When I signed up for a “silent vipassanâ yoga and meditation retreat” at the Esalen Institute, I didn’t even know what the word vipassanâ meant, but I wasn’t worried about it. I planned to use the week as a personal sabbatical. I’d get up at sunrise and bathe in the hot tubs overlooking the Pacific, then drift into the morning sessions for a bit of yoga or meditation, and spend afternoons writing in the loft of the big blue art barn. After dinner I’d check e-mail, soak again in the hot tubs, and read an Anne Tyler novel and Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Because it was a silent retreat, the whole time — five days — I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone.
Generally I talk a lot. Once before, during a writing retreat, I’d refrained from speaking for a day, and I’d found it liberating. But that had been only twenty-four hours, and friends who had taken longer silent retreats had told me the experience could be like a bad acid trip. So I was apprehensive, but still I looked forward to shutting up for a while.
I also, it turned out, didn’t know the meaning of the word silence. On Sunday evening the 125 retreat participants gathered in the circus-tent-like Dance Dome to hear the retreat leaders introduce the week ahead. Phillip Moffitt, who taught meditation at a place called “Spirit Rock,” seemed to be the head Buddhist. He had a large, square face with creases around his mouth and eyes. In a gentle voice he asked us to honor and be grateful for whatever had brought us to this retreat, and then to forget about it.
Phillip explained that “social silence” entailed not only no talking, but also no deliberate body language, especially no eye contact. “Sometimes we can go around hungry for folks to look at us.” To demonstrate he widened his eyes and mimed gazing into other people’s faces. We were to avoid doing that. “But if you happen to meet someone’s eyes as you pass through a door or something, that’s OK,” Phillip said. “Just let it happen, and let go of it.”
The thought that anyone might be disturbed by fleeting eye contact amused me, and I giggled. No one else did, and my little laugh seemed loud and inappropriate.
Phillip went on to explain that “social silence” excluded sexual activity. I wondered if that included masturbation, but I didn’t want to raise that question in front of 125 nongiggling Buddhist strangers.
The four teachers and their assistants, we learned, would talk if we approached them. Also, every other day we could meet briefly in small groups with one teacher, and during that time we’d be allowed to ask questions.
Phillip added that we could put away “all those great books” we’d brought in our suitcases, because silence included not reading. Ouch! I’d barely started the Anne Tyler. But I swallowed my objection, deciding that I’d keep the novel for the plane trip home.
And then Phillip mentioned that silence excluded writing.
The lights dimmed, and the Dance Dome walls closed in around my head, where a riot had started. A booing, spitting, angry mob of storytellers was massing, ready to storm the podium. Off with his Buddhist head!
As soon as Phillip invited questions, my hand shot into the air. He chose another person, who anxiously asked what I wanted to know: “What about personal writing, like in a journal?”
I leaned forward to hear better as another teacher took the question, and, disobeying the injunction we’d just heard, I gazed hard, willing him to make eye contact. A thin, dark-haired man named Mark Coleman unfolded himself from the lotus position, sighed thoughtfully, and said, in a disarming Irish accent, that writing can work in two ways: it can distract us from our practice, or it can deepen it. He implied that the latter was rare, and he suggested that we limit ourselves to “minimal writing, perhaps haiku journaling.”
In the next twenty-four hours I would write about 150 haiku.
Gillian Kendall worst meditator in the room worst at yoga, too!
At the end of the opening session, someone struck a chime to signal that we were entering into silence, and we filed out, heads lowered, eyes at forty-five degrees. I marched to my room, snapped on the light, sprawled across my bed, and wrote.
Over the next two days I kept writing. In between the morning meditation and yoga sessions — and sometimes even during them — I made notes in my journal:
In the packed meditation hall, our teacher said, in his soft, lovely way, that some of us might be feeling “a bit cozy,” but he encouraged us to “notice all the space in the room.” I thought he meant the space over our heads, because there was extremely little space in between our bodies. Our yoga mats were overlapping.
“We are mostly space,” he went on serenely, and I laughed: our teacher was trying to make up for the overfilled classroom by pointing out space on a cellular level.
