I just got back from my first meditation retreat, at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center. If you’re not familiar with meditation retreats, they are an experience where you go to a secluded place for a while–in this case 3 days–and spend the entire time meditating. With no talking, no electronics, no reading or writing material of any kind. Just you, and yourself, for 15 hours a day.
I’ve wanted to do this for a while, because the science shows that the lifetime benefits of continued meditation practice are even more correlated to time spent on retreat than they are with daily practice. Also other reasons, but mostly science.
The experience was many things. Amazing, bizarre, challenging, effortless. It was too short, and also I couldn’t wait to come home. I plan on scheduling a longer retreat as soon as I can, and also I don’t know why I anyone would do this to themselves. It’s hard to describe what the retreat was like in a substantive way. This kind of thing is extraordinarily experiential. More than almost anything else a person can do, I think. Because all of the practical details are just there to make room for the more rarefied stuff.
I could describe the tangible features of the experience, and I plan to do that in a subsequent post. But I had a specific experience while I was there that captures the surreal feeling of the whole endeavor. It involves a bell.
I pulled into the parking lot at Cloud Mountain, and my chest was full of that feeling that includes discomfort, excitement, and the almost-comfortable confusion that comes when you’re in an unfamiliar environment and you have a rock-solid excuse to not know what the hell you’re doing. I followed various signs to drop off my things, I wandered aimlessly for a bit, and finally I found the registration room. Which was also the dining hall.
I entered a door to find several tables full of women and various forms. They were very friendly, and each one walked me through their part of the process, told me what I needed to fill out and what I need to know, and then passed me onto the next woman. I got my room assignment, signed up for my “working meditation” (which means the chore I had to do; I chose chopping vegetables over any of the cleaning tasks, because duh), and got a map of the grounds. There was a building called “Mist Haven.” I was instantly enchanted.
The last woman, Diane, helped me with my chore assignment, then passed me a slip of paper with various times on it and slots next to the times. Most of the slots had a person’s name written in. I looked down at the paper, then up at the Diane.
“There are a few times here for bell ringer,” she said. Then she stared at me. I expected her to keep talking, but she didn’t. Apparently she thought that sentence she just said was somehow a complete explanation.
“What does that entail?” I asked, after what I’m fairly confident was 25 minutes of awkward silence.
“It’s to ring the bell to call people to meetings,” she said. “Here are the times available.”
Almost all of them were filled. The only open slots were 6:20 AM, and 6:00 AM. Next to 6 it said “Wake up bell.”
I laughed. “I guess no one wanted to do the morning.” I started to fill out the 6:20 slot.
“Yeah, no one wants to do the early morning,” said Diane.
I paused. I was here. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it. I filled out the 6:00 AM slot.
“There’s a training this evening after dinner,” Diane told me. “You meet up at the big temple bell and they’ll show you how to do it.”
“Actually, the wake up is a hand bell,” said another woman. “You take the bell and walk around.”
“Oh?” I asked.
“Yes. The bell is in Diamond Hall, on top of the shoe rack? And the instructions are there. You can take the bell and the instructions to your room. Feel free to come back here and ask us if you have any questions. And thank you so much for volunteering to do this.
She really emphasized the “so much.” As in, “Thank you for your sacrifice.” What the hell had I gotten myself into?
“No problem,” I said.
I found the bell easily enough. It was a small hand bell, the kind someone might walk around ringing in Victorian London to let people know about an upcoming event. Which made sense. I also found the instructions. They managed to fit them all on one page.
I took them back to my room and read the card over and over. My job, it turned out, was to wake up before everyone else, then tour the entire grounds, walk into each of the residential buildings, and ring the bell outside of everyone’s rooms in an attempt to wrest them aggressively from their peaceful repose. Hopefully, no one brought any rotten fruit to throw. Or if they did, I’d be able to run away quickly enough.
The instructions also had a suggested route, and most of the buildings listed in the instructions were on the map. Most of them. I had to find out about the other ones. Also, I had no idea how long this would take, so I had to do a practice run. Anything I had questions about I had to figure out before this evening, because that’s when the silence began.
I need to explain about the silence. This retreat, like most of them, is held in Noble Silence. That’s a translation of what I assume is a much cooler word in Pali or Sanskrit. The way that vipassana is more beautiful than “insight.” Or saying that the first Noble Truth is Buddhism is “life is dukkha” is much more nuanced and interesting than the usual translation, “life is suffering,” which just makes the Buddha sound super emo.
In practical terms, it means that no one talks for the entire retreat. The teacher talks to give lessons, but the practitioners do not unless it’s completely necessary. I was looking forward to the silence and it did not sound difficult, despite how hilarious the idea of me not talking for 3 days probably sound to my friends. But I will admit that I thought that the silence was an incidental feature of the retreat. Like the vegetarian menu and the Buddha statues, something that is part of the spiritual tradition but not vital to the mechanics of the meditation practice itself. I was completely wrong.
