Asking me to go to a silent retreat is kind of like telling Julia Child not to cook. Just thinking about it stressed me out. Would I start talking to myself? And the most pressing concern: Would using my hair dryer qualify as breaking the silence? As I walked up the steps to my room at the serenely spare Garrison Institute in Garrison, New York, it felt a little like move-in day at college (albeit a sophisticatedly decorated one). My room had a single bed with one humble pillow, white sheets, a coverlet, a desk and chair. The only light: a desk lamp.
Silence started Friday night, so before that, retreats director Jane Kolleeny and I talked about the benefits of cutting the chatter, mindfulness included. "Silence allows us to notice things that we usually ignore due to the constant conversation with others or in our heads with ourselves," Jane says. (Ah, yes, I know those.) "Our attention settles, we see ourselves more clearly, and our senses are fine-tuned." She also gave me a meditation refresher. Because that's what you do on a silent retreat.
When I passed fellow retreaters in the hall, I couldn't help myself: I made eye contact and smiled. Mostly I got nods in return. The real test was dinner, the very time of day we're told that we must connect or else we're at risk for depression and raising juvenile delinquents. But there we all were, 30 or so strangers eating without talking, hearing only the clank of silverware. I took generous helpings of salad and soup, worried that I wouldn't fill up on the strictly vegetarian fare, but right away I experienced the truth of mindful eating. Because I focused on the meal, I was in touch with my appetite and ate less. Also, manners are vital. The slurping next to me sounded like a fire alarm!
I spent Saturday morning walking in the outdoor labyrinth and the otherworldly bamboo forest listening to the trees chime in the wind. A sense of calm began to creep in. At lunch, I felt momentarily conspicuous wearing my striped yoga jacket in contrast to everyone else's shades of gray. And that's when it hit me: No one cares what I'm wearing. Everyone is here to focus on themselves. My brain quieted, and my thoughts were free to wander. As I sat in one meditation session, my mind wandered to cheese. Sharp cheddar. Salty Manchego. Nutty aged Gouda. My senses were fine-tuning! Or was it the lack of snacks?
By Sunday afternoon, I was back in the world of the speaking but missing my moments of Zen -- which, it turns out, can happen even if you use your hair dryer. This social butterfly learned that silence does have its golden moments.