Sound of Silence

How does one put the experience of a weeklong silent retreat into words? That’s an obvious opener, I know, but it’s true; this week of my life is almost too sacred to describe. I had been wanting to try a silent retreat for quite some time now. Wanting to ride the waves of going deeper within, wanting to not need to speak so as to discover communication in other forms, wanting to prove the yenta chatterbox in me could do it (others had doubts, I did not), wanting to sit and marinate amongst all my inner turbulence which is unavoidable on the quest for bursts of calm. Forcing the insufferable stream of loudness that tackles our mental state, often when we are at our least suspecting, to just shut up already. I wanted to be in a situation in which I did not drag cumbersome, destructive themes that I’ve worked so hard to discard. I wanted to try something new and unfamiliar, a fresh theme which has indeed proven itself wonderful and is therefore welcome to stick around. I just wanted to go and I didn’t overthink my reasons until just now. I can be impulsive but I can also be deeply intuitive. I have learned to discern, and this was clearly an intuition. I did no research, as is often my way. When it feels right I don’t question. There are many places near me that offer silent retreats, but I landed in this particular gin joint after googling Tibetan physicians in New York, for someone very close to me who is ill. The stream of the internet floated me to the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. They were offering a weeklong silent retreat in Garrison, New York at an ancient monastery now known as The Garrison Institute. The retreat was called Sesshin. At first I thought this was a funky way to spell “session”, kind of like how the Kardashians spell everything with a K. I later learned that “Sesshin” means “touching your heart”, which made a lot more sense. Click, register, done. This decision was mostly based on the fact that the dates seemed to work and it was close by.

I briefly glanced at the teachers running the retreat just to give me some kind of visual. I noticed they all bore the title Sensei and that the head Sensei was a woman who looked about 70. I was intrigued by that alone. Her last name was Friedman; instant homie. Fun fact: “Friedman” is a common Jewish surname that means “free man” in Yiddish. I choose to apply symbolism here. Having been consumed with DJing, my son’s bar mitzvah, then getting my kids packed and ready for camp, I had no time (nor need) to further look into this. My honest plan was to just flow with whatever. I cannot explain how liberating it is to have achieved such a new level of adaptability. I was never a terrible control freak, but I distinctly remember a few years where I was internally unhappy (I was not aware of this), and so the need to micromanage my surroundings was a textbook means of illusionary safety. God, the things we must control when we are internally all over the place. It’s a cliche for a reason. Our ability to adapt is housed in the second chakra and relates to the element of water. As I keep digging through my inner reservoirs, be they of love or fear, my ability to adapt keeps expanding. It’s lovely and freeing. It just feels very nice to trust yourself and the Universe, and to know you are going where you need to be and that you will be just fine, even if you don’t like it. The only question we need to ask is really whether or not we trust in all the factors and lessons that each individual moment contains. If we do, all other details seem to evaporate. They don’t contain nearly as much importance as we have been trained to believe. If we let details outside ourselves control our lives then we’re screwed.

It was interesting to me how various groups of friends reacted to this trip of mine. My DJ friends were intrigued but thought it was cool (creatives are open minded), my spiritual community peeps were so excited and knew I’d love it since they do this all the time, and my Jewish friends were baffled and horrified. Was I going with someone?? Can you really not talk for a WHOLE WEEK?? What if you hate it, will you leave?? I’ve never heard of this, it’s just too crazy. I could never! Can you text?? What is the food/room/crowd going to be like?? I just laughingly rolled with these reactions as well, having expected them. My close friends didn’t necessarily understand the appeal but unwaveringly support me in all I do. They were more of the “not for me but go for it” ilk, which is one of the bedrocks of true friendship. Ok, so I get there on a Friday afternoon, committed to walking in there unattached to roles. That’s one of the beautiful parts of a silent retreat with a group of strangers; the details and facts of our lives are unimportant. Married, divorced, kids, gay, brilliant, fat, old, young, attractive, poor. All irrelevant. It’s incredible how much easier it can be to connect to a fellow human being without all of that being in the way. Connection and the human desire and need to do so is simple. It’s we who complicate that. The goal of the retreat, in addition to inner self work, was that we were 65 people who moved as one being. We all had the same schedule that began at wake up with a gong at 5:30. We had to walk, sit, eat, chant, bow, meditate, and do work duty as a unified force. The symbolism of all of this was very moving. No one seemed to have a problem with it. It was profoundly emotional to drop so quickly into the concept that all beings are One. We are whole as individuals, yet also complete as a single entity. One is the number that gives rise to all others. It is the most powerful numeral though it’s just the first. Each one of us mattered, yet we were the sum and not the parts. I was brought to tears multiple times throughout the day when I thought about this. I still am.

