Stumbling into Silence
Arrival was abrupt. Unpacking my car and starting the klutzy balance of suitcase, duffel bag, yoga mat and other “essentials” into the building that welcomes you more like a prison and less like a resort. Three steps up into the foyer (very loose concept) and realizing it is 100 degrees inside and there are no elevators would be my first reality checks, this was not intended to be a vacation. I walk down the hallway to check that the “2” before my room number “200” would suggest that I am on the second floor, secretly hoping that these ground floor rooms were not numbered like hotel rooms. It is confirmed, I am on the second floor. Lugging my luggage (ironic the two words…ha!) up the stairs and down to the last room in the hall I find room 200 and I am not sure if I am relieved or reticent to see what lies behind the door.
I open the door to my room I am hit with a more intense wave of heat and am reminded that the website said there was no a/c but “there are box fans for your comfort”. I immediately open all of the windows and doors and find that luxury item, box fan, that I would power up on max. As I look around the room I am almost giddy with the realization that this is far from the luxury hotels that I sell for a living. It is vanilla and nondescript. This would be the last time I would recall anything about the décor of this room and instead would regard this space as a respite from the intense work we were doing. It would become a “retreat” indeed allowing me to ground myself and center myself once again.
The views were absolutely stunning and once the windows were open it was apparent why no a/c would be needed. The fresh air blowing in from the tops of the trees was magnificent and would have been missed otherwise.
I set up my laptop and iPad and put all of my notebooks and journals on to the desk as if I was getting ready to work. That would be the last time I would visit that space. As it turned out there is much to do in silence and none of it involves a desk, a laptop or books. Wow, what was I in for, this was going to be an experience for sure.
Here we go…
On day one I wake early and start searching on my Uber Eats app for Starbucks. Yep, there is one, but there are no drivers. Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore! I get up and get dressed and decide I will drive down the mountain to get my two cappuccinos. This would inevitably become my new morning routine for the week. As with everything that has happened thus far, I would come to realize the gift of being able to experience the drive down the mountain and back up again. The familiarity of the winding roads and silhouettes of houses as the sun would rise brought me back to the many visits to my mom in Virginia. I would wake up in the coming days looking forward to this drive. The gratitude in places I was not seeking would become a familiar theme of this experience.
I would start my mornings with that drive, those cappuccinos a sunrise every morning that reminded me that there is always a reason to rise again. New beginnings and new horizons are always ours for the taking; every 24 hours.
As I make my way down the stunning walk to the place we would practice silence for the week I was joined by 36 other silent-seekers and one eclectic couple that would become our spiritual guides. The room was brimming with anxious energy as we all sat pensively on our yoga mats. I realize now coming out on the other side how naïve I was on that first day. As I sat there staring at our instructors I had no way of knowing how hard the next three days would be and the range of emotions that we would go through. In hindsight, I find the courage of our instructors to be inspiring as they were the only ones in the room on that first day that knew what was going to happen…and they did it anyway.
After orientations and breathing practices we were partnered up with a “buddy” that had been chosen for us based on proximity. Our first introduction to our “buddy” would be to tell our life story in ten minutes in the third person. What. The. Heck! My initial response was fear of telling my story to someone that surely could not understand where I came from, how was I going to tell a complete stranger my choices and consequences in this life and still be respected? It was decided that the person in the pair with the longest hair would go first, whew, I was off the hook, at least for ten minutes. She (my buddy) began to tell her story in the third person and I was wholly impressed at how good she was at this and then her story started to wash over me and I found myself sitting, paralyzed by her words. How could this be? Her story was so similar, yet so different. Could it be that this person that had been chosen for me was more like me than different? This would become another proof point that I was exactly where I was supposed to be; on that mountain, in that room, on that yoga mat, sitting in front of her; another moment of divine intervention as my buddy was surely chosen FOR me.
