This is the last post for a few weeks. I am going to knock off (imagine a “Gone Fishing” sign here) to get married and have a plan-less honeymoon caravanning around New Zealand.
For our final correspondence of 2012, I want to write about silence. I had the opportunity recently to go on a meditation retreat. I almost didn’t go, wondering if it was too indulgent in the run-up to a wedding happening halfway around the world, as I finished my first semester in graduate school and got ready to pack up out of DC. Luckily my mother talked me into it. The retreat was a last breath of sane air before all the festivities—the fun and dutiful components of a major life transition—kicked in.
Here’s the thing about silence: it rarely happens. I didn’t do a totally silent retreat but had periods each day when I didn’t talk to anyone. Even so, the chatter going on in my head was blaringly loud. I mean, I was able to carry on whole conversations with myself, tramping through the forest grounds of the retreat centre in upstate New York. Who needs friends and family when you have a steady parade of them going through your head? It seemed like the more I tried to quiet down the harder my mind fought to speak up, like a fish wriggling on a hook.
This was frustrating. I’ve done meditation retreats before, often more “successfully”—whatever that means—if I measure success by the tranquility I was able to achieve. I’d never gone into a retreat with so much happening in life though, and I think that was the reason this time was more challenging.
People seem to be quite curious about what a personal retreat looks like. Let me tell you: I had a few questions—I call them headliners—that I wanted to mull upon while in retreat. I went in determined to figure this stuff out. As in, Figure This Stuff Out. So decided, I went in.
I got into a certain rhythm. I liked to meditate first-thing in the morning before my head got awake enough to tune into chatter. A slow breakfast came next, where I enjoyed the process of cooking. Then study, theological reading, and more meditation and prayer in the temple. Late lunch was a communal affair that happened with the group of people living and working at the centre. I used these windows of encounters with other people to pepper them with questions from my reading. In the afternoon there was more reading, some writing. Early evening brought practice with the community. We had a late dinner, and more discussion or formal study group.
Does that sound tame? It was!
But boy did it take work to let go of the lists I was making in my head, the conversations I was carrying-on. As a fiction writer I think I could go on forever composing dialogue in my mind, especially between people I know well, like myself and my mother. Luckily when I am channeling my mother I am hearing things like “Calm down. Stop talking.” She’s a good one to channel.
I went into retreat on a Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t until Wednesday night, and really Thursday, that I hit my stride and settled down into quiet. Why did it happen then? Because sometime Wednesday I despaired of figuring anything out. I let go of those headliners. So what if I don’t get answers to the questions? Are the retreat police going to jump out at me?
I went on tramps through the grounds and sat in the temple bundled in blankets with no more forcing to my questions. It wasn’t until I was finally able to let go of my goals, and hold the questions and silence less tightly, that I got anywhere. I could sink into the mantras I was chanting or the rhythm of the prayers I said every night with the rest of the community. That was grounding. That was silent. That brought peace, which made Thursday most satisfying.
Of course by Friday I was distracted again, this time by thoughts of what Saturday, when I would leave retreat, would bring. Instead of getting mad about this, I laughed at myself. How absurd that I have such long periods of deceleration from the outside world and anticipation of entering it again.
While on retreat I lived in this beautiful little room tucked into the corner of a building. Two windows looked out over a sloping hillside. I could see, sitting on my bed, that on the far edge of the forest at dusk and dawn, deer came out to graze. Prayer flags fluttered between branches of trees outlined grey on the landscape. When it snowed and the curved roof of the temple held white powder up from its maroon walls, I could have been in Dharamsala, back home in Asia.
I had everything I needed for a comfortable, removed experience, and yet I had the jitters most of the time. Oh well. I think half the battle is showing up for work: going on retreat, meditating in the morning, sitting in the temple. The rest falls into place the more you do it. When I stopped mulling over my headliners so directly too I did have some insight into my questions. Thinking sideways at something, thinking slant, can lead to insight too.
I hope this post gives you some ideas for finding silence in your life. You don’t have to unplug or escape to do it, necessarily, but find the still gaps, the way to be quiet through the crazy. Even the act of trying counts, because it flexes the muscle. Eventually we get there, but along the way a little forgiveness, a little looseness about achieving those meditative goals, goes a long way.
Best wishes for the New Year,