last thing I wanted to hear.
Still, I trusted my teacher’s advice. I knew he was far wiser than me on a day when I could think straight.
So I booked a room for my trip and bought a copy of “Walden,” as silly as admitting that now seems. Midway through, though, the quiet droned on and on, and I shelved Thoreau. I stuck to my retreat plans anyway. And one hot August day, drove to the retreat center in upstate New York and began.
After checking in, I hung the badge I was given that said “silent” around my neck. This cued monks, nuns, retreatants and staff not to engage with me. Perhaps it was my reminder, too, that I was supposed to keep my mouth shut.
My daily schedule consisted of four self-guided meditations of one to one-and-a-half hours each while sitting on the floor of my small room. Before leaving, I’d talked to my teacher and plotted out a schedule, thinking I’d flop unless I had the bones of a structure to my day. I ate my meals in silence, at the far end of a long communal table, while a dozen or so staff and other retreatants sat at the other end talking and laughing. I spent the interludes hiking parts of the center’s 82 wooded acres, reciting mantras and sleeping. I had no chores to attend to. No laundry, cooking, cleaning or kid duties. No technology or outside distractions of any kind. Just me and my lonesome – the person I often liked least hanging around.
The euphoria that attends any new adventure buoyed me through the first day. Feelings of good fortune poured over me in waves. I was energized, peaceful and filled with a warrior-like spirit that convinced me I’d already done enough meditating to speed back to the city and tackle whatever divorce and single parenting handed me next. Not having to load and unload the dishwasher for even one day was nearly invigorating enough, I foolishly thought.
Day two, I slept like a baby for 10 hours. And then I hit a wall. I woke up raging with hunger and exhaustion. I crashed until nearly lunchtime, missing breakfast and my early morning meditation. Mid-afternoon I broke down in sobs and stumbled outside and into the arms of a Buddhist nun out walking. Like a silly schoolgirl, I raised my hand for permission to speak. And then I rattled off something about wanting to call my daughter at sleep-away camp to make sure she was OK. My monkey mind, which had far more practice than my tranquil one, had come roaring back.
“Doesn’t the camp have your number in case they need to call you?” the nun asked. I nodded yes.
“So why don’t you give it a bit more time before you call.” I nodded yes again, with less enthusiasm.
Blaise Pascal once said: “I have discovered that all human evil comes from this, man’s being unable to sit still in a room.”
I can’t explain the science of what happened next, but I walked back inside, sat down, and simply began, again. And by later in the day, I’d completely calmed down, and my urge to talk – and call the camp — had subsided. The chatter in my mind melted away. At dinner, I was actually relieved not to talk. Clearly, I’d been going through some sort of withdrawal, and the moment my mind latched onto fear, all my worries had come rushing back as if to stop me from examining what eventually broke the surface.
In the silence that day, I began to hear myself think. I saw myself standing on the outside of my life looking in. And what I saw wasn’t completely pretty.
Hushed away and spending quality time with myself I got a good look at my periodic bouts of impatience and frustration back home. I’d started the retreat with a plan, but my subconscious held agendas of its own. Unresolved anguish over my father’s death 20 years earlier. The fierce attachment I still held for my husband. My anger over losing both. Remnants of my grief return, even now, but the process of letting my husband go — which I made official in court the following year — began in that small austere single-bedded room. Letting go was undoubtedly the fear I had smelled.
Perhaps I could have achieved the same results without solitude. Personally, I don’t think so. Silence for me seemed to have an exponential effect, enhancing not only my ability to go within, but sharpen my focus. Time slowed down, enabling me to attend to a great deal of mental sorting out in a short period of time. With silence, too, the only thoughts feeding my mind were my own. No tidbits of conversations with others, ringing phones or Facebook updates to clutter things back up. I could listen solely with my heart and extract the bits of wisdom that the noise of my day-to-day interruptions often drowned out. The wisdom that comes not from silence, but from surrendering to it.
When my retreat was over at the end of day four, I fired up my car’s engine to leave. Music blared through the speakers of the radio I’d left on when I parked. Jolted, I reached for the on/off button, and drove the whole way home in quiet.
A year and a half later, my oldest teenage daughter and I were in the midst of a mother-daughter squabble when the phone rang. It was my friend Lisa who had just spent four months in silence, in a remote part of Scotland. In the dead of winter. Her plane had just landed, and I invited her to come straight to our house for dinner. Minutes later, Lisa descended like Athena in our midst, instantly clearing the air as if the entire house had gotten a good sage cleaning. Lisa hadn’t said anything particularly profound; it was more like she glowed and her fairy dust had simply rubbed off on each one of us.
I’ll have what she’s having, I remember thinking. That meant committing to a lifelong practice, however, not just once.
Since my first silent retreat, I’ve gone on four more, including at a Catholic monastery that welcomes people of all religions or none at all. I’m hoping for the opportunity soon for a fifth. Granted it’s not absolutely necessary to leave town to get some peace and quiet. After all, the point of retreat is not to get away from yourself, but to move closer. I suppose with all the right conditions and effort you can do that almost anywhere, though when I’m at home, the doorbell rings, the roof springs a leak, the smallest insignificance summons. My times away in silence remove all that, creating uninterrupted fluidity within which to tackle head-on the tension that’s been building up. And confront the stuff I don’t even know about yet that’s been brewing beneath the surface.
“Turn off the TV,” I said to my now 17-year-old one evening a few summers back.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. Cars and trucks normally rush up and down the street in front of our house at all hours. Through the din of our television, however, I’d heard something else.
“Listen,” I said, as my daughter and I rested our heads on the back of the couch. A smile crossed her face. And then we sat there for the longest time mesmerized by the sound of absolutely nothing.