Five Days of Silence

The basic structure of a Vipassana meditation retreat is quite simple. You arrive, unpack, get the lay of the land, greet old friends (if there are friends to greet), finish your registration, and have dinner. The first evening, there is a welcoming talk, and as a group, you take temporary vows for the duration of the retreat, including a vow of silence.

Over the course of the retreat, the teachers give talks and meditation instruction, but the students remain silent. The only time you speak is during your fifteen-minute interview with a teacher once or twice during the course of the retreat.

Retreat silence encompasses more than not speaking. It also means avoiding eye contact. So you spend the weekend (or the five days or the ten days or the month), getting to know everyone’s shoes and socks intimately. At this particular retreat, I roomed with a stranger. I did not meet her by name or hear her voice, nor did I look her in the eye until we broke silence on the very last day. And yet an intimacy and tenderness grew between us. I did everything I could to respect her needs and to honor her practice. She felt like a friend by the end.

One of my favorite moments at the start of any retreat is the time I turn off my phone and take off my watch. These items, so iconic to modern culture, are unnecessary here. There is no Internet, no computers, no email. No televisions or radios. No newspapers. No books. No reading. No distractions. The external trappings of daily life are immediately stripped away. You are given a break from every distraction, except of course, those you carry on the inside—your thoughts, your habitual patterns of thinking, your emotions, your obsessions, your planning, judging, evaluating, crazy mind. Basically, you are in a pressure cooker with yourself.

On retreat, you are awakened every morning by bells rung outside your door, and each gathering—to sit in meditation, to do walking meditation, or to eat, is announced by a deep and resonant series of gongs. (Being responsible to ring a particular bell is a job I volunteer for at every retreat—I love to stand there and let the rich tones reverberate through my being).

On retreat, everything is provided for you—healthy, nutritious meals are cooked, your bedding, the bathrooms are cleaned, the grounds are kept beautiful and immaculate. And most retreat centers—including the Land of the Medicine Buddha where I just sat my five-day retreat—are located in glorious, vibrant, beautiful nature.

In the half hour between the wake-up bells and the first “sit” of the morning, the coffee drinkers make their way to the kitchen to have their first silent cup. People shower, dress warmly, in layers, and by 6:30 AM are seated in the meditation hall, some on specially designed cushions called zabutons and zafus, and others (like me) on chairs. One of the teachers rings the gong to start the sit and sometimes gives a bit of meditation instruction or direction for the day’s practice.

Then we sit in silence for forty-five minutes until the gong rings again, focusing as best we can on our object of meditation—depending on the instruction, that can be the breath, a scan of the body, or noting the emotions and sensations arising in the body. Whenever you are carried away by thinking, whether it be the first time or the thousandth time, you gently and consciously bring the mind back. Over and over and over. Like training a puppy.

The first sit of the day is followed by forty-five minutes of walking meditation. In walking practice, you focus attention on your legs and feet, the soles of your feet contacting the ground. Or you concentrate on the collection of movements that make up each step—lift, move, place. You walk back and forth in a small area; the goal is not exercise or getting anywhere. I like to walk very slowly, almost in slow motion; others prefer a normal or even faster pace. From the outside we look like a bunch of weird stoned-out zombies, but walking practice is actually what I like best.

Breakfast follows the walking period. The food is healthy, hearty, vegetarian and made with love. We eat in silence, again using the eating itself as a form of meditation practice—really taking in the appearance of the food, the taste, the sensations of chewing and swallowing, noticing our desire for more, our inclinations toward greed (planning for seconds when you haven’t finished your firsts). Meals are slower and food becomes far more vivid when eaten this way.

After breakfast, there is a break. (I went on a daily hike during this time, enjoying the incredible Redwood forest and wildlife on the land.) At 9:15, there is another sitting period. This time, there is meditation instruction by one of the teachers, followed by a 45-minute sit. Then another walking period. Then another sitting period. Then lunch, the biggest meal of the day. Then a break (my nap time).

