Spending those first 72 hours in silence seemed like a daunting and ridiculous idea. But my dear, introverted friend suggested that sustained silence might be more difficult for extroverts than introverts. This novel perspective compelled me to register for my first silent retreat, from a Thursday to Sunday at the end of one chilly March. In a small town in northern Michigan, I met the woman who became my interspiritual guide for many years beyond that first retreat. Silence would be the seed that influenced my life-long attention to the contemplative life.
During the first evening, thirty retreatants sat in a circle to set intentions and learn the ground rules. “What do you want the silence to do for you?” That was one of our first questions. I naively imagined that I’d take time to consider my entire life up to this point. My contemplation would consist of asking questions of myself, seeking answers, interpreting experiences. All in 72 ordinary hours.
After my first nap, it was time for dinner. The retreatants and I entered the dining room, took a food tray and all the necessary utensils, and walked through a buffet line. Celtic harp and hammered dulcimer music was playing on the speakers, and no one was talking, asking questions, or processing. Three or four of us sat around a round table and ate our meal in silence. I heard forks scraping on teeth, knives clinking on the plates, shoes rustling underneath the tables, and my own inner chatter. Everyone seemed quite focused on their meal, but my eyes were wandering around the room to see what people were doing. How they were doing. Why they were doing. I chewed my food slowly and began to notice and savor how the flavors of the chicken and vegetables and rice all tasted together. While grazing, my eyes continued to gaze around the room for a shared glance, a sign that I was not alone. When I finished, I went back to the buffet line for a piece of chocolate cake. After I ate that, I went back up to get a cup of tea. Anything to pass the time. Twenty protracted minutes went by, and I made my way to my room. I was feeling satisfied. Yet exceptionally lonesome.
As it turns out, I made it through those first of many several day periods of continual silence. During my extended weekend, I spent a lot of time in my cell of a room. I tested my span of focused concentration while seated on the floor with its thin, brown carpet, I lay on the twin bed with my long legs dangling off the end, and I rested on the sumptuously cushioned recliner from the 1ate 1970s. Stories from growing up surfaced that were previously forgotten. I made peace with some of them through tears. Some memories I saved to contemplate later, or perhaps I waited until the next extended period of silence. It took some time, but I began to experience solitude for the first time. The memories that emerged became an instrument for further introspection, and for the first time I began to see that my fears may have been getting in the way of me listening to life’s signs that were pointing the way.
Jeanette Banashak, PhD, EdD.
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Deepening the understanding, practice and importance of spiritual companionship across traditions.
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