I wrote more while skipping the afternoon sessions, and I took notes during the few evening “dharma talks” that I made it to. I wasn’t obnoxious about it. I didn’t flip through pages in my notebook, sigh, and scribble ostentatiously. But I wrote.
This retreat is offering me everything I never wanted: five days of silence and no one to talk to. My nonself is having a ball!
The teacher says that if I hear a noise during meditation, I am not to attend to the source. I do not have to tell myself the story of the noise. Yet my mind does little else than make up stories about what I hear, see, or feel. “Be curious” is a rule of good writing. Clearly, it’s OK to be curious and notice the curiosity, but I should let go of the impulse to satisfy the curiosity.
Other impulses I am “letting go of” (at my own very slow pace) include speaking, making eye contact, having nonverbal communication, using e-mail, texting, reading, surfing the Internet, chatting online, and, get this, writing.
On Monday morning I needed something from the Esalen office. I arrived about five minutes before it opened, and so, as my teachers would say, I “got to experience” waiting. Instead of merely experiencing it, though, I wrote:
The office is closed The mountain is green, not brown I wait on both feet
The image of waiting “on both feet” expressed something about the patience I was learning and my awareness of my body and breath. I posted my haiku anonymously on the door of the office. A day later it was gone, and I felt annoyed. I’d wanted other people to read it and thought its removal constituted censorship.
At lunchtime on Monday, about sixteen hours into the silence, I was standing (on both feet) near the serving line, holding a bowl and pondering whether to try the miso soup. As I gazed into the vat — smelling its savory steam, feeling my hunger, noticing my mind’s question about the soup — someone touched my arm. Startled, I looked up into a human face. There was a long moment of astonishing eye contact before I recognized my dear friend Michele. I’d forgotten she’d offered to visit Esalen and “break silence” with me. I was ecstatic to see her: I had someone to talk to.
After lunch, we found a shady corner of the garden where our conversation would not disturb anyone. When one of Esalen’s staff saw us talking, I stage-whispered, “This is my friend; she’s only here for an hour.” The woman smiled and said, “I won’t tell.”
It was exciting to exchange words and eye contact. Just hearing about Michele’s morning was fascinating, like the best story I’d ever heard. When she glanced away, I asked her to look back at me.
As we said goodbye, Michele told me that when she’d seen me in my silent reverie at the soup bar, looking into my eyes had been “like looking into the void.” She made her face blank, lowered her eyelids, and imitated my flat, internally focused gaze. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. I made her do it again until I laughed so hard I could barely stand up. Later in the week, starved of human contact and social stimulation, I would repeatedly rouse myself to insane laughter by looking into a mirror and doing Michele’s impression of me in my spaced-out, silent state.
On Monday afternoon nine other participants and I met with Phillip Moffitt. We all sat in silence for a while, and then someone asked, “What’s the difference between consciousness and mindfulness?”
Phillip chuckled and murmured, “That’s a good question.” He went on to explain about how each one both was and was not the other, blah, blah. I knew a better answer and wanted to wave my hand in the air to announce it. Instead, I wrote it down:
Consciousness happens unless you are sleeping, in a coma, or dead. It begins at birth and ends at death. Mindfulness is a state that happens when you come to expensive retreats and struggle not to be attached to the conscious mind, allowing thoughts, feelings, lumbar pain, and venomous insects to pass by and through you.
Next someone asked what to do if a mantra came to mind during mindfulness meditation: should she let go of the mantra or focus on it? Phillip said she should either follow the mantra or let it go, but not do both — which seemed obvious to me. I refrained from suggesting that she fight the mantra off with sexual fantasies.
On Tuesday at 6 A.M. I skipped the scheduled “gratitude meditations” and took a walk down to the baths. A Buddhist teaching says, “A truly happy person can do no harm.” I didn’t think I was harming myself by missing the morning session: I was truly, harmlessly happy having my own session, soaking naked in my favorite hot tub, in my favorite place in the world, at my favorite time of day. The rising sun was still hidden behind the mountains, the sea was matte green and opaque, and no one else was around. It wasn’t hard to be in the moment.
