Silent retreat

I went on my first silent retreat in February 2016. It was a profound experience for me in many ways. It’s so rare to have an abundance of time in which there is nothing to do, other than to sit and observe. And in silent retreat, that’s exactly what happens. The observations can be surprising, and things come to the surface that you might not expect.

I went on retreat at the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, MA. My arrival was delayed due to a snowstorm, but after catching a flight to a different airport, I arrived on the second day. I checked in, was shown to my room, and signed up for the only yogi job left - cleaning the second floor bathrooms. There was good reason why no one else picked this chore! Each participant in the retreat is assigned a daily chore that they complete each morning after breakfast. It actually wasn’t so bad, and added a bit of variety to the day.

The day was primarily structured around alternating seated and walking meditations, each for 45 minutes. In the evening there was a talk given by one of the retreat teachers. The theme for this particular retreat was equanimity.

When I arrived, I knew that there would be no talking by participants, and no use of phones or electronic communication. The part that was surprising to me was that we were not supposed to read or write either. The reason behind this rule is that both activities are a form of internal communication, and distract from the work of looking deeply inward. I confess that I did not strictly adhere to this rule. I wrote daily. I also read, slowly, a book that I brought with me.

During meal times, the silence was a relief. I become uncomfortable when meeting new people, and I am not very good at making small talk. The anxiety of walking into a crowded cafeteria and trying to figure out where to sit was completely eliminated. It didn’t matter where I sat. I wouldn’t be intruding on someone, or forced into a conversation that I didn’t want to have. I could sit down, eat in silence, and leave when I wanted.

After a few days, the silence started to feel spacious - as if time had expanded, and each breath deepened to fill the space. I can’t adequately describe what it felt like, other than to say it was like finding something that you had been craving, but didn’t know you were craving it until you tried it. My impulse to do something became less strong (I often feel a need to be productive, and stay active). I lost the frantic feeling of having nothing to do, and started to enjoy myself.

At the end of the retreat, I had a strange experience. On the last day, we broke silence by chanting. Each time we chanted, I heard an electronic buzzing noise. Initially I was annoyed because I thought that someone had brought their phone into the retreat space. But then I noticed it only happened when we chanted. I tried to discreetly look around to see where it was coming from. A woman seated in front of me and slightly to the left put her hand to her neck each time we chanted, operating a mechanical voice box. She was bald, and wore flowing clothes. I never noticed the voice box since I hadn’t looked at her directly the entire retreat. But I was aware of her and her general appearance and had assumed that she was a buddhist nun. In that moment, I realized she wasn’t a buddhist nun, but a cancer patient who was bald from treatment and had lost her larynx to disease. Looking at her closely for the first time, I noticed that she didn’t look like she was even 30 years old.

That experience made me realize how much we assume about people on a daily basis, even in a setting where we are not supposed to communicate. I had unwittingly put together an entire narrative about this woman that was based on nothing but a few cursory glances. I had put her in categories without ever speaking to her. That experience taught me to be more aware of my assumptions, and how often  I jump to conclusions about people. I try to practice active listening, and hear what people tell me about themselves, instead of shuffling them in my mind and sorting them according to my previous experiences. It is a constant work in progress.

Returning from silent retreat felt strange. I was much more aware of small talk and conversation and it took me a day or two to adjust to the constant activity. The retreat gave me a much greater appreciation for silence and stillness. It also showed me the importance of seeing clearly and not unconsciously dragging my past experiences and assumptions into a new situation. A retreat is an opportunity to do just that, literally retreat from the busy-ness of the world. And in doing so, we become more aware of our place in the world and how our thoughts affect our perceptions.