The teacher explained on the first day that the silence is the most important support structure built into the retreat to assist in the practice. This is because–and these are my own words based on her explanation–the silence makes it so the retreat is not a social activity. It’s a group activity. Normally those are the same thing because humans are so social. And we can still be sociable in silence. But Noble Silence takes away the social element.
Let me explain. Normally in a group, we put a lot of time and effort into other people. Into the way we come off, into following social norms, into assisting others or definite our relationships to them. Silence takes all of that away, or at least most of it.
Here is an example. When we sat down the next morning, and the teacher sat in front of us, she looked out and said, “Good morning.” This is common for the start of a class. Normally, when a teacher says that, there is an expectation of response, and that creates a host of complexities. Maybe you don’t want to respond because you’re tired but you feel obligated to anyway. There might be some resentment there. Maybe the class half-half-heartedly responds, and you feel sorry for the teacher.
Also, is that an indication that this is going to be a low-energy group? Is the teacher about to be one of those people who says, “I can’t hear you!” and then everyone has to shout? Is that the miniature hell we’re about to be subjected to? But with silence, there is absolutely no expectation of a response, from you or anyone else. She says good morning, and that is as far as it goes. You can respond how you will on the inside, but that’s as far as it goes. It is yours and yours alone, and you owe nothing to anyone but yourself. Noble Silence is very, very important.
It also meant that anything I needed to ask, I needed to do it before the silence. So I did that, and I felt reasonably confident. After the evening practice, I went to my room, set my little digital clock, and tried to go to sleep. It didn’t work. I knew this would be my biggest struggle.
I felt coming in that I could meditate and do nothing else for 15 hours a day, but fall asleep without an audio book or a TV show to listen to, the way a normal person does? What do I look like, Spider-man? Oh…really? Well, thank you, that is a very flattering and justified comparison, but I assure you, I’m only a man. Specifically, a man with ADD who hasn’t fallen asleep without the aid of electronic narrative for something like 19 years. Not once. I’ve tried it a few times. A few nights of sleeplessness and misery.
But I had no choice. I did fall asleep at about 9:30, almost immediately. For 20 minutes. Then I woke up with the energy of a toddler whose DNA was spliced with that of a ferret. I tried to go back to sleep. I went for a walk in the dark, I went to the dining cabin and had some toast and peppermint tea. I lay in bed for an hour. Then another. During the third hour I tried to run through the soundtrack of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer musical episode in my head, but it made me too depressed. Then I tried Steven Universe songs, which was better, but I got stuck after Strong In The Real Way I couldn’t remember what came next. I felt grateful that I hadn’t bought a phone charger. If I had, I might have plugged my phone in and cheated my way to the ecstasy of unconsciousness.
I did, eventually, fall asleep some hours later. I woke up every hour after that. Finally, my alarm went off. Most people at the retreat didn’t need to set an alarm. But I did, because of that damn bell. I woke up and immediately turned off the alarm so I wouldn’t disturb my neighbors. I got a single room–one of few–but the walls were thin. I looked over at the clock.
This was it. Time to get up. Time to walk outside in the dark, head towards every other person’s room, and clang my bell outside their door. I walked to the window and opened the blinds. It was black outside. There were some lights on, but nothing like what I was used to in a city. There was nothing to indicate that it wasn’t still the middle of the night. Nothing at all. I looked back at the clock.
All I had to go by was that tiny digital clock. The one my wife dug out of some recess in the archaeological dig site that is our house. The clock that probably dated from the Carter administration, and might well be full of vacuum tubes. What the hell was I thinking? I couldn’t clang people awake solely on the word of this thing. It didn’t ping any cell towers. It wasn’t verifying the time with any cesium-based atomic clock in Virginia. No, I couldn’t trust it. So I did what I had to do. I turned on my phone.
It had power, but I didn’t want it to die before the end of the trip. I also didn’t want to check my email, or even know if I had any text messages. I would just power it on, look at the time, then shut it off. I waited as the Samsung logo lit into being. Hopefully no one would be able to hear it. That would be embarrassing. I watched, and I waited, and finally it came on and I saw the time.
I paused. That couldn’t be right. I looked again.
I looked back at my digital clock.
What the hell was happening? I looked at the cell phone again. Its answer didn’t change. I knew that my clock had been right the previous evening. Had I changed it unknowingly in the night? I took a deep breath. I was exhausted, in an unfamiliar environment, and I could barely think straight. What was going on here.
