Why Being Silent with 46 Strangers Was the Weirdest (and Best) Vacation I Took All Year

The gorgeous grounds of the Won Dharma Center.

“Big, big booty. What you got a big booty.” I’d been sitting on a meditation cushion trying to calm my mind for 20 minutes, but instead my brain was playing Jennifer Lopez’s “Booty” nonstop. It was just part of a parade of pop songs and deodorant jingles that were jumping around in my mind. So much for enlightenment. In frustration, I snapped my eyes open and stared out into the meditation hall, a beautiful space flooded with natural light -- and holding square cushions topped with 46 other students, all strangers. We were joined together in this room by one goal: To live in silence for the next few days in an attempt to quiet the mind and focus on the inner self.

The rules were as follows: no Internet or phones, no books or magazines, no journaling or writing -- and no speaking or eye contact. In its place, we were doing meditation, meditation, and more meditation -- never uttering a peep. This is how I chose to spend my vacation days, I’d periodically remind myself. (Or occasionally question, “This is how I chose to spend my vacation days?!”) I had voluntarily -- in fact, eagerly -- signed on to share space with 46 mute strangers, looking for a hard reboot of my inner peace.

Silence Is Golden – and So Are the Leaves.

My retreat took place at the Won Dharma Center, out in woodsy Hudson, New York. When it's not hosting retreats like mine, the center operates as a place of meditation and Buddhist study, and the setting is well-suited for it. It’s a place that feels both miles and decades away from the harried pace of New York City, my home for decades now. Our teachers, Josh Korda and Melissa McKay, also came up from the city. They are part of the Dharma Punx NYC group that hosts regular meditation classes in the city and multiple retreats throughout the year in places like Won.

It’s fair to say that I could have been on a retreat to practice knitting or learn tightrope walking and I might have found the trip just as peaceful for the setting alone. The complex is a set of buildings with such simple geometry that they are in total harmony with nature. Their floor-to-ceiling windows and blond wood beams perfectly frame the countryside.  

The New England foliage during my retreat was the stuff of postcards: A sweeping panorama of trees that went from lemon yellow to rich red. At one point, a bluebird looped around the branches, landing perfectly in the center of the tableau, and I thought, “OK, nature, now you’re just showing off.” (I should mention this is coming from a hardened urbanite who spent her teenage years loudly voicing the opinion, “Nature is dumb.”) The woodland beauty was undeniable.

In the retreat's slow and silent days, there was endless time to watch the sun rise and set just beyond the rolling hills. It was the perfect place for quiet reflection, and I was grateful to be in the moment without distractions -- even a conversation or a book -- that would take me away from it.

So Why Meditation?

There's no such thing as pillow talk in the meditation hall.

“Meditation” and “mindfulness” have become the buzzwords du jour, but I entered into this retreat a bit of a meditation skeptic. I’d always loved my effervescent mind and the way my thoughts -- both silly and profound -- would bubble up. Why would I want to cool the jets on my playful brain that comes up with new lyrics to “Suit and Tie” to the tune of “Pastrami and Rye”?

Trouble is, like most people, my mind isn’t always an ally.  Many times, during the retreat and in daily life, I’d find myself replaying painful moments from previous breakups, work dramas, deep grief, or mundane frustrations -- “I’m SURE I told the barista at Starbucks ‘UNSWEETENED’!” -- and I’d be lost in them. As Korda said at one lecture, “Thoughts are kidnappers. They can present themselves as a friend, but then they throw a hood over you and drag you off to another place.” If you’ve ever replayed a particularly painful thought again and again, then you know what it is to be a hostage to your thoughts.

Meditation offers a way to slowly undo these well-worn paths in the brain and find relief and release instead. Note that like yoga, there are several different schools of practice: Zen, vipassana, etc. Newbie meditators might appreciate sampling a few different styles and teachers before settling on a method they believe works best for them. I like to think of it in terms of exercise: There are a lot of ways to break a sweat, so it helps to know what works for you so you’ll stick with it. My retreat was a bit of a sampler platter of meditation styles: metta, vipassana, R.A.I.N...and we did both walking and sitting meditation, too. It’s also worth noting that meditation can be practiced by anyone. It’s not tied to one religion or belief system, so it’s for the monk and the atheist alike.

And Why Silence?

Enforced silence can sound a bit harsh, but it’s a chance to turn off outside chatter. As McKay put it, going into “noble silence” is like “a humming refrigerator. When it finally switches off, you feel a sense of relief.” Much like a refrigerator, outside chatter can be a small but steady source of stress that you don’t even notice until the irritation is removed.

