During my phone interview before the five-day silent mindfulness retreat, I asked the teacher if anyone had ever lost her mind. She laughed and said no, as if no one had ever asked that question before. This was worrisome. Obviously, she had never spent time alone with my brain. It wasn't so much the not talking, although I am a talker and I do love to elicit people's stories from them—it was the being aware of my own thoughts for five days that sincerely scared the hell out of me.
I'd discovered meditation after my husband's terminal cancer diagnosis. Six months after his death, I took an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course with the same organization hosting the retreat. In fact, it was a prerequisite. And yet, I wasn't sure I could survive five days of meditating with 40 other people in silence. I told myself that I could always leave. It's not like I was in a foreign land and they'd confiscated my passport.
It was recommended that we turn off our phones throughout the retreat, that we not call or text people, so we stayed in a mindful state, not breaking our silence. I gave my sister who was watching my kids the name and phone number of the retreat facility. When I arrived in my dorm room, I checked my emails, texts, calls and Facebook, and then I put my phone in airplane mode and got ready to go to the main house. As I was leaving, I automatically went to pick up my phone; I never leave home without it. But what was the point? I put it down and left feeling incomplete.
We gathered in a large room with wooden floors and windows that looked out onto the lush grounds. The majority of people there were women like me: middle-aged. Some had been doing these retreats for years; others were new, too. Perhaps I wasn't so original in my newfound interest. I wondered what had brought them here, even as I tried not to have any expectations for myself.
Each day, we met in the morning and started the day with yoga, then our teachers would give us some guidance before we meditated for 30-40 minutes. We would do mindful walking around the first floor of the building, we would meditate again, do yoga and then eat. This was the cycle of our days. And each day, I turned off my alarm in the morning and held my phone in my hand momentarily until I realized that it had served its only purpose for the day.
It was ridiculously hard. There were times I cried through sitting meditation. One afternoon, I found myself craving radish toast, an appetizer my husband used to make. As we broke for lunch, I realized I was hugging myself, an infant self-soothing. Seriously? Crying over radish toast? I was losing my mind, and no one was stopping me. Afterward, I walked the grounds before joining the others for lunch. No one followed me, no one consoled me, and I was left on my own. As was everyone else. Throughout our teachers reminded us that our silence was a gift not only to ourselves but to other people too, who had come for their own experiences.
On the third night, I awoke in the middle of the night with a headache that originated in my neck, wound up the side of my head and ended with the sensation that someone was squeezing the hell out of my eyeball. I was nauseated with pain. Somehow I'd forgotten to pack any painkillers. Turned out I was indeed a stranger in a strange land held captive, as I couldn't drive to a pharmacy, and if I could have left at that point, I would have gone home.
This retreat wasn't working out the way I expected, even though I'd explicitly told myself not to have any expectations. I wanted something out of it. Why would I sign up for this torture, if I wasn't going to get something out of it? What I wanted was to have a clear idea of what my next step in life was. I was now the only parent of two children. For the last ten years, I'd been a caregiver for my in-laws and husband, but who was I now that no one was dying?
Later, at breakfast I broke silence and whispered to a couple, "Advil?" Thankfully, she was carrying.
It wasn't until the last day, when we were finally free to talk, that the benefits of silence became clear. As people told their life stories, the ones they always tell on first meeting, and gave their impressions of the retreat, I found it overwhelming, even jarring. I realized that for five days, no one knew my story and I was glad. I'd experienced these meditations, stretches, meals and thoughts without the influence of anyone else's experiences. Plus, I hadn't had to analyze my experience to explain it to others.
When I turned on my phone, I saw I'd missed nothing. Normally, I start my day phone in hand with other people's thoughts filling my head—what I should buy, what I should be afraid of, who I should vote for and whether I love people enough to cut and paste a post—before my feet touch the floor. There were no calls, no texts, no urgent emails. Planet Earth had kept spinning quite nicely without me checking in.
At the end of the retreat, I still didn't know my next step. I hadn't lost my mind. I'd found it. It was noisy, restless and a bit scary, but it was mine. As I start the second half of my life—my life as a widow, as a single mom—I'm no longer afraid to know my own mind.