Then it struck me. Was this a Daylight Savings Time thing? Was last night Daylight Savings Time? I never know when it is. It was fall. The end of September. That could have been daylight savings, right? God damn that stupid phenomenon! No one ever knows when it is, so it’s distinctly possible it passed me by. Maybe everyone else knew and didn’t think to mention it? Or, no, everyone always seems to realize it just before bed time. So maybe it occurred to people, but they couldn’t spread the word because we were already in Silence. Dammit, was that it?
Not for the first time, it occurred to me that this retreat would be a fantastic setting for a slasher movie. The twisted paths through the old forests. The patches of light at night that created tiny islands of illumination amidst the pervasive darkness. It could see it now.
The killer would roam the grounds, murdering meditators and covering them in foliage and prayer beads in a sick imitation of the local shrines. Revenge, no doubt, for his apparent death when he attended the center years ago, due to a prank involving a Buddha statue and a vat of overcooked millet. A prank that went horribly, horribly wrong. Only in the version of the movie that occurs to me right now, none of the victims scream as they’re being murdered, and no one who finds the bodies tells anyone. None of them want to disrespect the Noble Silence.
Then I realized that I was holding my smartphone in my hand, and I could look up when daylight savings time occurred in two seconds. So I did. It’s happening in November. I looked back at my clock. It would have been very easy to set the time an hour forward during the night. It took one button press. I turned off my phone. Apparently I had another hour before I needed to get up.
Jesus Christ. I had come very close to wandering every residential hall and ringing my damn bell an hour earlier than I was supposed to. What would have happened? Would everyone have showed up to the morning sit an hour early? They would have been confused. But these people took the silence seriously. Would they have discussed it? That would have been a disaster. Enough so that I still didn’t trust my sources. I had an hour to kill and a 0% chance of falling back asleep. I decided to walk to the dining hall and check. They had a clock. It confirmed what I phone told me.
So an hour later, I gathered my bell, and set off on my route. It felt very weird. Darkness still blanketed the sky. Dawn hadn’t yet arrived. It didn’t feel like 6 o’clock, whatever that means.
I trudged up the paths towards the first hall, climbed the stairs, and walked through the door. It was black. I’d seen people in this hall and in these rooms the day before, but now there was no evidence anyone was awake. No evidence anyone had ever been there. I’d hoped someone would be around, or their light would be on. No such luck. So I took a breath, and did my job.
It went fine after that, although it didn’t stop feeling strange. I walked all around, ringing my bell outside of everyone’s door. I tried to hold it with the bell upright at first, and it didn’t sound right. Eventually, I figured out I should grip it handle-up, like a dinner bell. I ran into someone coming out of their hall a little later. That made me feel better.
I got back to my room and checked the time on my clock.
The whole thing had taken be six minutes. Well, I wanted to be fast. Wake up time was supposed to be 6, not 6:15, after all. Still, part of me didn’t trust my assessment of the time. So I lay there, in nervous silence. Until the temple bell resounded throughout the grounds. It was supposed to happen at 6:20. The ringer was a little late. They rang the bell at 6:22. Amateurs.
Later on, I sat down on my cushion to meditate with everyone else. As strange as that experience had been, it wasn’t until that moment that it fully struck me how bizarre it was. Because I couldn’t do, right then, what I would normally do in a situation like this.
I couldn’t tell anyone. These people had very nearly had a strange, confusing, and likely unsettling morning. It might have disrupted the tone for the entire retreat. Maybe some of them, already anxious from the challenges of the retreat itself, would have go into full blown panic and never recovered because the reliable routine had lost all trust and descended into chaos. That had almost happened. I had almost done that.
And none of them, not a single person to whom it was relevant, would ever know. It wouldn’t be a funny story I could share. A way to bond, a way to mark myself in their memory. Those are my tricks. That’s what I do. But not this time. This experience, what was, what could have happened, and what would never be, they were for me alone.
On the third day of the retreat, a fog descended onto Cloud Mountain, and shrouded the entire grounds in mist. On the walk back to my room after breakfast, I looked up, and the sight took the breath from my lungs.
The trees–towering maples and even taller Douglas firs–stretched into the sky. The kind of moss that only grows in old forests clung to their branches, and billows of mist clung to the moss, as if it, too, was growing out of the wood. Rain pattered down, but the forest canopy let none of it through. That water belonged to the trees, and they chose not to share. It was the world, singing softly to the earth, as I stood upon it.
I wanted to stop the other people as they walk by, and tell them how beautiful I thought it was. I wanted to do this so I could share it with them, because maybe they hadn’t noticed. I wanted to do this so they could know how beauty affects me. I wanted to do this just to express what I felt to another. Maybe I had all of these reasons, or none of them.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t and so it didn’t matter. In that moment, I felt connected to the world, but at the same time, all that mattered was inside of me. The entire world was inside of me, and I was inside of it. Just like the morning bell and the hour that never was, this, too, belonged to me.
And to me alone.