At a workshop a few years before, when the instructor had asked us to create personal mantras in time with our breathing, mine had come to me instantly: “In the tubs, at Esalen.” I breathed in for the first three syllables, out for the last four.
Now, in the tubs, at Esalen, my mantra came into my mind, and, like the woman who’d questioned Phillip, I didn’t know whether I should hold on to it or let it go. Would focusing on the mantra “In the tubs, at Esalen” take me away from the moment of actually being in the tubs, at Esalen?
I was writing all this down. As I wrote, I flicked an ant off my arm — mindlessly. Then I got to notice my guilt and shame, because we’d been asked not to intentionally harm any living thing, including insects, during our retreat. We hadn’t actually signed an agreement, but I felt committed to honor the request.
I searched to see where I might have flicked the ant, but I couldn’t find it. Should I pray for its well-being? Or would praying constitute a further distraction from the moment?
My friend Karina had once seen a baby possum fall out of a tree. Her boyfriend had told her that little things didn’t land as hard as big things, and he’d given her a formula for how mass was affected by gravity. Although I didn’t know the formula, I tried to calculate the impact of an ant being flicked an unknown distance. Had I inflicted harm or merely provided excitement in the ant’s otherwise routine morning?
As my thoughts regarding the possible effects of my mindless action were distracting me from my mindfulness, two more ants crawled up my arm. Good. This development gave me the opportunity to practice right action and harmlessness. Softly, I blew at the insects, hoping they’d turn around and head back for the rock wall around the tub. They continued moving toward my elbow. With the outermost tip of my littlest fingernail, I touched the first ant — I’ll call him “Antony” — very, very, very gently. His tiny body curled up, and he stopped moving. Very, very gently I nudged the still body. No response. I thought, I killed Antony.
The second ant, alone and well, crawled farther up my arm. It tickled.
Very gently I scooped the apparently dead ant onto my nail and moved it next to the rock whence it had come. But Antony did not crawl or fall off. Gently I tried to shake the ant-lump from my nail. It stuck. So I indelicately scraped off the ant-corpse. Despite my good intentions, I had blood on my hands and bad karma on my fingernail.
I also had more ants on my arm, parting the hairs like explorers hacking through a jungle. I allowed myself to notice the tickling and my reaction to it — the impulse to swat — but I didn’t act on the impulse. Instead I twisted my arm upside down, putting one ant within an ant’s whisker of a lovely gray boulder. The ant arched his back and extended two little front legs onto the new surface, then crawled off and away from me, unharmed. Hallelujah!
Selecting another ant, I moved my arm so that it, too, was hanging within easy reach of the boulder. I envisioned the second ant stepping bravely into the tiny footsteps of the first, in the manner of the early Pilgrims onto Plymouth Rock, but the ant didn’t budge. Not only were there other ants tickling me, but my shoulder was starting to hurt. How much did I have to endure to prevent an ant’s suffering?
The morning was passing, and I wanted to eat breakfast. Furthermore, in considering how I might harmlessly deal with the ant situation, I was imposing my will on the circumstances rather than simply noticing my reaction to them. That was counter to instructions. One of the teachers had told a story about a yogi who, while meditating in a headstand, had allowed a spider to build a web on her cheek. So apparently I was supposed to let the ants crawl all over me, indefinitely. But at some point I’d have to move. What about when I took a shower? All the ants on my person would drown, and my bad karma would multiply faster than fat cells.
A blade of grass, a tiny twig, or a leaf would have allowed me to guide an ant to safety, but there was no such tool at hand. I had hair, though. Would pulling a hair from my head constitute harm to a sentient being? I wasn’t sure if the kind-of vow I’d sort of taken precluded self-harm. Obviously, on this retreat we were not meant to be carving obscenities into our thighs with razors, but removing a hair for the purpose of saving a life seemed to fall somewhere between self-mutilation and noble sacrifice.