Starting at 2:15, there are alternating periods of sitting and walking throughout the afternoon. At most retreats, there is the option of yoga or some kind of movement in the afternoon. At this retreat, Marcy Reynolds, a wonderful Qigong teacher, taught twice each afternoon, helping us relieve the stress of so much sitting while giving us the opportunity for mindful motion and close awareness of the body.

Dinner, usually soup, salad and bread are served at 6:00. At 7:00 there is an evening sitting, followed by a dharma talk by one of the teachers. These talks are often funny, moving and human, inspirational and instructive. We sit together as a group after the talk. There is one more walking period and a final sit of the evening. At 9:30, we are free to go to bed or practice further.

The next morning at 6:00, bells rings outside each door again. And then there is another day of the same. The same schedule, day after day, until the closing of the retreat, the final day.

On retreat, colors are brighter and sounds are louder. Everything is amplified, whether it’s the sound of a meadowlark, a snore, the sharp tapping of woodpecker, the sound of a heavy breather in the meditation hall, the excruciating rip of someone’s jacket zipper going up or down, your own incessant planning for the future, your despair, your joy, and sometimes, the stillness of your own breath. Everything is amplified.

You might be asking, why someone would choose to sign up for an experience like this? I do it because it renews me. I do it because it resets me. I do it to fulfill a spiritual hunger I have had since my teenage years. I do it to loosen the habitual habits of mind that keep me bound in patterns hurtful to myself and those around me. I do it increase my capacity to be in the here and now, to not lunge perpetually into the future. I do it because there is a place of vast, open awareness underneath all the mind chatter—the planning mind, the judging mind, the critical mind, the obsessive mind—that holds deep peace and opens the heart full of love for all beings. I do it because I love the quiet and the silence. I do it because I learn each time that there is nothing inside me that I have to be afraid of. I do it to experience a time in life where, as head teacher Mary Orr put it, there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one to be. I do it be free.

P.S. I left this retreat with several intentions. I share them with you here because that is one way to hold myself accountable:

1. To break the lock my obsessive mind usually has on me: cultivate my willingness to be interrupted. See each interruption and each interrupter as a gift.

2. For the next year, put my butt on the cushion for at least three full breaths a day.

3. When I catch myself spinning off into plans and the future, I will stop and ask myself, “What is happening right now?” And to take one full breath, using the opportunity to check in with my body, my senses, and my immediate surroundings.

P.P.S. A few choice words on re-entering the “real” world:

Last night, in the bath, I listened to a talk by Vipassana teacher Gil Fronsdale about developing concentration. He spoke of the importance of meditating in a clean, beautiful environment. Before bed, newly home from the retreat, I wanted to sit and there was nowhere to go. Karyn was snoring in the bedroom. Eli was in the dining room, illustrating a calligraphy story he’d created for his Latin final, so both the dining room and the living room were lit up. Lizzy was in and out of her room and the kitchen making ornate miniature paper dolls dressed in 70’s fashions for extra credit in her 7th grade history class, and it was too cold in the office. So I meditated while sitting on the toilet. Every ten minutes or so, Lizzy would burst in to show me her latest paper doll. And then she’d say, “Oops, what are you doing sitting here in the dark?”

This morning, there was the usual insanity of the morning scene. I thankfully was the off-duty mother. While Karyn got the kids ready for school, I decided to go out to my office to sit. I have a big cushy office chair that is perfect for me to meditate in. It’s comfortable, yet keeps me in a good, upright posture. So I walked out to my office, all bundled up, carrying my meditation shawl. I opened the door to complete disarray and piles of junk everywhere—stores of toilet paper and paper towels, two years of boxes, papers, empty cartons, books, used printer cartridges, Karyn’s old wool from her years as a rug weaver; you name it, it’s strewn out there. The meditation chair itself was covered with a couple of cases of The Courage to Heal, which I threw down on the floor. And so I sat, totally surrounded by crap. Just like meditating on the toilet the night before. I couldn’t stop laughing. Such is practice in the real world!

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