The lack of eye contact can also sound rude, but again, it’s meant to offer relief. “It frees you from having to ‘be’ someone for others,” McKay said.  Even those nonverbal ways we have of putting on a persona can take us away from ourselves. As one yoga instructor on retreat admitted, “I have to turn it on for my students every day. It’s a relief to be here and feel like I don’t have to be anything to anyone here.”

For the most part, I was happy to be free of the social drama that usually accompanies these group situations: Would I make friends? Who would I sit with at dinner? Would I run out of small talk with my roommate? Thanks to our silence, none of this ever entered the picture. At lectures, I could simply listen to the lessons without wondering if I should sit next to this person or that. In meals, my focus could be entirely on the delicious Korean food served by the staff versus making conversation. I was able to have my own experiences instead of clouding them with the reactions of others.

My So-Called Monk Life

No walking and talking on these meditative hikes.

The center offered a range of accommodations during the silence retreat, from dormitory-style rooms to private singles. I opted for a double that I shared with a roommate. Despite the gorgeous setting and the beauty of the buildings, rooms were quite modest. Mine housed a pair of platform twin beds with matching nightstands, a closet, and a sink. (Full bathrooms with showers were in the hall.) Needless to say, we’re not talking Egyptian cotton sheets here. But I found the rooms cozy in their own sparse way.

My days unfolded like this: Before dawn, I’d stumble out of bed, throw on clothes, and shuffle across the grounds to the meditation hall for 30 minutes of meditation as the sun came up. After that, breakfast was served in the dining hall, consumed in silence. Then the rest of the day would unfold in an alternating pattern of sitting and walking meditation, sandwiched between lunch and dinner, with a few pockets of free time after meals. In the evening, we would gather for a lecture on the philosophy of meditation, and do one final sitting meditation before bed. Both the lodging and the schedule felt like trying on the life of a Buddhist monk for a few days.

The rhythm of the day had its own pace: Active but unrushed. Was there boredom? Absolutely! (“To be a Buddhist is to be bored,” Korda joked one night.) But in many ways that was the point. Without our usual distractions, we could only turn inward.

The Not-So-Peaceful Parts

Lest you think my retreat experience was nothing but (some boredom and) Nirvana, I should confess to a few struggles with the silence. My main struggle was with my roommate. When we were alone, just the two of us in our room, our silence almost seemed hostile. We’d shuffle around each other to brush our teeth or put on pajamas, never making eye contact. It occurred to me the only time I’ve ever experience this kind of silence with another person in such close quarters is when I was getting an intentional “cold shoulder." After the retreat ended and we were free to speak, my roommate and I bonded over the fact that we both felt being silent with each other was the hardest part of the weekend. The closer the intimacy, we found, the harder it is to remain quiet.

Another level of oddness was that there was one person on the grounds who wasn’t a stranger to me: My husband was off on his own retreat, bunking in a male dormitory. Occasionally I’d see him across the grounds and long to chat with him. But we had each committed to our silence, and interacting with him would have betrayed the point of the retreat. I wasn’t the only one who struggled with this. Later, another retreat newbie said, “I came here with a friend, and I’d see her around the grounds. But we couldn’t talk to each other, and I really struggled with keeping my distance.”

Enlightenment? Nope. Peacefulness? Definitely.

A vacation from mental chatter.

Somewhere around day three, I had an epiphany about the retreat. Even if I suck at meditation (and I do), and even if I don’t have any big spiritual awakenings (and I didn’t), I can still enjoy this stillness, this quiet. And with that, I was able to stop judging myself every time J. Lo crashed my meditation party.

As the days rolled on, my thoughts didn’t slow, but I developed a calm acceptance around them, and I wouldn’t latch onto them as quickly. In other words, they couldn’t kidnap me and take me away as easily. By the end of the retreat, I felt a prolonged peacefulness, the sort that you get when looking at lapping ocean waves, and this feeling sustained for hours.

Surprisingly, when we broke silence, I wasn’t dying to rejoin the land of the verbal. I was even a little reluctant to jump back into all the chitchat of daily life. I wanted to stay in what McKay called “ultra reality,” an awareness that comes only when we shut off everything but our present, physical reality. Visiting that place was the true destination of my vacation, and I’m already plotting my next trip back.

Wanna Try a Silent Retreat?

Two of the biggest names in holistic retreats are Kripalu and Omega, and they both regularly offer silent retreats. Accommodations can be luxe, and the price tag reflects that. Several retreats take place in destinations far more exotic (Ala Kukui hosts silent retreats in Hawaii, for example). But smaller outfits, such as Dharma Punx, host retreats that are far more affordable with fewer frills. If that sounds more appealing to you, try a local meditation class and inquire if the group host retreats. 

And it’s worth mentioning that not all silent retreats are meditation-focused. Several religious organizations host their own silent retreats to gather for prayer and communion with God, which offers another focus for your silence.  

All photos courtesy of the Won Dharma Center.

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