I have a long relationship with talking.
I've been talking since I was little. As a teenager, when I would ask, "May I please be excused?" from the dinner table, the answer was routinely, "Not yet." My parents would hold me hostage. I would stand beside the kitchen table, offering the ransom of talk.
And I have never stopped. Until last weekend, I have never experienced quiet — no communication at all — while among people.
I'm a talker. A non-stop talker.
Preparing For Quiet
A few years ago, a friend described his experience at a silent retreat. Others have mentioned them. These interludes of quietude always struck me as appealing.
And somewhat fearsome. During my decades as a false extravert, my urgent talking led friends to say, "Don't go on a week-long silent retreat. Not you. You might freak out."
Some recommended that I try it for a day or two, perhaps at home.
Alisa Isaac suggested, "Why don't you just shut up?"
Last weekend, I joined Yoga On High for their annual "Abiding In Silence" program. Three days of silence at the Jesuit Retreat Center in Milford, Ohio.
In that lovely setting, here was my experience:
- I was quiet. The rule was "Don't talk." Prohibited talking included: talking, facial expressions, texting, other use of computers. During the briefing, we were instructed: "If you are the sort of person who says 'thank you' when someone holds the door open for you, don't. Don't nod and smile at others. Don't influence anyone else's experience."
- I meditated while sitting, walking and eating.
- I cheated. I did send a couple text messages to Alisa. (She was at home conducting her own Silent Retreat.) Some retreats (not this one) don't allow reading and writing. I wrote a few notes to myself. And I read Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks On Zen Mediation and Practice by Shunryu Suzuki.
Here's what I learned:
- Being quiet is difficult at first. It is counter to my social training. I have been taught, and have obsessively practiced: Smile when someone enters the room. Stand for the arrival of another. Say something funny or encouraging when first encountering a stranger. Smile at the person sitting across the dining table. All this was forbidden. At first this was alarming.
- Being quiet gets easier. Within a couple hours, I felt a solitude I've never experienced. I accepted that I had been excused from any social obligation to communicate. Very nice.
- Don't gaze upon others (especially women). Of course, this could have been predicted: 94% of those attending this yoga retreat were women. Gazing at women has been a lifelong practice of (depending on your point of view) admiration of beauty or overstepping of boundaries. This experience was also about keeping my eyes to myself, to the floor, to my own plate of food, to my book, to my inner eyelids. I learned how to avert my gaze.
- There will be yoga. What did I expect? The community was convened by Yoga On High! (I really need to read more closely.) So, go figure: yoga figured prominently. I don't know from yoga. But the instruction was expert. The yogis, Marcia Miller and Linda Oshins, were learned and fascinating. (And they were allowed to talk.) It was fun to learn about breathing and the yoga mindset. Very appealing. (I've asked my trainer at Fitness Matters to help me work my way to the Lotus position.)
- Two poems. Marcia Miller offered several. These ones stuck:
we need not worry
that we won’t survive … we won’t
until then, this song
Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat–
the one you never really liked–will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours. Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory. If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you’ll come home to find your son has emptied
the refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up–drug money.
There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice–one white, one black–scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.
I love these poems. And I am so grateful to the community assembled by Yoga On High. Thank you.