What I Learned From Sitting in Silence
A 10-day meditation retreat taught me surprising lessons about life — and myself
One spring evening a few years ago, I was cooking up a slab of salmon and half-listening to “All Things Considered” (along with a boisterous fight between my daughters over the rightful ownership of a cherished shirt) when my cell phone rattled my kitchen counter with an incoming text.
Like most texts, the message wasn’t terribly significant (“coffee tomorrow morning?”). But the level of excitement I felt in receiving it suggested that something might be out of balance. I wasn’t just used to being interrupted — I had actually come to crave it. And I realized how exhausting that was.
In many ways, mine was a charmed life. At 44, I was blessed with good health, a gaggle of fantastic, loving friends, the family I’d always wanted, a brownstone in the city and a country house in the Catskills. I’d worked in television and radio journalism when I was younger, and I was now (mostly) grateful to have the means to do volunteer work in my community, spend plenty of time with my girls, take on the occasional freelance gig and travel en famille.
And yet, I was slowly coming to see that I was losing my way.
What I considered the tail of my life — emails, texts, the sundry tasks that expressed themselves as urgencies but invariably washed into a sea of forgetting once completed — was wagging the dog. And the dog sensed there was much more to experience.
And so I decided to enroll in a 10-day silent meditation retreat.
“Couldn’t you just take a vacation?” asked my neighbor Wally.
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Ten Days of Silence: What Was I Thinking?
My choice may have seemed drastic, given that, at best, I’d only been a casual meditator, but the idea had been kicking around in me for a while. Over the previous few years, several friends had taken 10-day Vipassana meditation courses in various locations around the globe, and each seemed to come back clear-eyed, cleared-out and clearly more joyful.
Vipassana means “seeing things as they really are.” I was ready for that. I also liked that first-time attendees were required to pay absolutely nothing for the entire retreat. Instead — if they so chose — they could write a check at the end for whatever amount they wished for the benefit of a future meditator. (This is the Buddhist practice of dana: Teachings are given freely, and students make donations out of gratitude.)
With my girls safely tucked away at camp in Vermont that July, I drove to the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne, Mass., parked my weathered Volvo in a grassy lot and, with equal amounts of excitement and dread, walked over to the registration line.
A kind-faced man in his 50s in front of me introduced himself and explained that this would be his third Vipassana retreat. “I’ve hiked Mt. Rainier and run marathons in Africa,” he said. “But nothing challenges you like a 10-day.”
I had no idea what that meant, but I knew I would find out soon enough.
For the next week and a half, some 160 other participants and I would be sitting in meditation for 10 hours a day. We would commit to forgo all reading, writing, speaking and even making eye contact. We would abstain from alcohol and all drugs (including aspirin). And we would promise not to kill a single living thing, even the pesky mosquitoes, in keeping with the Buddhist (and yogic) principle of nonviolence, or ahimsa.
The purpose of all this, we learned in nightly videotaped tutorials presented by Vipassana’s charismatic leader, S.N. Goenka, was to become intimately acquainted with the workings of one’s own mind. A key principle of Vipassana is that it is only through direct experience that we come to understand that everything is impermanent. We need to investigate firsthand the pervasive pulls of craving and aversion and to find out what happens when we literally sit these things out.
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My Journey of 1,000 Steps Starts Now
During my first day of meditation, I saw clearly that left to its own devices, my mind made lists. It also played out various scenarios involving my children, marriage and friends — and when it was done with them, it moved on to the random strangers I was sitting among. The bearded mid-30s guy in the white pants two rows over with perfect posture? Adorable! I’ll bet some kind of musician or poet, a man who really listens. Surely he’s trekked through Nepal…
For the first three days of the retreat, I spent part of each afternoon in the meditation hall elaborately plotting my escape — sneaking out when everyone’s eyes were closed, tiptoeing across the courtyard, getting into my Volvo and then burning rubber, flashing a wide smile of relief.
And a little later every afternoon, I recommitted to sitting on my cushion, if just for one more day.
At some point, though, my restless mind grew bored with itself and its ceaseless thinking, planning and storytelling. And eventually, it began to slow down. I found myself able to focus on my inhales and exhales, and the feeling that came with it was one of peacefulness.
Yet every time I got to a place where I began to think I had this meditation thing under control, the bottom fell out from under me. I had a nightmare about terrible things happening to my girls and not being there to protect them. My right knee started killing me. And there was no escaping the dawning realization of just how difficult my 15-year marriage had been, and for just how long.
“This is like a deep operation of the mind, without anesthesia,” the cherub-cheeked Goenka on the monitor told us halfway through the retreat. “Bear your difficulties happily. You have to allow the pus to come out.”
Pus I could handle, but the pain in my knee was too much. The next morning I requested a meeting with an assistant teacher to address the problem. In our session, she offered a cure that few doctors would ever consider.
“Lean into the pain,” she suggested. “Instead of shifting your knee to try to fix it or panicking in its presence, try not to flee the sensation. Focus in on it and see what happens.”
Totally counterintuitive, but in the absence of a better idea, I experimented with her instruction. And to my utter surprise, the pain began to fade away. Before long it had vanished altogether.
With each passing day, my impatience shifted closer to something approaching acceptance, and my anxiety gave way to a deep calm. I began to understand, on an experiential level, what Goenka meant when he spoke of impermanence. What seems unbearable in the moment — boredom, anxiety, knee pain — becomes bearable when we stop resisting it.
Day 10, the retreat over, we were permitted to break our silence. Everyone rushed to hug one another, yet strangely, none of us seemed particularly eager to speak. We’d grown accustomed to silence, to feeling what was happening inside rather than constantly trying to articulate it — or needing to.
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Back to My Future
The following November, my marriage broke up. Seeing things as they are has obvious benefits, but sometimes that means we must grieve. When we choose a path toward awareness and stop hiding from life’s truths, not every thing or relationship will survive.
The lessons I learned during my silent meditation retreat — of allowing feelings to arise without needing to “manage” them — have permitted me to be present for everything that’s come my way since. I have courage now that I didn’t have before, or wasn’t in touch with. I’ve discovered that I’d much rather live with whatever temporary discomfort accompanies change than put my energy into trying to avoid it.
I’ve let go of longing for a life that I imagine would make me happier and instead throw myself into the unique journey that’s all mine. Sure, that process includes occasional grief and despair (OkCupid at my age, really?). But it also brings unimagined joy and a sense of contentment. I'm not afraid anymore.
And the best part of all: The tail ain’t wagging the dog anymore.
Jenny Douglas writes from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y. — and elsewhere.