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?

Fleeing the cage of words

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you ever just stopped talking?

Not the usual way — pausing for a minute to draw breath or sip your drink or check your texts.

But decided, for a while, not to speak at all.

I did so in the summer of 2011, a few months before I married Jose, a man who is devoutly Buddhist and who decided, as a birthday gift, to whisk me off to an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat. (Yes, really.)

The only time speech was allowed was in our teaching sessions, or private meetings with the staff, to ask questions.

Golden Buddha Statue of Gold Buddhism Religion
Golden Buddha Statue of Gold Buddhism Religion (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Here’s my Marie Claire story about how it changed my life, and our relationship, and here’s one of my five blog posts, all from July 2011, about how great it felt to be quiet for a while.

We communicated mostly through Post-It notes and gestures, occasionally whispering in our room.

For the first few days, it felt like an impossible burden and every morning’s meditation revealed another empty chair or cushion left by those who had decided to flee.

Then it felt massively liberating.

To not be social.

To not make chit-chat.

To not fill the air with chatter so as to sound witty and smart and cool and employable and likeable.

To just…be silent.

To just…be.

When we returned to the noise and clamor of “normal”life — the blaring TVs in every bar, the ping of someone’s phone or an elevator or a doorbell, the honking of cars, the yammer of people shouting into their cellphones — we were shell-shocked by it all.

I miss that silence, and I really miss the powerful experience of community we had there, with 75 people of all ages from all over the world who had chosen to eschew words for a week.

In December, I started a weekly class in choreography, modern dance, a new adventure for me. There’s only one other student, a woman 13 years my junior. In a small studio, we spend 90 minutes moving, writing about movement and creating “insta-dances” which we perform and listen to feedback about.

It’s all a bit terrifying for someone whose audience — here and in my paid writing work — typically remains safely distant, invisible and mostly ignores what I produce. To look someone in the eye, and to see yourself in the mirror, and to express oneself without words, using only corporeal language are all deeply disorienting.

Not a bad thing. But a very new thing.

Deutsch: Modern Dance Company "Flatback a...
Deutsch: Modern Dance Company “Flatback and cry e.V.” Produktion: “patchwork on stage”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Your fingers, wrists, toes, elbows…all have something to say, I’ve discovered. The subtlety of a flick, a wiggle, a pause, a hop. It’s a wholly new way to express ideas and emotions without the tedium of diction.

It’s another way to tell a story, wordlessly. I’ve been surprised and grateful that the other dancer — who is thin, lithe and performs a lot — calls me graceful and expressive. I didn’t expect that at all. As someone whose body is aging and needs to shed 30+ pounds, I usually just see it as a tiresome battleground, not a source of pride and pleasure, sorry to say.

It’s also a little terrifying to have all that freedom, as writing journalism always means writing to a specific length, style and audience, like a tailor making a gray wool pinstriped suit in a 42tall. It’s always something made-to-order, rarely a pure expression of my own ideas and creativity.

It’s interesting indeed to open the cage of words and flutter into the air beyond.

I’m A…

Identity (film)
Image via Wikipedia

I’m not wild about labels. On cans, sure.

But people?

Here’s an interesting Slate essay about the difference between Latino/a and Hispanic.

I met a woman recently who said she was a “moderate Republican.” It’s fair to describe my sweetie as a “devout Buddhist.” I know a woman, an artist, who could fairly say she’s a “passionate flea marketer.”

In an era of identity politics, when identifying as member of one group can alienate members of another, how “loud and proud” are we?

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” is about the intersection of women and firearms in the U.S. I was fascinated — and depressed — to find that most people assumed I must be a gun-owner, user or even fanatic.

Not!

I’ve never owned one, nor plan to. I did shoot a bunch of different handguns as research, but am quite able, as a career journalist, to write about all sorts of issues without attaching myself to them emotionally or investing in that identity or personal allegiance.

That’s what being a traditional news journalist means — finding and reporting stories, not signing up for every cause or group.

Other than our work titles or job descriptions, or our family relationships (Mom, husband, sister, nephew), how do we choose to define ourselves to the wider world?

Words can have such different meanings to many people; one person’s definition of “conservative” (fiscally but not socially) might signal the red flag of a very different belief system to someone else.

I’m liberal in some ways, politically and otherwise, but quite conservative in others, like finances and the way I often dress.

I’m comfortable saying publicly I’m a(n):

feminist

traveler

athlete

aesthete

foodie

volunteer

ex-patriate

creator

Francophile

artist

I recently took the vows of a bodhisattva. Gulp. Big job!

I doubt I’ll be using that one in social conversation any time soon, but it’s a role I’ve felt strongly about for a while.

How about you?

What are some of your identities?

Make Me Laugh And I’m Yours, Baby!

you laughed so hard you cried?
Image via Wikipedia

Is there anything less amusing than a day — a week — longer? without laughter?

Especially when times are terrifying and horrible and painful, you gotta laugh.

