By Caitlin Kelly
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.
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.
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?