Once during work time when a group of us was assigned to dust and sweep, a woman asked for permission to speak. She said she felt as if her heart would burst, just sweeping in perfect harmony with someone she never met. She articulated this so beautifully, and the rest of us were so moved. She even described her sweeping partner as her sister. They didn’t even know each other’s names. It was just a lovely sentiment that described what this experience is meant to feel like. Even Daishi (Deb Schwartz, naturally), our strict but loving camp counselor for the week, was clearly so touched by this brief break in silence. When I arrived at Garrison, which looks exactly like Hogwarts, I barreled in there like the typical well meaning “vilde chaya” that I can often be. That Yiddish term means “wild animal” and is often derogatory. Here I mean it lovingly. I’m pretty self aware. My energy comes on strong, my smile stronger, and I flew in to this mission with gusto. As soon as I saw the dozen or so people in flowing black Japanese robes I seriously asked if there was a gift shop where I could purchase one. The shaved head piece was less appealing to me, but some of those ladies can really pull off a Mohawk🏻. There was not a gift shop and as I later learned; those robes must be earned. “Earned” for an entitled Jewish girl is a concept that’s initially a mindfuck, but as I said before I AM NOW ADAPTABLE. The schedule we were given was in Japanese and very detailed. We were still allowed to talk during registration, so I looked at this other girl and we were both like um...But we laughed knowing we, like so many others, were in this together and would figure it out. That was one of the cool parts of this, that both newbies and seasoned practitioners were in the same boat. We’d row as a team. There was no elitist ranking or hierarchy that was intimidating. The veterans were wonderful at guiding us newcomers, and the love and support was palpable. What blew my mind was how many older people had come, particularly from other parts of the country. Someone even flew in from Hawaii! To be 75 years old and still be on a path for betterment and introspection was honestly just so awe inspiring. We can alter and deepen our trajectory at any point. It was so impactful, witnessing folks of any age refusing to resign to the social and cultural models of what their lives should look like. Our hearts beat until the end of these lives. There is opportunity for expansion in every moment. Who decided that one’s goal at that stage in life should be an annual cruise with the family, while biding time until bodies get cancer or just fall apart? Why should we get quieter and more invisible the older we get, while the rarer outspoken octogenarian is praised for still maintaining kooky eccentricity? Why does anything have to be anything? The physical conditions on this retreat were not the easiest for an older person. There was no air conditioning and it was blazing hot. There were no elevators. We were expected to be on time for everything. We were on the floors cleaning. The bathrooms were communal. I had such respect and appreciation for anyone who shoved all that aside in order to soul search. There were also several married couples that were there together. That was so wonderful and foreign to me; for a couple to be so united in this kind of work. The first morning during meditation at 6 am, an elderly gentleman had a minor heart attack. I noticed him at check in because he walked with a cane, wore denim overalls, and looked exactly liked the actor Wilford Brimley. He sat across from me in the zendo, the huge meditation room that used to be the cathedral of the monastery. Around 6:20 I noticed he fell asleep and began to snore, head rolled back. The women in black robes who sat in the back and played the sound bowls and made the announcements went over to gently nudge him awake. When he didn’t respond they checked his pulse. He was turning really pale and it was clear something was wrong. He was carefully laid down in the back. The rest of us all knew what was going on but kept absolutely silent. It was scary and uncomfortable, as life is when we don’t know what’s going on. My heart was pounding and there was a woman across from me that was crying. I said to myself while counting my mala beads, “he’s in good hands. Just keep your eye on yourself and keep going. It’s ok to be scared, one way or another it will be ok”. Sometimes the best way we can help is to stay calm and quiet. To just listen and be present. To quietly support and send energy with silent focus. I was aware of the symbolism of all of this at the time. The fact that this happened day one was clearly a message out group needed to receive. The human instinct to protect ourselves includes needing to understand everything in our surroundings. It’s survival mode and it makes sense. But then there’s trusting in a higher power, which loosens that grasp. The need to know, predict, and comprehend begins to dissipate. Trust doesn’t have to be easy, that’s why it’s trust. Watching this man go through this was extremely hard; what if he was dying right in front of us?? But that’s life. It is full of scary situations and we are meant to stay centered and focused, all the while making room for our discomfort. An ambulance came to take him away. A few hours later we were informed that he has a history of heart problems (all the more reason he was such an inspiration for coming in the first place) and that he’s ok and will be returning. He did return and seemed completely fine through the remainder of the retreat, hobbling on his cane and all.