All of this chatting created a cacophony of voices, laughter and nervous energy that of course would lead up to the announcement that we were going to step into silence. We had been in session for 24-hours and now were presumably ready to be thrust into silence as the session was ending. We walked out of our class into silence with little instruction outside of “stay in silence”. There were hints during the day of the more obvious “rules”, no talking, no phones, no tv, but we were mostly left to our own devices, or not. I walked back to my room in the dark, wondering where in the world I was that I could be instructed to walk the half-mile up the mountain to my room alone. As with previous themes, this would be the last time I would worry, let alone think, about walking alone in the dark. This mountain was washing over me like a security blanket and in safety, vulnerability is allowed. As I entered my room I was immediately aware of the sounds around me. We had only started this journey and it seemed as though everything was amplified. As I turned on the water to brush my teeth I was acutely aware of the faucet and powerful flow of water. This heightened awareness of sound would continue throughout my time in silence, at times revealing nature’s wonders and other times annoying the shit out of me.
I would go to bed without tv as I had done the night before only as a trial and now as a sentence. These would be my first victories as I have always fallen asleep to tv as long as I can remember. Even as a young child, I remember there being a black and white tv in my room that had no reception, I would fall asleep to the sound of “snow” every night. I am not sure what my parent’s attempt was in that added “amenity”, but it set a habit in stone for life.
When I woke in the morning, still in silence, I would begin to see the range of emotions that would become a roller coaster ride as warned that it might. My trip to Starbucks was uneventful. Our mornings would always start the same with yoga and then breakfast with some alone time in between the break until our 10a session would start. Somewhere in that “break”, the emotion of the few hours of silence realized and the days of silence pending in front of me hit like a ton of bricks. As I sat on the side of the hill in front of our classroom I would completely lose it, crying until I was sobbing. I was grateful that we were in silence as I could not explain where the emotion was coming from or why I was crying. I just was and at the moment I knew I was “in it”.
As the days would go on the meditations would as well. We would meditate for hours on end. Meanwhile, emotions were on a roller coaster that ranged from the rockiness of a wooden coaster to some, few, that was as smooth as silk. When you sit in meditation you are doing the “work” you are inevitably here to do. You are training the mind. Sit, close your eyes, take a deep breath in…and we’re off! I would spend hours fighting back the thoughts that would flood in like a tsunami of randomness, contemplations and plans for the future. I would try to swat them away like the flies that they were but realize that when the flies are in the ointment your swatter is defenseless.
I would find that range of emotions at its height on Day Two as I was ready to quit. Was this normal or was it my typical “MO” of always finding an escape hatch when things got uncomfortable? I was pissed that we were going to meditate again and again and again. I would submit a question for that night’s Q&A asking why we were meditating so much to which our instructor would offer his wisdom after reading the question out loud. His answer was, so appropriate, “Well, you did sign up for a meditation retreat.” HA!!! I would find the ridiculousness of the question and his answer the comical break I needed to let it happen. As the meditations wore on I would come to realize that this is the process of finding the “self”. It does not happen in a few meditations. It happens from the constant practice, one right after another, of quieting the mind. This realization would happen days after this Q&A and when it did it was existential.
Embracing the present
One of the things that became very clear early on was the amount of control that one has to turn over to truly be taken (sometimes dragged) into this process. The only way to get to the “self” is to allow yourself to be guided by trusting the process. For many of the people in the room, this was an effort in itself. “What are we going to do next?” “How, why, when…” “What do you mean I cannot go to the bathroom when I want?” Control; is a bitch. You come to realize (or you don’t) that you have to relinquish it because all that you are wielding in your own hands prevents you from seeing what you can become.
To be present is sometimes not knowing what will happen next. You are aware that there is more on the horizon and you pick your head up for brief checks to make sure you are still on the path otherwise you keep your head down and focus. This thought of keeping my head down occurred to me many times on my journey into silence. When I went on hikes, which is one of the very few things we were allowed to do, you had to keep your head down to avoid tripping on a rock or a root, and would only look up to make sure you were still on the path. Head down = Good. When I would walk around the grounds I would keep my head down to avoid eye contact, since simply pleasantries would threaten my silence. Head down = Good. Keeping your head down became a “good thing” and as with all things in life what is good is also bad, but in these moments “head down” equaled “focus” and that was “good”.
