Halfway into our silent seven-day mindfulness retreat my husband and I had a whopping argument. At least in my mind. One-sided fights are a challenge when you can’t talk. Howard and I had been meditating for over a year when our instructor suggested we go to a retreat to deepen our practice. Howard was eager to sign up; it took me longer to agree. Was that how I wanted to spend our precious vacation time, the week of our 22nd anniversary? Really?
I like to talk. It’s how I process my thoughts. The year before, we’d attended a one-day silent workshop and we’d whispered at lunch. That definitely didn’t bode well for keeping quiet a whole week. But our second child had just left for college and, as fresh empty-nesters, I wanted us to try new things. I was skeptical…and intrigued.
“Seven days of silence? Why the f*@# would you do that?” If most friends didn’t actually say it, their expressions said it for them. Eventually, ignoring snarky comments, I embraced the concept of not talking. And in my usual style, once decided, I was all in.
I braced myself for no cell or internet service and even started to look forward to being free of constant connections. I packed light—sweats and fleece. No earrings. No make-up. Liberating. With my journal and books along, I’d write and have plenty of time to read. It could be a real vacation.
On our seven-hour drive from Salt Lake City to Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, I grew nervous. What if I physically couldn’t sit and meditate for hours every day? What if I hated it and my husband didn’t? Or vice versa…what if the food was bad? The people weird? The bed uncomfortable? The list of worries grew, reinforcing my need to be in the moment and not become hostage to my ricocheting thoughts.
We pulled into the dirt parking lot where two older women with suitcases were headed toward registration. “Looks like we’re all here to get to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” I quipped to Howard. Trying to be funny didn’t alleviate my growing sense of dread.
Fifty “seekers” came from all over the U.S. and around the world. Social workers, physicians and professors; investment bankers, business owners and psychologists. Our ages ranged from mid-20s to late 70s. That first evening we all filed into the Sacred Studies Hall and settled onto black cushions laid out in concentric arcs on the floor. We were given badges with only our first names and the word “SILENT” printed below, a reminder not to talk and to point to our badge if anyone tried to break the rule.
Sitting on cushions facing us, two instructors explained more ground rules: No whispering. No cell phones or laptops. No selfies or pictures. I’m good with all that. No eye contact with anyone, keep your gaze low. Even with Howard? No reading…What? No writing. WHAT?…wait a minute…I raised my hand. “I’m a writer. I can’t write down my thoughts?”
“Not if you want the full experience of moment-to-moment awareness,” one instructor said.
I raised my hand again. “I’m here with my husband. It’s okay to talk in the room, right?” “Not if you want the full experience of no interaction or distractions.”
There was no wine with dinner. And as I soon found out, only infrequent desserts. Would there be no pleasure? Shoot me now. What was I thinking?
The full experience. Since we’d just spent a whole day in the car and the retreat was already paid for, Howard and I agreed to surrender to “the full experience.” Not looking at each other might be harder. Back in our room, I stared wistfully at my journal and books on the nightstand, worried about how I’d fall asleep without reading or writing. I left my note pad out in case vital inspiration hit and I couldn’t contain myself, or I needed to jot down, “Help! Fire in the room!”
Shambhala Mountain Center is nestled in a pristine valley of aspen trees and tranquil streams. Deer, rabbits and chipmunks roam the grounds, and high above the meadow sits the Great Stupa, a beautiful Buddhist structure used for meditation. Living and hiking in the Wasatch Mountains, I’m no stranger to wilderness, but these surroundings, so different from our own, felt almost sacred. Maybe it was the crisp smell of November leaves, the pastel sunlight on the mountains or the natural stillness. All combined, it was wondrous.
Each morning, Howard and I walked in silence to the Great Stupa and back before our 7 a.m. meditation at the Sacred Studies Hall. Breakfast was followed by sitting and walking meditations, teachings, yoga and stretching. After lunch and free time, we resumed with a variation of the morning, plus afternoon tea. Dinner was followed by more of the same until 8:30 or so. After a few days, the teachings stopped and the instructors became silent, too. Bells or signs signaled transitions.
The first few days were hard. No, excruciating. OMG, I can’t sit any longer. Breathe…. I’m slouching; sit up straight…breathe…. Sitting for hours hurt my knees so I’d wedge assorted pillows under my legs or frequently change position.
I soaked up the light streaming in from the floor-to-ceiling windows, the warmth of hardwood floors and the spaciousness of the room. But it was numbingly silent. Except for the occasional cough or sneeze and a distant toilet flush, there was no ambient noise, not even from the ventilation system. I was begging to be distracted from my thoughts. It’s warm for November…too warm…global warming…anxious… breathe in…breathe out…. I hope the kids don’t need us this week…. Now that they’re gone, what’s my purpose? …breathe in, breathe out…. Then one morning I heard a low-flying plane in the distance. Yessss! An injection of nectar directly to my brain.
Having no control of my time, thoughts or even food was more than a challenge. Has my sense of control always been an illusion? How long are we going to sit here…? Focus on my breath…. I’m so bored…. When will they ring the bell…? What’s for lunch…? Dinner…?
Mercifully, the food was plentiful. Maybe it was the silence that made everything taste amazing. A morning bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon and a lunch of warm chicken burritos brought me to tears, and after a few days, I took nothing for granted, not even a banana.
