What Happens When You Try To Stay Silent For 10 Days
Staying silent for a 10-day retreat was as hard as it was rewarding.
"It's one of the hardest things I've ever done," Sara says, "but worth it."
My college roommate has just returned from a 10-day silent meditation course. She can't say enough good things about the experience. She tells me there are centers all over the world, and it's completely free.
Years pass. I keep it in the back of my head. Occasionally, when things feel very unsettled in my life, I apply to one of these 10-day courses. They get a lot of applications, I guess, because it took me until this year to get in. And I've felt unsettled a lot. By the time I received an acceptance notice this past April, for a course in June, I'd almost forgotten I applied.
Trusting my desperate past self that I need this, I confirm my attendance, and mentally prepare.
I'm excited to shut up for 10 days. I cannot wait to not hear myself talk. (You would not be surprised by this after hearing me talk for more than a few minutes.)
But I am nervous to go 10 days without my sketchbook. I have not gone 10 days, or even two days, without drawing since I began drawing seriously about five or six years ago. (You may be surprised by this when you see the quality of my drawings.)
The course is held in a small town called Shelburne, in Western Massachusetts. The day I travel there, from my home in New York, is June 17. We'll call this day zero.
I'm late because I missed my bus this morning, so I have to take a train, and now that train is just sitting motionless on the tracks because it has hit a person.
I caIl my mother and tell her that my train has hit a person.
"That's terrible," she says. "Is it a very big train?"
How sweet of my mom to entertain the possibility that I am on a Lego train, and am calling to tell her the train has hit someone who is now giggling adorably in a pile of yellow bricks.
"Yes, it's a big train," I say.
Someone announces, though, that the person survived the collision (I didn't know that was possible?), but we are still delayed while they scrape them off, or whatever.
This is the last time I will talk to my mom for the next 10 days. She is skeptical.
"How do you know it's not a cult?" she asks.
"Hmm. I guess I don't."
Later that night I am sitting in a big meditation hall, cell phone gone, sketchbook gone, sitting on top of a little blue pillow, surrounded by a hundred or so other people on little blue pillows. There are four shadowy figures in flowy robes sitting on little thrones at the front of the room. One of them presses play on an iPod plugged into a speaker system. A voice booms:
"YOU MUST SURRENDER COMPLETELY."
Welp, guess that answers my mom's question.
The voice echoes:
"YOU MUST SURRENDER COMPLETELY IF YOU WISH TO PURIFY YOUR MIND."
Like the person hit by a train earlier that day, I am inexplicably, miraculously unfazed by this.
Sure, you can have my mind, I think. I can't work the damn thing anyway.
Before I go further I'll just outline the rules and daily schedule at the meditation center.
There are certain rules you must live by while you're taking the course.
VIPASSANA CODE OF DISCIPLINE
1. Everyone must practice "Noble Silence." This means we aren't allowed to talk to anyone — except a teacher, and only if we absolutely must ask a question. We are to pretend as if we're there by ourselves.
2. No drugs or alcohol.
3. No sexy stuff. Genders are segregated into different dormitories and dining halls. We only see the opposite sex a few times a day, dimly across the meditation hall.
4. I forget the rest of the rules. They're just the usual boring ones like don't steal or murder, etc.
Our schedule is basically just meditation, eating, and sleeping. Mostly meditation. Our first meditation of the day starts at 4:30 a.m. The final one ends at 9 p.m. We are served a modest breakfast and lunch, and for dinner, just fruit and tea. (We're told not to eat much so that we won't fall asleep while meditating.)
We also have short breaks between meditation sessions, for walking around and peeing and stuff. Gongs ring to signal each item in the schedule.
Day one is all about the nose. We are told to observe the breath on the skin of our nose, and to stop our thoughts from wandering away from our nose and our breath. That is all we do. For 10 hours.
I quickly discover that my brain is terrifyingly untrained. A feral animal.
Or, me trying to operate my brain is like a feral animal trying to operate a broken treadmill television while trying to run on the also malfunctioning treadmill. I frequently look up from my futile nose-focusing and notice thoughts that baffle me.
At one point, in my head, I am just screaming the name "IRENE!" I don't know anybody named Irene.
Another time, my brain is reciting the script to a fictional cigarette commercial in a man's voice. I'm not a man. I don't smoke cigarettes.
Another time, in a quiet moment, my mind just thinks to itself: I love America. Terrifying.
Overall, though, day one isn't bad. What is this, nose camp? I think. I can handle nose camp.
It sounds very peaceful when you call it meditation, but it turns out sitting on your ass for hours on end just thinking about your nose is physical and mental agony.
On day one I noticed people piling up cushions to meditate on and I thought: GREEDY CUSHION HOGS.
On day two, I am among the worst of them. I sit on a throne of bolsters and wish I had more. It seems no amounts of little blue cushions can ease the pain in my butt.
On top of this, it's difficult to focus in the meditation hall because people shift, fart, burp, and gurgle incessantly.
As a result, or possibly just because of who I truly am deep inside, I'm filled with rage. And it doesn't just come out in meditation. That night at dinner, I see a little old lady forking some food into her mouth. She forks it in a weird way.
I hear my brain think: I HATE HER.
Then I think, What the hell are you talking about?! That's a human being! You've never met that person! You don't know what they are struggling with! Forks are hard to use!!