After a dozen attempts to gently lasso the ant, my miniature rope trick worked, and I lifted one ant to safety. In the meantime, more of the colony had encroached, an invading ant army. The ant I’d saved seemed unharmed, even happy in its small way, which was good, but I was still crawling with small black creatures and going insane with attempts to be mindful. In my mind and in time with my quickening breath was a madness mantra — “In the tubs, at Esalen” — while the ants pranced and partied around my skin. They were forming conga lines down there; they had sangria on ice. I yanked more strands from my scalp, thinking, Fuck harmlessness. I was tilting at windmills with my split-end spear, a compassionate-witness warrior whose only weapons were a hair, a moment of attention, and broken silence.
On Tuesday I was trying to write more-condensed observations, even doing the “minimal haiku journaling” that Mark had suggested. But I have never been good at writing haiku; it was nearly as bad as not writing at all.
Despite my reluctance, by that evening I had decided to do as Phillip recommended and “allow myself the full experience of silence,” silencing my pen as well as my voice. In my journal I argued with myself:
After tonight, Tuesday night, I will enter real silence: no writing.
What about “minimal” writing? Haiku journal?
I won’t carry a pen and paper.
What if I need something at the bookstore?
For how long?
All day Wednesday and Thursday till 6 P.M. at least. Preferably till Friday A.M.
Fuck. What if my mother dies or something and I have to communicate with my family?
Bullshit. If my family urgently needs to communicate with me, I’m going to talk on the phone or e-mail.
I am trying it now. See?
But any and all of the funny, beautiful, clever, or intelligent things I think of and want to express will go unrecorded! Worse, unexpressed! Worst of all, possibly forgotten by the time (Thursday, 6 P.M., remember? You promised!) I get to write again. Forgotten. Ephemeral. Lost, lost, lost.
I’m getting tears thinking of the thoughts that I’m going to lose. Thoughts I haven’t even met yet, love affairs in and with my mind that are not yet a gleam in my inner eye. I am also laughing about crying about this future potential loss. But most importantly, I am writing this down.
I wrote those last frantic words as my clock said 11:59 P.M., and then I stopped. I would not write again until Friday morning. Instead I would practice silence.
At 12:02 A.M. the practice began to be difficult. I wanted to add something to what I’d been writing about not writing, but I did not. Instead I went to sleep and dreamed that I was staying in a hotel on one of the Hawaiian Islands, on assignment for a glossy magazine. The room had a huge glass wall overlooking the ocean. I looked out the window and saw big, dark shapes in the water: whales.
Everyone in the hotel wanted to see the whales; we all had been talking about their imminent arrival and scanning the ocean for them. To let everybody know what I’d seen, I tried to shout, “Whales!” but my voice wasn’t working. I could make the shape of the word and expel air, but no sound came out. I ran into the corridor, and although I knew I might be waking people up, I tried again to yell about the whales. This time my voice worked, and other people opened their doors and came out, happy and excited.
I rushed outside. There was a long wooden pier with a platform on the end, and beyond it were the whales. I started running down it, planning to shuck my clothes and dive in and swim as close as I could to the magnificent animals.
Behind me, a woman in a wheelchair was having trouble getting down the pier. Her chair could not surmount some obstacle that I hadn’t noticed. I wanted to ignore her and dive in and swim toward the wonderful whales, but it would have been horribly selfish of me not to stop and help this woman.
Reluctantly I turned back to offer assistance. The woman had an able-bodied teenage boy with her, but he was not much use. Blocking her chair was a pile of driftwood and old clothing, heavy but not impossible to move. The woman was about my age, neither pretty nor ugly, neither angry nor impatient about the obstacle, although she did want to get closer to the whales. I told her and the young man that the obstacle could be removed. I said I could help, but I made it clear that I didn’t really want to and that they could handle it themselves. I said, of the proposed clearance, “It’s going to take a long time.” And then I abandoned her.
I dove in and swam out, and when I’d reached the depths I saw one of the whale’s eyes up close: old, deep, and profound. The dark orb shone out from coarse, dry-looking skin.
In the last part of the dream, I was in an upper story of the hotel with full views of the ocean on both sides and in front. In every direction the water was full of dark, oblong shapes. Many whales had come; they were all around us, and everyone could see them. They had been there all along.
