October 12, 2010

My First Silent Retreat.

(Turns out it’s not a quiet contest.)

When I was growing up, my single mom was fond of the riveting car game “let’s see who can be quiet the longest.” My brother and I were very competitive about this game, but because I was older and therefore had more patience, I usually won. That early training—along with a childhood spent playing invisible at my dad’s weekend 70s parties and burying myself in books most of the time—gave me an advantage when I recently attended my first weeklong silent retreat at Spirit Rock.

Unfortunately, it turns out that a mindfulness meditation retreat is not a quiet contest. Nor is it a place for competition—even with oneself. On some level, I already knew these things going in. I’ve dabbled with vipassana long enough (and spent enough years in the yoga world) to have had most of the competitiveness conditioned out of me. Truth is, I was never very competitive to begin with (except at spelling bees and Scrabble).

It’s true that we did not talk at all for most of the retreat. We didn’t pass notes; we didn’t make eye contact; we didn’t touch each other or gesture. We didn’t even hold the door open for each other. As Noah Levine, one of the teachers, said early in the retreat, “You don’t have to take care of anyone here except yourself.”

I must admit, I really relished that advice and took it to heart. On the frequent occasion that I caught myself worrying about someone in my outside life, I had to quietly remind my mind, “Sorry mind, I know you’re just trying to help, but so-and-so was not invited on this retreat.”

I loved the quiet and the lack of social pressure and quite honestly did not feel either lonely or alone for one minute. After all, even though you aren’t interacting with others on a silent retreat, you are constantly supported by the community—the sangha—in an invisible and yet powerful way.

I actually surprised myself be seeking out ways to acquire more solitude. I took every opportunity to traipse off Thoreau-style into the woods on my very own loose interpretation of walking meditation. During meals, I found the darkest corner of the dining hall and stared off into the middle distance as I stayed alert and present to the sublime flavor of sesame seeds and Bragg’s Liquid Aminos.

Honestly, the quiet was lovely.

I was surprised, however, to find out that a silent retreat is not necessarily completely silent. For one thing, we were allowed to talk during our group interviews every other day. There, in small clusters, we’d talk with the teachers about anything that was coming up for us in our meditation practice and our general experience that week. Because of this, four other participants at the retreat ceased to be anonymous for me and morphed into real people with names, voices, and personalities. And I to them. And from then on, I was acutely aware of the presence of those four people whenever they were around me. Before long, I had entire relationships developed in my head with this posse. The relationships I conjured in my mind were conflicting and full of drama and suspense. For this reason, I started to alternately obsess over and avoid each of them.

We were also allowed to talk during Q&As that followed out afternoon meditation sessions. Once, I even forced myself to ask a question. That was a moment of supreme panic for me. Turns out the hardest thing I had to do at my silent retreat was talk. Ironic.

The third place we sometimes talked was during our “yogi work sessions”—in my case, while washing pots in the kitchen every day after lunch. While it’s possible to get into a rhythm of washing pots together without needing words, occasionally a certain amount of communication is required about where does this whisk go, does this get composted, things like that.

Outside of the sanctioned talking, the fact is that—even sans verbal, mime, or sign language—it’s pretty much impossible to coexist with a group of people in close quarters and not communicate on some level. A certain amount of cooperation is implicit when you wordlessly decide where to sit in the meditation hall, who gets to walk on which path, and who gets to use the salad dressing ladle first. There’s an acute awareness of personal space and who is on the periphery of it. This sort of communal living, while peaceful and entirely lovely, does not make for a purely solitary experience.

And then, of course, there’s the company of your own mind.

In my case (and I doubt I’m alone in this) my mind is such an enthusiastically entertaining entity that I often had to tell it kindly to please leave me alone so I could be present. In a million years my mind couldn’t win a quiet contest. A fellow mindfulness practitioner recently said to me, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we all had to wear space age hats that would automatically project our thoughts over a bullhorn?” I looked at her in horror. No, that would not be funny. Not at all.

Incidentally, during one of our guided meditation sessions, Vinny Ferraro instructed us to identify the tone of the voice in our head. I was amused and actually quite pleased to realize that the voice in my head sounds awfully similar to Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion. If you have to have a celebrity internal monologist, that is definitely the one to have.

Brilliant illustration uptop by my very talented friend Vanessa Fiola: www.vanessafiola.com
(New and improved web site with t-shirts for sale coming soon!)
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