I'm disturbed by my reaction. Where does this anger come from? Has this demon voice been in me all this time? If so, how did I not detect it before?
The anger remains, and as my awareness of it grows, I direct it increasingly toward myself.
I hate myself for being hateful.
This is the hardest day.
I will think that about every day I am here.
In meditation my brain is less manic, but I have not relinquished control. There are hours to indulge in thought, and my mind is greedy.
I think of every single person I have ever known:
If we are family I thought of you and analyzed our story in a hundred ways.
If we are friends I thought of you and relished our story in a hundred ways.
If we ever dated I thought of you and rewrote our story in a hundred ways.
Meditation is all about existing in our bodies in the present moment, but I do so only in brief spurts, and begrudgingly. Instead, I'm steering through the past and the future, driving over and over familiar roads, unbelievably lost, and unwilling to admit it.
At the meditation center there is a small field we are permitted to walk through on breaks, as well as a small patch of forest up a hillside. After we feed at mealtimes, we disperse like cows out to pasture.
I take solace in flowers.
The yellow one whose name I don't know.
I see the woman I hated because of how she held her fork. She is delicately hanging her pants on the clothesline to dry in the sun.
I think to myself: She loves her pants.
After lunch, I walk to my beloved jasmine bush to take a hit. With my face in the flowers I notice this little bug on one of the petals, eating pollen. I'm struck by how tenderly he is sticking his face into it. The way he's moving his head, and swaying with his body from side to side. It's very sensuous. I am strangely…aroused.
I lift the branch to bring the flower closer, and I notice that right beneath this flower there's another flower with two beetles fucking on it. And then I start to look at all the flowers on the bush and I see that there are tons of beetles fucking, all over it.
I step back, and before I can stop myself, I declare: "This is the SEXIEST. BUSH. EVER."
With these words, I break my noble silence.
I look around to make sure nobody has heard, but the lawn is completely deserted. Everyone has gone in for meditation. I didn't even hear the gong.
We are told to notice the sensation throughout our bodies in everything we do — not just in the meditation hall, but on breaks, and while eating and walking and brushing and flossing and lying in our beds.
I laugh at the feeling of the fabric against my face as I pull my orange sweatshirt over my head.
It tickles to be alive.
Each day in the dining hall I sit with a companion. She is the lower half of a power outlet.
Her name is Harmony. She's not much of a conversationalist, but I am drawn to her because of her expressive (although troubled) face, and the fact that she doesn't mind if I make eye contact with her.
My conversations with Harmony go like this: In my head, I ask her what's wrong, and then I guess what's wrong, and then she says nothing, so I take another guess. It's kind of like I'm her therapist, except neither of us talks at all.
What's wrong, Harmony? I think. Did the person you have a crush on finally ask you out but they asked you to go see Step Up 2 and you don't think you can enjoy it even in an ironic way?
Is your dog getting famous on the internet and you're starting to resent picking up his poop?
Did you finally do a cartwheel for the first time and all anyone noticed is that you farted halfway into it?
After dinner, as I'm tearing my room apart, frantically searching for a pen like a drug addict for a needle, it occurs to me that the creative side of my brain may be a bit overdeveloped.
It's probably good for me to starve it a little.
I settle for writing in my head. In the evenings, when everyone has gone to bed, I walk around the field until the stars and fireflies come out. Since I'm alone, and I've already broken my silence, I tell myself jokes and stories. It feels good to hear a voice, even my own. I suppose I'm not bad company after all.
I wasn't raised with an organized religion. I remember praying once, when I was 9, after my cat Tiger died. But most of the time my spiritual practice has more closely resembled my line of questioning to Harmony: taking random guesses at what's wrong, and never getting any answers.
I don't remember much of what happened this day but I remember feeling very fraught on my evening walk. I am just walking in circles around the lawn, feeling trapped and pained by the fact of being myself.
But I remember to sense where I am. To sense my feet in the grass and the cool night on my skin. I look up at the dark line of trees and the fireflies flickering at the base of them, and the stars dimly emerging overhead and the moonlit trees all around me, and instead of jokes or stories this time I say out loud that I think this place is already heaven, and everybody in it is already an angel, and we're here in heaven to make heaven a better place for the other angels.
In the evening, we are told noble silence is over.
I had spent some time imagining this moment, and when it becomes real I don't have the guts to make the joke I have planned: "OK, so who farted?" (In my imagined version, it gets a huge laugh from everyone and I am the most popular meditator.)
Instead, it's quiet and everyone looks around as if we're all just waking from a dream.
Then the hall is loud with voices and lit with smiles. We have a lot to say for people who've never said anything to each other.
Faces I grew to know as exhausted and dreary are almost unrecognizably and beautifully transformed.
A big group of us are sitting together in a café waiting for the train back to New York. It's strange to be in the real world again, drinking real coffee again, using real Wi-Fi again. It was all still here, waiting for us, just as we left it.
And yet, we agree, something has shifted. The world seems objectively brighter, more beautiful, more full of love than before.
Another woman from the meditation course comes into the café and rushes up to our table.
"Did you hear?"
"Hear what?" we ask.
She tells us the news:
It's not just us. The world is, factually, objectively, brighter, more beautiful, more full of love than before.