The men who have won my heart are the ones who made me laugh so hard I almost peed, like Bob, who took me to a Manhattan comedy club but made me laugh ten times harder on the drive home.

The sweetie and I met on-line, so our first few conversations were by phone, as we lived about 30 miles away from one another. I have no idea what he said, but something made me laugh so hard I snorted.

Sexy!

That’s the end of that, I figured. What man wants to date a chick who snorts?

But Jose, being Jose, thought this was — as Buddhists like to say — an auspicious sign. If he could make me laugh that hard, clearly I had some appreciation for: 1) the same things; 2) seen the same way; 3) him. All true, and here we are 11 years later.

The eight-day silent Buddhist retreat I recently attended certainly looked Very Serious Indeed. All the students had mala beads wrapped around their wrists, and prayer books wrapped in gorgeous Chinese silk bags and some of them fully prostrated before each teaching. Yikes!

I do take such matters seriously indeed, but a little lightness goes a long, long way with me.

Thank heaven for Lama Surya Das’ love of laughter. We were killing ourselves at his raucous, bawdy humor — which made a deeply thoughtful 90-minute teaching, with 20 points on one slide alone — fly by.

How often do you laugh?

Is it enough?

So, What Did I Learn?

Reclining Buddha
Reclining Buddha, in Bangkok. Been there, saw him! Image via Wikipedia

Hard to believe it’s all over.

There were times I had no idea what day it was, even when I kept counting them off on my fingers, like some crazed prisoner. A nine-day silent retreat is its own sort of marathon, intellectually, spiritually, physically — and if you’re not a vegetarian, culinarily. (If that’s a word.)

We broke Noble Silence Saturday at 4:00 p.m., finally able to talk to the many people who most intrigued us all week, and vice versa.  Our group included teachers, a lawyer, software engineer, an artist. They had come to the Hudson Valley from California, New Mexico, France, Colombia and Canada.

Oh, the chatter!

Within a few hours (sigh) we’ll soon be back in the heart of all of it:

the partisan insanity running the country; finishing up my book proposal; finalizing my keynote speech to retail executives on August 10 in Minneapolis; making social plans; trying to plan a fund-raiser for the writers’ grant-making group on whose board I sit; the usual aaaaaaarrrrrgggggghhhhhhh…..

What do I carry home?

A renewed appreciation for silence.

A reminder of how much I love and appreciate ritual: the bells, the gong, candles, the prayer wheel, the gesture of namaste.

Some cool new friendships.

A bracelet of wooden skulls strung end to end, a gift from Lama Surya.

Story ideas! Maybe even a new book idea.

The knowledge of how a week without any animal proteins except butter, eggs, yogurt and cheese affects my body.

Discovering I really don’t want to eat kale or quinoa again. Ever.

That, despite my hatred of most things institutional, routine, managed, scrutinized and communal, I actually had a great time.

That Buddhism is the spiritual equivalent of freelancing. You may have a whole network of fellow path-followers, striving at their own skill level, but you’re on your own, baby.

That elegant and sensual austerity — fresh flowers, pretty bedspreads, gorgeous/simple bathrooms — is not only possible but very pleasant.

That I crave brie, hummus, nuts and beer.

The absolute thrill of meeting and hearing from a brilliant woman I’d never heard of before, Mirabai Bush. Hearing teachings from a woman who is deeply spiritual and smart as hell and able to work in the real world is soooo cool!

A small folding fan, pressed into my hand at breakfast by Alice, an artist here who noticed me fanning myself in meditation with a folded prayer sheet.

A fervent hug, offered in the dining hall by a young woman we had dubbed Pretty Girl, after I revealed in a  Q & A that I was trying to find ways to comfort a friend whose Mom is newly diagnosed with cancer.

Realizing that everyone is here for their own reasons, moving at their own speed; PG fled Friday, never to return.

Wonderful photos: of the lama and Tulku Dorje (another teacher, a reincarnated lama) sitting on a bench beneath the bamboo, laughing; of the sweetie and the lama, laughing; of the bad bunny I found in the garden; of the flowers there.

A glimpse of a possible way to blend the spiritual and practical, the intellectual and emotional, the bodhisattva and the blogger. I’ve always seen the two in opposition, and maybe they’re not.

How much I enjoy being a room with people excited about the same ideas.

How hungry I am to find a way to live and work that’s both ethical and fun, earns me the sort of living I want but doesn’t poison me with material obsession.

That time flies when you’re totally absorbed in what someone is saying. I normally want to jump out a window if someone tells me to sit still and listen for two hours to dense stuff. Here, I can’t get enough of it.

Realizing how spiritually parched I often feel.

Finally — ka-ching! — a much clearer understanding of the duality I struggle with more and more: between my cerebral/intellectual/competitive/money-making/I want to write a bloody best-seller dammit self and my softer/emotional/striving for social justice self.

And my new refuge name….Urgyen Gyalmo…Dharma Queen.


No pressure!