Breaking the Silence
As the final moments of the retreat had arrived we were prepared to “break the silence” in a ritual that would bring value to the first words that you would speak. It would be ceremonious because after all of the silence surely you would have something to say that deserved to be heard. We gathered in a circle and were asked to say one word that would break our silence. This would be the most powerful moment in what had already felt like millions of powerful moments. As we went around the circle each person would reveal their voice in a word and then share why they had come to the silent retreat. The last part of sharing was not asked of us but something that seemed to come as a release and felt natural after spending hours of silence together. We had gotten to know each other through wide eyes hidden on masked faces, passing each other back and forth between breaks, finding safety in our silent numbers. Now we were hearing the voices of those that had come to be our brethren and felt a responsibility of sorts to share. As the stories came flowing into the circle it created a centrifugal force that was apropos for the roller coaster to come to a final stop.
My “word” changed numerous times as the emotions of their stories came tumbling out in front of me. “Acceptance”, “fear”, wait…no, the words, every one of them said by the 22 people that stood in the circle before I applied, how could I choose one? When it was my turn, I stood up holding on to the column beside me and said the only thing I felt at that moment “OVERWHELMED”. It is not only what I was feeling at that moment but inevitably what brought me to that circle. Overwhelmed by my thoughts and my emotions now in front of these warriors and ironically also the reason I had driven up the mountain originally. I was overwhelmed by life, my life, thoughts that had no longer become a choice to act on but instead, had become a directive summoning emotions and reactions at a dizzying pace, literally as I was suffering from vertigo brought on in silence.
There I stood and spoke my testimony. “My word is “overwhelmed” because that is how I feel right now. I am brimming with energy feeling a tingling sensation throughout my body. My word is also “acceptance”. I realized I was in good company on Day One and that allowed me to be vulnerable to this process. My word is also “responsibility” because I owe it to myself to carry everything I have learned into my life and I take the responsibility of each and every one of your stories as mine to keep in solace. My final word is “fear”. Fear is what I felt when I was driving in and realizing that the last time I was in silence was as I sat at my mother’s bedside the last three weeks of her life until she took her last breath. I did not know if I could ever sit in silence again, but I did.” …and then I sat down into a puddle of my own tears. This must be the definition of cathartic…
This word has always fascinated me and at this moment of release, I fully came to understand not only the definition of the word but the weight of it. This word would become a defining word for the “silent” retreat to be used for me and only me. It is not a word I would repeat or use to describe my experience to others but acknowledge deep within. We use “heavy” words to express our emotions, to place emphasis on our stories without ever truly understanding the true meaning. I realized in this moment of “catharsis” that there were very few times in my life that I had been here, truly.
Everyone has one, a story, your story, our story. All of our stories begin with “Once upon a time…” and inevitably we spend all of our lives seeking our “…happily ever after”.
So many themes revealed themselves this week as a final conclusion to a novel that had more ups and downs than a harlequin romance. Your story is my story and my story is yours and by telling my story I share OUR story. We have all been through something, everything and ironically nothing. Every single one of us can tell a tale of tragedy in our lives as easily as one of victory. The degree to which that story affects us is personal. Your story is no less tragic, better or mundane than mine, it is simply your story, which is ours collectively.
“When all you have is eye contact, devoid of speech you see yourself through the eyes of others.” – Lori Kiel, silent retreat revelation.
I saw myself in the exuberant girl so full of energy she could barely contain herself in silence. Her giggles, moans, grunts and loud motions drew the attention of the room. At first, what felt like a distraction soon came to be a mirror of myself. I recognized myself in her “bull in a china shop” persona and immediately knew why she was there.
I saw myself in the woman two yoga mats over from me that would look at me as if she could see into my soul. She was just a bit older, a tad wiser, summoning me with her gaze that told me “she saw me”. As we broke the silence she would come to me to sit and share, of course, she would because surely she felt that energy as well.