What a Buddha this man was. He taught us a beautiful lesson that morning, which set the tone for the rest of the week. Had that happened in a synagogue it would have been utter chaos. Everyone would have been freaking out, loudly and dramatically. That’s not helpful. It only would have embarrassed the person in the middle of the ordeal, added unnecessary drama, frightened any children present, and created a vortex of terror. Our silence and focused allowed this man to be privately tended to with dignity. Telling ourselves “it’s ok, you’re safe” is an essential part of our inner dialogue. Which brings me to “kinhin”; walking meditation. I often write about how it’s vital for me to connect to the earth with bare feet. That grounding and connection to the earth soothes me tremendously. Sand, grass, tile, whatever. Every morning in my sunrise vinyasa class we do 54 full prostration bows. On Sunday’s we do 108. It’s such a special practice that we regulars love. Life is all flow. We go up, we go down, we are grounded, then shaken, we rise, and then we fall. Constantly. But feet for me, this year, have become increasingly important teachers. The feet contain one of the minor chakras, the plantar chakra. We are built to connect via them. I discovered this year that I have felt I’ve had to run my whole life, as a result of being hunted and chased by certain central figures. You run when you feel unsafe. This includes shutting down emotionally and layering our hearts with armor. Running away isn’t just physical. This is the first time in my life where I’m learning to internalize that I’m actually safe. I need to remind myself of this constantly, as residual fear based conditioning arises. It takes time to undo those psychological knots, and patience with ourselves is a loving practice. Love, including self love, is slow and steady. It’s obtained step by step. It’s not necessarily some cosmic boom, as in fairy tales. Authenticity and depth requires time. The layers needed to forge a relationship with ourselves takes a lot of time. Forgiveness, respect, compassion, kindness, humor, introspective observation, sweetness, and care can’t possibly arise suddenly. That’s why layers of love with another takes time too. Infatuation is immediate but it fades because it’s ego based. Getting to know myself better has forced me to slow down, listen, and look at the difference between illusion and truth. And it’s not true anymore that I’m being hunted because I have successfully outrun all of those people. I loved kinhin because I had to pay attention to each step, and each one was a beautiful reminder that the whole pace of my life has changed, on both the inner and outer spectrums. I once read that to watch Thich Nhat Hanh walk is to have a life altering experience. To see how possible it is to be so utterly mindful and appreciative of each step, breath, and heartbeat. How each movement matters. Our outer pace is indicative of our internal clock. The people I know that run around like chickens without heads aren’t calm in any sense. No one envies those people and wants to emulate them. How we pace ourselves matters. How we walked, ate, swept, chanted, bowed, sat, stood, waited all mattered. We were mindful of ourselves and those around us. The teachers would remind us daily to please take good care of ourselves because that means we are caring for those around us too. This is the opposite of all that fake martyrdom nonsense, where people, especially women, are trained to believe that we must ignore our own needs in the service of others. It’s such bullshit and it leads to nothing but a resentful need for external accolades, it’s a bottomless cup. To be told to be gentle with ourselves by other adults is a wonderful feeling. It’s part of how we reparent ourselves, and it absolutely causes us to be calmer and gentler with others. If we are internally frenetic, the energy we emit will help no one.

By the way, I’ve also learned that the slower you are, the more you accomplish because focus and attention is increased. Rushing around like a lunatic often results in a pile of unsatisfying nothing. The days I drag myself out of bed at 5:50 for yoga are not easy. But those are hands down my most productive days. It sets an intention, a pace, a commitment. Another favorite part of mine was “teisho”; dharma talks from the teachers. We had one a day for 30 minutes. Soaking up wisdom and perspective, and hearing people finally talk, was a highlight for me. The grounds at Garrison are stunning. Fields, meadows, views all just splendid. It’s a kind, pesticide free environment so there was an array of insects. Once I was lying on the grass during free time, and about six butterflies landed on me. I felt like a Disney princess. Each night after we finished evening mediation, a bunch of us gathered to look out onto the river. I have never seen larger or more fireflies in my life. It was perfect serenity, as well as a satisfying sense of accomplishment that we had completed yet another day.