Oh, I Am A Weak-Willed Wretch

thailand buddha wat phra keo

So, what’s it like to leave behind the everyday trappings of life?

Mixed bag.

I’ve been a bad girl in connecting to the Internet to blog, read Facebook and answer and send email. We have broken silence by whispering to one another. I have listened to music, using earbuds, on my laptop.

Technically, I should not be doing any of this. But I am not a practicing Buddhist, more here to support the devout faith of the sweetie. And, yes, I am sufficiently weak-willed that I cannot fill 6+ hours a day merely staring at the trees.

I’m learning.

I attend the teachings, of which there are two or three a day, beginning with chanting and meditation, and which last 60 to 90 minutes. It can get very esoteric, with endless examination of concepts like mind, clarity, self…It’s both stimulating and a little exhausting.

The lama, who’s also a friend of ours, is funny, down to earth and everything he says makes perfect sense in the “real world” beyond the stone walls that enclose us.

It is odd to be surrounded by 64 strangers, from teenagers to seniors, with whom we’re (blessedly) forbidden to speak. It’s such a relief to not have to talk or listen or react or remember. To drop all pretense of being social or friendly. But we’ve also been admonished to be even quieter, as some of us have been whispering to one another while outside away from others, or in our rooms.

It’s also interesting to be surrounded by people with little or no way to assert status: their schools, graduate degrees, job titles, neighborhood, clothing, jewelry, handbags, cars, shoes. What we see is what we get. What we see is all we know. What we “know” is only surface anyway, here and elsewhere.

We watch one another and wonder what their story is, with students here from Europe, Canada, South America: the beefy, the lame, the bald, the long-haired, the lithe.

It’s an elegant, self-imposed house arrest, our only allowed territory the halls, rooms and grounds. The highway is just at at the end of the driveway and our car sits right there, for once — yay! — undriven.

(I know others are breaking the rules by actually going off-campus, using cellphones, etc. I’m not the only one succumbing to temptation [she said defensively].)

So, here, we look inwards or outwards, sky-gazing.

Remove the usual distractions of kids and pets and work and commuting and movies and shopping  and ATM withdrawals and buying gas and groceries and paying bills or playing Angry Birds — and you suddenly find time to read, think, paint, draw, take photos, sleep and — of course, pray, listen to teachings and meditate.

It will be a challenge for all of us to re-create that sacred quiet space within the craziness of “normal” life. It’s also quite moving to share space and time with others on, for this week anyway, the same path of questioning and learning. Five students have left along the way. Without ever having exchanged a word, you notice their their silent absence immediately.

On Thursday, a new influx appeared, a spiritual shift change.

The physical space enclosing us all is lovely, a four-story former Catholic monastery now open to other faiths, and a frequent site for Buddhist retreats. It faces — what else? — West Point across a narrow stretch of the Hudson River.

You have to love the irony of prayers and chanting and meditation literally facing the academy training soldiers to kill and be killed. The hiking trail through the woods includes (!) Benedict Arnold’s escape route.

We eat vegetarian food, four choices at every meal, at long communal tables, sitting on wooden chairs. Everything is spotless, polished, cared for. There are vases of fresh flowers and bamboo from the gardens, so there is, everywhere, something beautiful to look at, touch or smell.

The garden has a huge lavender bed filled with bees, a wild garden with green peppers and sunflowers and gerbera. A huge bamboo grove looms over a bench where you can sit and read in the shade. I enjoyed an hour there watching a bad bunny eating anything he could find.

Such a calm and quiet place to escape the relentless chest-beating of ego assertion!

I’ll miss this as I plunge back into the elbow-in-the-eye world of professional journalism in New York.

But boy am I ready for a tuna melt with fries and a cold beer! (Or a steak and a martini.)

No Meat, Conversation Or Liquor — Will I Survive?

Padmasambhava, a picture I, John Hill, took in...
Padmasambhava...Image via Wikipedia

Well, my dears. Off today on a 10-day silent, vegetarian, Buddhist retreat about a 30-minute drive north of my home.

The idea was the sweetie’s, this year’s birthday present.

He’s been a devout Buddhist practicing Dzogchen since he spent six terrifying weeks in 1995 in Bosnia at Christmas, shooting photos for The New York Times.

His mini-altar in the hallway has a small Buddha wrapped in a prayer scarf. A laminated card tucked on the driver side of our ancient Subaru is that of Padmasambhava.

When we started dating, in March 2000, the difference in our faiths — I attend an Episcopal church, albeit not every week — seemed like a potential stumbling block as he is so much  more devout. But it’s not a competition.

And he’s always been really supportive of me, attending my church for more than a decade.

I’ve met and enjoy his lama, Surya Das, author of several books, with a new one out, “Buddha Standard Time.”

He and I even went to see “Mamma Mia” together a few years ago. Namaste on Broadway!

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.

If I can get access to the Internet, as yet unknown, I’ll blog during that week. If I can’t, hang tight! I’ll be back here on my regular schedule, posting every other day, starting again on July 31.

Wish me luck!