I saw myself in the “buddy” I was assigned the day I first laid eyes on her on Day One. Tattoos, gorgeous skin, long flowing hair and a fierceness to her eyes that let you know, she was not to be messed with; just like me. As we were tasked with sharing our life story (in the third person, in ten minutes) her words would flow so eloquently from her soul revealing a life that was shattered, shocking and leaving me absolutely speechless. It would be my turn to tell my story and I would fumble for the words, not even sure of my name in the third person. What she could not know is that as she told her story, it was mine as well. How could that be? I am immediately reminded that we are all more alike than different. She was as shocked as I revealed that I too had walked a similar path. Her assumption of me, my appearance, my demeanor, never let on that I too had seen life like hers, we were safe, together.
I saw others, those familiar to me my mother, my friends, my kids, in those warriors that surrounded me in silence. I saw my friends in the eyes of three others as we were tasked with a “gazing exercise”. We sat in front of three people and could only stare into each other’s eyes to reveal if we were ready to come out of silence. The first two people I sat in front of were new to me. We had not come into contact during the retreat and in gazing into each other’s masked faces I recognized their eyes. The first was younger, scared, kind eyes that were holding back. So familiar to me and reminded me that the kindness behind those eyes should not be confused with weakness, I know her and she is fierce. The second was familiar. She looked like me, 35 years of me. Round, soft, sweet, flowing hair and a gaze that seemed to create compression on my heart. It was physical. I could feel her squeezing my heart, how, what was this…later when she spoke her final word I would come to know her name. Of course, it was that of my childhood best friend. Of course.
Driving Down the Mountain
I thought a lot about what the departure from silence would look like, would I talk, would I stay silent, turns out much like life, it just happened. When you are in a cocoon, enveloped in silence, safe on the top of a mountain, the idea of driving out of that space is daunting. I had been warned before going that how you come out is as important as the work you do during the retreat.
As I got into the car to take the 9+ hour drive home, I was incredibly energized. This again was to be expected, or not, as expectations are “the thief of joy” as one of the many lessons I have learned this last week. Having experienced the range of emotions and feelings I had come to know I was grateful that today I was energized where days before I was exhausted.
GPS set, water in the cup holder and let’s roll!
I call my husband first to tell him I am out of silence and find my first attempt to explain what I had just experienced. I had already decided that I would not share, at least not verbally, this experience with many others as putting it into words would only fall short. He of course knows why I went and was ready to listen and of course support the changes I am coming away with. He is relieved to hear that my resolve is much of what he has told me, begged of me and offered in wisdom through the years. Ironic that it takes a silent retreat to get it to sink in.
The next phone call comes in from my youngest son interrupting my husband and I’s call to tell my husband that he has locked the keys to his car in the trunk. AND HERE WE GO, cue the song “…back to life, back to reality” – Soul II Soul.
After solving his crisis my youngest son, who is now driving the long ride home from his friends, calls and just wants to talk. This is golden. As a parent of three sons, you come to learn that conversations like this one are precious. They are not the “What are you doing today?” calls, they are not trivial, these are the ones that when they happen you cherish and stay present. This time I am present on an entirely different level, good for him, awesome for me. This is a gift.
The last call on my drive home is my oldest son and his wife to “check on me”. They are always light-hearted and make it easy to share without effort. As he is the quieter one in our family his first question is if I made it through the silence without talking. We share some laughs about my experience and I am left feeling loved, as always. He is so gentle with me. This word “gentle” is one I would hear many times throughout my meditations and would remind myself again and again. This is a tattooable word…not that I would…but noting in the case I ever get the itch.
She’s SAFE, Sliding into Home
In between the calls from my family, the best call I had on my drive home was from the one person I had just experienced this retreat with, Jill.
She and I met 15 years ago when working for the same company. We came fast friends and long after going our separate ways and career paths we have remained close. We have an affinity for wellness and Buddhism and we are each other’s “go-to” for retreats. When this idea of going on a silent retreat came to me she was the first one I called to see if she wanted to join me. Of course, she said “yes”.