After waking up in my room at Esalen, I lay there analyzing the dream. Obviously my inability to call out was related to the restrictions of silence, and the whale-watching symbolized our collective search for enlightenment. The woman in the wheelchair was a crippled part of myself for whom I didn’t have time. As usual after a vivid dream, I went to write it down. I had the pen in my hand when I remembered my vow not to write.
But this dream was clear and useful to my understanding of myself and the world! This was a whale of a dream! Cross, I set the pen down. It didn’t seem fair that the practice of mindfulness should interfere with my dream work. While dressing, I reviewed the dream in my head, trying to remember it for when I could write it down — Thursday night, or Friday. Over and over I spotted the whales, felt the frustration of silence, then liberated my voice and invited others to share the wonderful experience. Instead of writing, I memorized what I would have written if I could, which was probably just as bad as writing in terms of distracting me from my mindfulness.
As I concentrated on remembering the dream, I realized that I was forgetting to breathe, so I relaxed and inhaled. I had to focus on getting dressed. Choosing underwear took a long time because I’d likely be undressing in front of other people before entering the baths. I considered, selected, and then rejected several pairs. When traveling, I use up my old, “disposable” underwear, but someone in the changing room might notice stained or ripped undies. Then I realized that I was spending precious moments of my life worrying about the potential reaction of a hypothetical stranger who might happen to see me in disreputable undergarments. I was so concerned about this possible embarrassment that I was holding my breath again. I breathed in.
I chose a pale blue pair with a small stain in the crotch. I sat down on the bed, remembering the yoga teacher’s instruction: “Feel the weight of your body on the ground.” I felt the weight of my butt on the mattress. Purposefully I put my right foot through one leg hole. Those whales had symbolized enlightenment, and I had seen them first. What an honor, a blessing; how lucky and special I was. What an egotist too. I was holding my breath. I inhaled.
Standing, I pulled the panties up to my hips and adjusted them to cover the padding around my middle, so that if anyone noticed the less-than-pristine condition of my underwear, at least he or she might overlook some of my fat. But in two hours of yoga practice, all my clothes would get disturbed anyway. My bra and panties would ride up and down, and I might not be able to discreetly rearrange them, although no one was supposed to be looking. One of the teachers had said our eyes should be open but unfocused, “like two drops of dew.” My loose cotton shirt and pants would fall whichever way gravity took them, and whenever we did the downward-dog pose — which we did a lot — I’d end up with my bottom in the air and my face in the neck hole of my T-shirt. In this position, my dewdrop eyes gazed at my water-balloon breasts and my jellyroll belly, and I thought, Breathe. (God, I’m fat.) Breathe.
Before leaving the room, I checked my purse to see that it had everything I needed for the day: water bottle, notebook, pills, ChapStick, pen. Then, realizing that I would not be using it, I removed the notebook. I also didn’t need the pen. While taking it out, I found and removed two extra pens, and those changes made my bag so much lighter that I didn’t even need it. I stuck my ChapStick and pills in a pocket and slipped the strap of my water bottle over one wrist. I was free! I swung my arms as I walked out, breathing in the salty air. I was not writing: I was walking; I was breathing. I’d have to remember what this felt like, so I could write it down.
During seated meditations I’d been having back pain, so I decided to try formal walking meditation that day. I chose a section of lawn about twenty feet long in a quiet part of the grounds. Using a pine tree and a weather-beaten fence post to mark the limits of my route, I walked back and forth, back and forth, trying to focus on my breathing or footsteps. I found this easier than seated meditation, and it was pleasant to walk barefoot on the grassy ground.
I noticed I was thinking about my friend Mark O’Brien, who’d been paralyzed from the neck down at age six. He would have loved the opportunity to walk twenty steps, turn around, and walk back again. He would have loved the feeling of each foot on the ground; he’d have cherished the ability to inhale and exhale without his iron lung. I tried to let that memory go and return to the moment and my breath. For half an hour, I walked those twenty feet, bringing my drifting thoughts back over and over to the sensation of my feet on the earth.
But parts of my dream kept resurfacing. I remembered the disabled woman in the wheelchair, who had not been able to get down the pier to see the whales. Considering the dream from her point of view, I thought, I am not asking for help. I’m not expecting it. But I’d be glad if I got some. Something about her humility struck me so hard that I stopped and cried. Tears coursed down my face as I felt a wave of sympathy: for the woman, for Mark, for a part of myself that did not ask for help but would be glad if it came. The wave of emotion swelled, stopping my breath, and then it passed, and I breathed again and went on walking.
