Silent Retreat


One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems:  you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves.

 Or until life solves them for you. 

Thomas Merton, Trappist monk (1915-1968)


On June 1, I flew in to Asheville, North Carolina, then rented a car to make the beautiful drive up to Boone, where I would remain for two weeks of silent retreat. The Art of Living Retreat Center is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, whose beauty mitigates the dreariness of the physical space I was to inhabit for the next several days.  Grim student housing facilities, starchy, poorly seasoned meals, and the mash-up of tacky architecture of this facility began to fade as a group of eight people gathered in the meditation hall to learn the signature meditation technique of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the Art of Living Foundation.  I was happy to be there.

It has been many years since I’ve experienced a silent retreat, and this one was a good re-introduction to the practice.  After a day of instruction and learning the sudarshan kriya yoga practice, our group entered silence.   For months I’ve been aware that I desperately needed silence, knowing it to be a radical entry into clarity and ease.  But the next two weeks would give more than I bargained for: the lessons came fast and furious.

So in the next few posts, I explore some of what my days of silence brought me:  the lessons, the insights, the questions, the frustrations. Some of it was ecstatic and uplifting.  A lot of it was unnerving and disorienting.  In the end, it was all good.

First Lesson:  stop talking

When I checked in at the registration desk, I was given a lanyard with a name tag on it, and underneath my name were the words In Silence.  This was important because there were other courses going on in the retreat center, and this identification tag was the efficient way to inform others not to engage with the silent meditators.

Once I took up the vow of silence, my lanyard led me quickly into the first experience of silence.  Walking back to my dormitory after breakfast, I passed three or four groups of other AOL participants.  I did not make eye contact or speak to them having been given permission by my name tag, which clearly labels me as being “in silence.”  It seems like such an insignificant thing, but I realized this name tag relieved me of having to be polite, of having to make conversation, of having to express myself, having to identify myself.  My tag takes care of all that.  The release of tension I felt was palpable.  The only identification I inhabited for the next two weeks was as a person in silence. 

I was shocked at the relief I felt in that short walk, both mental and physical.  I had to expend no precious energy just letting passersby know that I am a pleasant person.  That I follow the rules. That I’m a member of the club. That I’m likeable.  This tag gives me permission to be none of those things.  No need to be likeable!  Can you imagine? What a relief!  I was stunned into giddiness by the liberation that came. 

Lesson Two: stop monitoring thinking

On another walk from one venue to another, I became excruciatingly aware of how much of my normal experience is limited to what’s going on in my head.  My attention is on the constant chatter going on in there.  The story line.  The labeling.  The complaining.  The worrying.  The anticipating. Oy-vey.  It just goes on and on.  I was making the short walk to the dormitory again, a warm cup of coffee in my right hand, the sun bright even as the morning air was still quite cool, the day alive with radiance. 

And suddenly tears came, on the verge of sobbing. Brought on, I believe, by my sudden awareness of how infrequently I experience my surroundings as a whole body experience.  Oh I see things, for sure; I think I’m moderately observant.  But most of the time, everything is filtered through my thinking.  On this walk I was  looking down at the ground, walking quickly to get to my goal, and letting the cacophony in my head run rampant.   I wasn’t seeing anything—or feeling anything.  I was merely monitoring thinking, the laziest of mental behaviors.  This is where I live.

But at some point in that short walk—maybe it was the hot coffee my hand, the chill on my arms, the raucous call of the jays—I got a jolt, and I knew that this simple moment was what I was here for.  I slowed way down.  I got the sensation of “just walking.”  I lifted my head to the sky, took a deep breath.  It was a breath into full-bodied awareness.  Just walk; be aware.  Don’t engage the chatter, I thought.  Ignore it and it will eventually diminish.  Be the watcher.

This moment, too, like the moment of not having to be polite to passersby, was liberating.  I felt the release.  I stopped and gulped the cool air in appreciation of such a simple joy. 

That primal gulp is what a silent retreat is all about.  To remind me that there is another way of walking around.  And to increase my capacity for being in that “other way” more often.  But getting there, I was to find, takes some attention, some practice, and a whole lot of willingness to “be” somewhere other than the inside of my head.  That’s why I went on retreat.  That’s what I wanted.

I am so grateful to have experienced these gifts of silence. There were more to come, some not quite so easy to endure.  The next few days would deepen my capacity for sitting with the committee of chatterers who inhabit my mind, and hone my skills for rising above their clamor.  What you find when you get above that clamor is pretty remarkable.

In his small, powerful book called The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer articulates what drew me to silent retreat:

In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more 

            invigorating than going slow.

In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.

And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.

Yes.  More on slowing down and sitting still next week.

Lezlie Laws