clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A kind of hush

After my mother died, my father did crossword puzzles. Sometimes he did three or four a day, filling up the empty boxes with a sense of weary urgency.

What the crosswords offered were clues and, reassuringly, answers. The empty boxes would fill up - another name for Ireland, a Puccini opera - and eventually the puzzle would be done. And when it was done he would start another.We are a family that, in the face of death or even an airplane ride, likes to be distracted. On the few occasions when my mother actually flew, she would be so terrified of being enclosed and in peril that she would pretend to be on a bus.

You can fill your whole life up with distractions if you try: phone calls and sticky notes and deadlines; e-mail and lists and chatter. You can get so adept at your distractions that you can do two things at once; you can get your e-mail and your voice-mail at the same time, brush your teeth while reading a book. Your whole life, soon, is about being somewhere else.

The invitation comes in the mail in early December. "Join us for five days of silence in a fully supportive environment," the postcard says.

"The spacious quietude of Camp Kostopulos in Emigration Canyon provides a safe and protected space for our meditative journey inward. Lodging, vegetarian meals, yoga daily."

I like yoga, and I am less and less fond of meat. I send in my money.

I picture myself catching up on some reading, some sleep, some letter-writing. Five days without talking sounds like something I can talk about at a dinner party later on.

On a Thursday afternoon in early February, I drive up Emigration. After the canyon's first bend my radio station gets staticky and fades away. I turn the knob and listen to the sound of my tires on the road and feel smug.

There are nine of us on the retreat: a classical pianist, an airline pilot, a music therapist, two journalists, a former restaurant owner and a businessman. Plus our two teachers: a yoga instructor named Charlotte Bell and a woman named Pat Matthews, who is listed in the Yellow Pages under "psychic."

We will be staying in a cabin up the hill from the main lodge and down the hill from the bathrooms. Our daily schedule is taped to the wall. We will rise at 5:15 and begin our first sitting meditation at 6. We will meditate for an hour, then do a walking meditation for 45 minutes. We will continue in this way, sitting and walking, for the rest of the day, except for a break to do yoga, eat breakfast and eat dinner. No books, no letter-writing. No journal writing either. Journals are typically about the past or the future, says Pat.

"In this practice, we're trying to stay in the present as much as possible," she tells us as we sit on the floor in the cabin's small, empty front room the first afternoon.

Charlotte gives us some tips. Try not to make eye contact. Keep in your own space. She reminds us of Buddha's five precepts. The first one is to do no harm. We have bug jars here, she tells us. "You can catch the bugs and put them outside." She pauses. "And then they'll die outside." Pause. "This works better in the summer." We laugh outloud because our silence won't begin till after dinner.

"After a while, not talking will seem like a relief," says Charlotte. "Like, oh, I don't have to have a personality!"

Thursday, 6:31 p.m. Charlotte lights a candle. Someone turns off the heater, a noisy overhead contraption that, it has been decided, probably gives off bad vibrations.

We begin.

Each of us sits on a small pine bench, about 6 inches off the floor. The seat is slanted downward, so that, theoretically, our backs will be kept upright. We can either sit with our legs crossed in front of us, Buddhalike, or tucked under the bench.

During the orientation before dinner, Pat and Charlotte had explained to us about vipassana meditation, a form that originated with Buddha. In vipassana, the meditator focuses on the breath, and in this way, hopefully, begins to quiet the mind.

I inhale. I exhale. I begin thinking about the heater. I see an image of my house. I think about a story I am writing. My neck hurts and I think of that. Already I have forgotten my breath. I try again. Inhale. Exhale.

The bench is hard. My feet are cold. My back hurts. Forty-five minutes is a very long time. When Pat rings the tingsha bells, we straighten up, put on our boots, open the door, listen to it creak, head out into the night.

It is time now for a walking meditation. This is not a hike, Pat had told us earlier. We have no destination. Focus on the movement of your legs, she said. Walk slowly. Be mindful of the way your hip feels.

Some of us head down the sidewalk, some up. We don't make eye contact. We move slowly. We look like "The Night of the Living Dead."

We go back inside. We sit again. In silence we walk to the bathrooms, brush our teeth, walk back.

I can't sleep. I lie awake and think about not sleeping. I think about the three days of meditations that lie ahead of me. I do some calculations. Ten hours of meditation a day. Thirty more hours of meditating till Monday morning, when we will break the silence. I am already sick of my own brain, which gets louder the more I try to keep it quiet.