Later that day I went to a meeting with Mark Coleman. At the start of a session he’d read us a poem he’d written just that morning, which had annoyed me: I had to take instruction on how to not write from someone who was writing. Still, I liked him, I loved his Irish accent, and I was eager for help. I said, “I am a writer, and I usually write a lot, but I haven’t written anything for almost eighteen hours.” I told him I felt sad and frustrated.
Coleman blinked — the greatest display of emotion I had seen from him — and said that if I paid attention to the desire to write things down, I might notice that it was “automatic.”
My puffed-up heart deflated at the truth-prick of his word, automatic, and I started crying again. My main activity in the world, the thing I considered most important about myself, had become mindless, reflexive, compulsive. I felt embarrassed — and enlightened.
By sunrise on Thursday I hadn’t written in more than thirty hours. I did the math while sitting on a long wooden bench outside the lodge, a few yards down from my favorite seat. That spot, my spot, featured a view through the trees to the three much-gazed-at, triangular cliff points jutting out to the ocean. Unfortunately, that morning someone else was sitting in my spot.
To be considerate, I had eased into a seat some feet away, where the stupendous view was blocked by a large tree trunk. I gazed at the tree. I lifted my bowl of hot cereal to my face and smelled the steam. I took a warm raisin from the bowl and put it in my mouth. I tasted the raisin. I breathed in and out.
I wished I could write about this moment of forgoing my favorite visual feast and instead focusing on one warm, soft, dried grape, whose taste was filling my mouth. I closed my eyes and let its orange-tinged essence fill my mind, slowly turning me from hot ego to warm raisin. The fruit dissolved a little, spreading more sweetness. I moved it between my front teeth and closed them on its soft skin, breaking open the gooey heart of my own raisin d’être. I breathed. The air had warmed to a soft, bright, dark, sweet, orange-tinged light that tasted like the whole world.
Again I felt the desire to write down the moment. Again I didn’t write.
I took into my mouth a quarter teaspoon of warm cereal. So warm! So delicious! Thank you, cereal. Thank you, universe. So much warm rice cereal to eat. So much time. So many, many moments. I breathed in. I exhaled.
That morning, instead of sulking about not writing things down, I allowed myself to experience not writing. A famous writer once said, “I’m only a writer when I am writing.” I appreciated the thought. If I am a writer only when I am writing, then at that moment I was not a writer. But who was I if not a writer?
I was a sunrise, sun-raised raisin, raisin-sane, sun rays in-sane.
Clearly, I needed to write this down before I lost the words. I wanted, needed, desired one thing after another — raisins, sunlight, views, breath, moments, thoughts — and I wanted to get them all on paper, because if I didn’t, I’d lose them.
I set down my cereal bowl, thinking, If I don’t write it down, it will be lost. Over the last two days I’d not written down many moments that had seemed beautiful, funny, clever, profound, or precious — all were lost. And beyond those lost moments lay a multitude of other moments that I’d lost while focusing on the pain of other losses. Beyond the mountains lie other mountains. So many raisins lost! So much sunlight! All of Esalen, all of Big Sur, all the brilliant words I’d heard, all the funny thoughts that had made me break my silence by laughing out loud — all lost. I felt helpless and sad.
And then in my head I heard the voice of another teacher, saying, It doesn’t matter; it’s all lost anyway. It didn’t matter if I wrote down the moment, or any moments, in haiku or novel or any form at all. It didn’t matter if anyone read my words or if they won acclaim and awards: even if what I wrote won a Nobel prize for literature, it was all going to be lost.
I started crying again, from sadness and relief. If it didn’t matter whether or not I wrote my experiences down, then I was freed from the constant compulsion — my “automatic” reaction — to capture everything. Even as I observed life, even as I thought the words or wrote them or as someone read them, they were being lost. Every word, every idea or feeling was passing, on its way out, like all of us, like this moment, like everything.