On the third day, during afternoon tea, I stared at a fly drinking from a drop of water on the plastic tablecloth. Little hairs on its legs, and those wings with tiny veins…. Magical.
While Howard and I didn’t talk, we did make hand gestures for “want to take a walk?” Or “how do you like your meal?” When he crossed the line and started gesturing more and adding eye contact, I pointed to my SILENT badge. When he tried again, I got annoyed.
Quick to annoy was one of many unappealing traits I discovered about myself that week. We were the only couple in the group and I was self-conscious about connecting with each other so blatantly. Well, blatantly for a silent retreat.
Sitting hour after hour, day after day, arbitrary thoughts continued to skitter through my brain. I’m hungry…when is this going to end?…breathe…what time is it anyway?…breathe…my leg is asleep…I can’t sit here any longer!…breathe….
Emotions popped out of nowhere. Ideas, family myths and old hurts invaded without warning. Bliss to anger, contentment to anxiety coursed through me like weather patterns. While we’d been instructed how to deal with feelings that arose, I didn’t expect the full palette of raw emotions to surface so effortlessly—jealousy, fear, love, shame, prejudice, hate, compassion, anger, contentment—none of which were provoked from human interaction. All buried deep. All part of me.
Moment to moment awareness is central to the teachings—recognize that you’re “thinking,” return to your breath and let thoughts pass without creating a story or staying stuck. Every emotion and thought is treated equally, without preference. The concept is to accept “what is” rather than the way we think it “should” be, a welcome change from the “shoulds” I’ve imposed upon myself for much of my life. Return to breathing… Feel the emotion…. Let thoughts pass….. Breathe in…breathe out…let go….
I had no control of my thoughts and on the fourth day I hit the wall. I was sick of sitting, tired of thinking about thinking and I didn’t want to be sideswiped by any more emotions. Defiant, I scribbled “I want a glass of red wine” on my forbidden note pad.
That afternoon, Howard pointed to a spot on the rug in our room and then to my sneakers. What? He pointed again. I shook my head and he kept pointing. And pointing. Is he blaming me? I didn’t do that! I stormed out and ended up sobbing on a secluded rock. My mind took off on a script of old fears and hurts as I played out a full-blown fight in my head. I was angry and defensive…at what, I didn’t even know.
Before afternoon meditation, I slipped into a bathroom stall where I furiously wrote a clandestine note to him on pieces of scrap paper. I was unglued. I didn’t even try to breathe through this one. During yoga, I passed him my missive between poses. I’ll be damned if I talk to him the rest of the week. What happened to my mindfulness?
Back in our room, Howard broke the silence. “We have to talk.”
I pointed to my SILENT badge and shook my head.
“I don’t understand your note,” he said. “Whatever I did, I’m sorry.”
His apology got to me and I agreed to talk. Turns out, he’d only tried to tell me that we weren’t supposed to wear our shoes inside. He hadn’t even seen the spot on the carpet. “If this experience is going to put a wedge between us, we should pack up and leave,” he said.
Leave?! Of course we could leave…. But we were half-way through. We had committed to embracing “the full experience.” We agreed to go back into silence for the remainder of the time.
The fight-in-my-mind with Howard opened my eyes to my tendency to rush to conclusions, perseverate and make up stories which aren’t necessarily true. How often do I do that?
I’d gained much-needed insight. Not everything is what it seems. We perceive through our own lenses, often without fact.
Breathe…I’m cold…breathe in breathe out…how long will this last…. I can’t do this…a moment of clarity…..
Every so often, brief moments of clarity, “non-thinking” and bliss passed through me. These moments were like a butterfly landing on your shoulder. Fleeting.
By the end of the week, I’d relinquished my need to be in charge. I melted into the rhythm of the days, enjoying the silence, the yoga and for the most part, the meditation. To give my knees a rest, I split my time between a cushion and a folding chair. Howard and I took extra morning and afternoon walks, and I just enjoyed being together, not saying a word.
When the instructors announced that we’d be leaving the silence, I didn’t want to. I was enjoying just “be-ing” and not “do-ing.” The oasis of quiet was about to end.
We moved our black cushions into a large circle. After a week of deflecting stray gazes, we all hugged, finally able to look each other in the eyes and talk. The instructors gave us tips on how to manage re-entry and some of us shared our experiences. One revelation among the group? There was cell service at the Great Stupa.
On the relaxed car ride home, I calculated that our eyes were closed in meditation for more than five hours a day. It turns out, I was more awake with my eyes closed than with my eyes open.
Since I’ve been back I’ve noticed subtle changes, like trusting the balance between stillness and doing. When I hear the ping of a text, I don’t automatically jump for my phone. My mind falls hostage to old scripts in my head less often.
I still don’t know what triggered the cascade of feelings that culminated in my one-sided argument, exposing a side of me that I’m not proud of. I try to be patient with myself, though it’s not always easy. So whenever a surge of random unpleasant thoughts takes hold, I remember to observe the moment, ride the emotional wave and then simply let go…. Breathe in…breathe out….
I haven’t watched a fly as intensely, but there’s still time.
Debbie Leaman is a Salt Lake City writer who often has to remind herself to stop, observe and breathe.