I make a decision: in the morning I will simply explain that I have a sore throat. Then I'll drive home. On my walking meditations I have glided by my car. I know it is still there.

And then I remember what Charlotte told us that first afternoon. "I spent the first 10 days of my first 30-day retreat plotting ways to escape."

In the morning I want to whine, get some sympathy, make a joke about why I must look as if I haven't slept. Instead I trudge through the dark, trying not to slip on black ice. I brush my teeth. I come back to the cabin and eat an orange. I listen to myself chew. I arrange myself on the meditation bench. I inhale.

Charlotte reads to us from "West With the Night" by Beryl Markham, an aviatrix in the 1930s.

"You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness. If you read a book or shuffle a deck of cards or care for a dog, you are avoiding yourself. The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all. . . .

"Being alone in an aeroplane for even so short a time as a night and a day, irrevocably alone, with nothing to observe but your instruments and your own hands in the semi-darkness, nothing to contemplate but the size of your small courage, nothing to wonder about but the beliefs, the faces and the hopes rooted in your mind - such an experience can be as startling as the first awareness of a stranger walking by your side at night. You are the stranger."

The days are gray and sloppy. I listen to the sound of water dripping everywhere. I watch water escape down a steep road, forming little puddles and racing forward.

At mealtime, we eat without talking. We chew and savor and look at our food.

Outside, I try to move as slowly as I can, mindful of each muscle, each rise and fall. I think about my father, who is now recovering from a stroke, learning with repetition and perplexity how to walk again, training his brain to do something familiar and yet foreign.

After a couple of days I can't remember if it is Saturday or Sunday. We are only two or three bends in a canyon road from the lights of the Salt Lake Valley, but how can we even know it's still there? How do I know my family is OK? What if something is wrong and they tried to call Charlotte's answering machine but she doesn't check her messages?

At the next sitting meditation I suddenly think of something I haven't thought of in years. When I was 13, a new family moved into the house next door. The next summer, the father committed suicide. Don't mention it when you talk to his children, my mother told me. I let this thought drift away.

Later, on the walking meditation, I see a runner with long strides moving up the canyon road. Help me!, I want to yell. But I also wonder why he is moving so fast.

Although it may not seem like it now, says Pat, no one has ever died on the bench.

The bench is our friend. We are learning to be mindful in everything we do. We are learning to watch our thoughts and let them go. We are learning to face our doubts and our restlessness and the fact that we may never be able to straighten our legs again.

"Once you get used to sitting in your skin," Pat tells us, "you get to stay in your skin no matter where you are: in your car, making love, talking to your children." By sitting on the bench, she says, "you're saying `I'm here, not there.' "

Most people, Pat tells us, have no idea how much their minds wander. We have no idea how much time we spend unaware of the very moment we are living in, how much time we spend running away.

We cling to the way we want things to be.

But if we sit long enough, perhaps, we will come to a place not only of relaxation but of equanimity, "an unstoppable balance of mind," as American Buddhist Sharon Salzberg puts it. We may realize that our lives are an endless careening back and forth between joy and suffering, gain and loss, praise and blame.

We will, perhaps, come to see that everything flows. That suffering, like winter, is simply another season.

Monday morning dawns as we are sitting on our benches. It is dark when we close our eyes and light when we open them again.

And now we can talk.

We are tentative at first, but then the words won't stop. We are all euphoric. We have done nothing and have survived.

After breakfast I drive back down to the valley. I turn the steering wheel slowly. I think about turning the radio on but decide I want silence. I ease up to stop signs. I float.

Now it is nearly three weeks since the retreat. I am trying to remember what it felt like to walk slowly, snow falling gently on pines, my world reduced to steps and breath. Maybe it was a place where there were clues and answers, although it's getting harder and harder to remember for sure.

Yesterday I saw a spider in my sink and did not kill it. Today I had a phone conversation and read a letter at the same time.

In the evenings I visit my father at the skilled care facility. We do not want to call it a nursing home. We talk about when he will get out. Sometimes we practice walking, my dad pushing the metal walker a few inches forward, me moving slowly behind. We sit together and do the crossword puzzle.

Pat Matthews and Charlotte Bell will hold a second silence retreat March 26--30 at Camp Kostopulos.