Six days of silence

By Caitlin Kelly

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Five years ago this week, my husband — then fiance — decided to take me to a silent Buddhist retreat.

It was a birthday gift, one he thought might prove calming and healing.

I went in like a sulky five-year-old, arms crossed, dubious.

I emerged with a lot of new insights — if you’re interested, search my archives for July 2011 and you’ll find them, as I posted every day, a bit stunned by how powerful my feelings were and how much they changed over that week.

I’m not a Buddhist, but have spent time at various sanghas with Jose, who is, so was already familiar with the language, precepts and rituals like mantras, chants and prayers. I also knew and was friends with his lama, Surya Das, so wasn’t intimidated by him or his presence. Had every single bit of it been unfamiliar, it might have been even more challenging.

It’s never a bad thing to withdraw and retreat from the insanity of “normal” life and this was an opportunity to do so, and one — I admit — I would never have undertaken on my own.

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A play is on in New York City right now, Small Mouth Sounds, premised on exactly this thing — a group of people attending a week-long silent retreat —  and it addresses the emotional turmoil so many people bring with them into the meditation hall.

 

In a week of silence, your heart speaks very loudly indeed.

 

Every morning, as we nestled once more into our cushions or chairs for the morning teaching, more and more were empty as people fled, unable or unwilling to stay.

Even those who stayed rebelled, some driving off-campus in their cars to a local bar or standing deep in the woods, yammering on the cellphones — both a violation of the rules we agreed to when we arrived; 75 of us had come from across the globe to do this thing, knowing it would be difficult, and craving that discipline.

I emerged from it dazed, sharpened, newly and exquisitely aware of the daily noise we barely even notice, and had never been conscious of before: cars, sirens, animals, neighbors, airplanes overhead, people talking on their cellphones or listening to music too loudly through headphones.

Jose and I drove to a local bar — where two enormous television screens blared…something. Instead of it feeling, as it usually would, like background noise it was suddenly alien and very much in the foreground. We felt assaulted and exhausted by it.

I missed the precious, glorious, cocooning silence we’d bathed in all week.

I missed the inter-generational community we had created in our silence, sometimes with just a raised eyebrow or shy smile.

I missed sitting in the retreat’s luxurious garden, alone for an hour, my only companion a very bad bunny eating everything he could reach.

I missed the soothing simplicity of our days, from the waking early-morning hand bell rung down the long corridors to our meals eaten together at long wooden refectory tables, the only sounds the clinking of cutlery on china.

Here’s my first entry:

The retreat offers three teachings a day, the only time we’ll be allowed to speak. The food will be vegetarian. There will be no cocktail hour, or wine at dinner, both something we usually enjoy daily at home.

Steak? TV? Three daily newspapers? No, no, no. Ah, the things I cling to.

We’re taking my softball glove and ball, and my bike. I’m taking my camera and watercolors, and plan to write a speech due August 10 in Minneapolis.

I’ll sit in the teachings and meditations and chanting as much as feels comfortable. He and I will share a room, and plan to write notes back and forth. It will be very odd — and difficult — not to talk to him. We typically talk several hours a day and I really enjoy it.

So it’s already a powerful meditation on the loss of that comfort. We may whisper to one another in our room. We’ll see.

I’ve been the butt of jokes for weeks now. “Buddhist,vegetarian, silent — I can’t think of three words less likely to describe you,” said one friend.

 

 Have you ever taken a silent retreat?

 

Would you?

20 thoughts on “Six days of silence

  1. I’ve never taken a silent retreat. During my service in the Army, my MOS required me to silently sneak around observing the enemy, usually only communicating with my partner by hand signals. Someone has to be awake at all times so we’d rotate. Lying in an pit dug into the side of an Afghan mountain, while scorpions and other crawly things assaulted me for days in silence was plenty of retreat for me.

  2. It sounds like something I would like to try, though I don’t know when I’d do it. I’m too busy trying to pay my bills and get my writing into peoples’ hands (which I guess is against Buddhist precepts, but whatever), though I know there’s a Buddhist group in Columbus that, last I checked, is working on getting a new building, so maybe they hold these events every now and then.
    Tell me, did you have to pay for the retreat?

      1. They are not all that expensive — some are less $$ (but probably shorter, like a weekend.) This one had multiple Buddhist teachers (who needed to be paid for their time as well).

        Surya (the lama) asked Jose why he threw me into the deep end with so long a first attempt…and he said “because I knew she could handle it.” It is weird the first few days then it’s like sinking into a bath and, when it ends, you’re sad and disoriented to plunge back into it all, knowing you’ve shared this amazing experience with all these people.

        We’ve discussed doing it again; we’re lucky as the Institute is only a 40-minute drive away for us, so no airfares involved.

  3. I’ve been in long retreats, both zen and Christian-flavored. These days I go to a weekly meditation group. We sit in silence for half an hour. My 20-minute walk there, the half-hour silence, and my walk back– are all contemplative.

    1. Love it…and how great that you’ve made this a weekly practice. Jose used to meditate every morning.

      I loved the silence, but I also cherished the feeling of community we enjoyed, as people who had done something challenging and transformative and shared that experience.

      Your group sounds great. 🙂

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