It’s interesting going through a period of silence with someone as you cannot communicate verbally yet you soon realize that knowing each other is all the communication you need. The energy, the eye contact, the moments…are as comforting and telling as the words you cannot say. We would hike the mountains around us every day using sign language and caveman-like grunts to communicate. We laughed, a lot! We would even get into a bit of trouble as we accidentally wandered off of a trail and onto the land of a very disgruntled man and his two very loud dogs! Uh Oh…
As we were not able to speak until the very end of the retreat we had a lot to talk about in downloading our shared experience on our long drive home, she back to DC and me to Orlando. Jill had left before me and had already experienced “life” in her new mindset. She shared her few experiences with me as a warning of what was to come.
As we downloaded it was a resolve in closing the experience and unexpectedly necessary. My very wise friend and fellow meditator dispelled her wisdom and takeaways with me with her best advice being…
“You can now access silence anytime you want it.” Ironically I always could.
As it turns out silence was always available to me. Accessing it was not. I have now been equipped with tools to truly access that space in which the quiet can resolve and ready my mind for the noise as I decide to allow it access.
What I am taking away
There were many lessons through stories that were told to us throughout the retreat. Again the facilitators had a captive audience; we sat like kindergarteners on the floor looking up at them as our teachers. We were captive indeed, voices silenced and seeking wisdom by the two that seemingly knew how to find peace. I would later tell them (when granted my voice again) that I was in awe of their courage to take a group through this process as the emotions that would bubble up would sometimes be focused on them; anger, disbelief, love…yes by end of this retreat I would come to love these two courageous humans.
While we were not able to use pad and paper during silence I would have to remember the lessons I learned based on what resonated and “stuck” versus what I voraciously consumed in notes. This as many that know me is tough. I rarely sit and do anything without a keyboard in front of me allowing all that enters to produce on the page in front of me. Again, another blessing in disguise as I realized that much of that notetaking was more about keeping “busy” so I did not have to simply sit within myself. Lessons learned. One at a time. Here are some that were taught and others that I came up with within my own observations of the “self”:
- When the water hits the rock, the water is not interrupted, it is not harmed by the rock, it remains unfazed. It simply splashes back unto itself and proceeds to flow around the rock. The rock does not stop the flow, it changes it ever so slightly but it still flows. Be the water, not the rock. I am the water.
- When you walk like a flame everything you come into contact with becomes fuel.
- The body is the wick and the mind is the glow.
- What we resist persists.
- Vicious cycle involves thought that evokes emotion that elicits reaction. Allowing the thought to present itself dismiss itself without emotion or reaction is the key to peace.
Jill’s favorite story of wisdom is that of the “empty boat” and I have been regarding it since coming home as well so I share it here as taken from the web for better clarity:
There’s a Zen story in which a man is enjoying himself on a river at dusk. He sees another boat coming down the river toward him. At first, it seems so nice to him that someone else is also enjoying the river on a nice summer evening. Then he realizes that the boat is coming right toward him, faster and faster. He begins to yell, “Hey, hey, watch out! For Pete’s sake, turn aside!” But the boat just comes right at him faster and faster. By this time he’s standing up in his boat, screaming and shaking his fist, and then the boat smashes right into him. He sees that it’s an empty boat.
The other boat is always empty, even when there’s someone steering it. There is never anyone to get angry with. Even if the person steering the other boat deliberately rammed our boat, his behavior had nothing to do with us. Anything anyone else does is done for their own reasons, and much of the time they don’t even know the reasons. When we see life as it is, rather than our thoughts about it, we see that every time we look for an enemy, someone to hate, someone to blame, there’s never anyone there. Just an empty boat on a foggy lake.
My own epiphany occurred on the final sunrise. Of course, it did. As I was sitting at the very top of the steps of the main meditation hall, two cappuccinos beside me, shivering from the 40 degrees of cool air blowing I took these pictures and the following came to me…