A popular inquiry about this experience has been about the food. The food was excellent. They have special chefs at Garrison who only serve organic, farm to table cuisine made of fresh, locally grown ingredients. I have been meaning to purchase their special cookbook. All meals are served buffet style, and even the way we took our food was done lovingly and patiently. There was not a meal where I did not think to myself that a Jewish buffet line is literally like the most maniacal scene from Lord of the Flies. It’s survival of the fittest by women in Chanel suits, in a frenzy of urgent gluttony. Yes, I get the Holocaust trickle down that there won’t be enough food. But that’s long over, and somehow I don’t think that’s what’s really going on in the heads of Jews in 2019. On the retreat we took what we needed, with respect to everyone else, and no one ate until everyone had a plate at their seat. One body. Before we ate we said a prayer thanking the farmers, the pickers, and all others involved in preparing the food. Included in the prayer was may our bodies be deserving of this food, and may this food aid us in serving humanity. Food, like all else, should be pure, delicious, and beneficial. Not speaking during meals actually made me eat less, because my bites were slower and more attentive. We need so much less than we think we do, in almost every way. I’m sure my digestive system did a happy dance at not being rushed into doing its job. It all goes back to mindfulness, including being aware and appreciative of our internal organs. They need care and respect too. On a different note, this was a Sōtō zen retreat, from the White Plum Asian lineage. I did not know this going in, and it was funny to me how “whatever” I’d been. When I looked into this a bit more one night (I did have my phone with me but used it very sparingly) I read about the Sōtō approach vs the Rinzai method, both terms I heard about from reading Jack Kornfield. In a Rinzai school they basically beat the shit out of you until you reach meditative states. I’m not sure being knocked unconscious equates to spiritual bliss, but who am I to deprive masochists of their fun? It turns out this is understandably illegal in America, where we prefer to injure each other more passive aggressively. But I also said to myself laughingly, “monk, shmonk. If someone punches a Jewish chick from New Jersey and pulls her freshly blown out hair, they’re getting kicked back and will lose that round”. Retreat humor!

As I said before, I went into this with almost no preconceived notions, a good life approach in general. But I definitely assumed it was going to have more of the Indian Hindu yogic flavor that I’m used to. I showed up with my beads and burgundy elephant print pants, thinking there would be guided movement and Ayurvedic cooking demonstrations. I was clearly the little Bhakti yogi amongst a sea of black robes, who bowed with exaggerated arm stretching flourish, because that’s how I’ve been taught to gather energy from the space I’m entering. Energy in a space is a real thing. Fung Shui, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, and Ba Gua; those are all
ancient, time honored methods of being one with space and energy of our surroundings. Damn right I was going to absorb all those good vibrations. To oversimplify but maybe not really, there’s one Buddha from whom all this originated. One original Buddha whose story generated through India, the Sanskrit yogic approach, and also to Asia, which birthed these other methods of teaching. The principles and messages are the same. Different paths to the same destination, it’s just a matter of which road map you’re using at the time. There are many statues of Buddha. The particular one that was on the alter in the zendo was of him looking calm, sitting atop this ugly, teeth bearing lion. Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison, who is also a psychotherapist and author, explained that this certain depiction was used because the lions and demons are always here. Within us and around us. The goal isn’t to get rid of them since that’s impossible, but it’s to see them, make peace with them, and rise above them. THAT is the part that’s indeed possible. No matter what your demons may be, you can always find your way to stay ahead of them. The Buddha doesn’t teach anything that’s unattainable. He was a human, not a deity. I knew going in that we are always given the life experience that is required for our growth in that exact moment. I first learned that from Eckhart Tolle, but as Dai En Friedman said during her teisho, “the dharma always gives us what we need”. I needed this specific retreat at this specific moment, which is why I didn’t question it. Instinct put me there, and as instincts usually are, this one was right. My life has already begun to unfold in more ways from this week. I’ll write about it more, but I’m going to stop now because this is one long ass post and I’m hungry. As for Wilford Brimley, his message carried me throughout. I thanked him in the brief speech we were allowed to make at the end. At our goodbye meal, which was overflowing with emotion like the last day of sleep away camp, he handed me a note that he asked me to read at home. I waited because I am now just learning what it means to not rush. It was a short note with his number, and that he’d like to stay in touch. I was so moved and will definitely reach out. As I said, gender, age, and all other seemingly external details fade when a spark of connection has been ignited. The closeness we can feel without words, like my neighbor in the zendo ,who gently put a box of tissues next to me one day when I was tearfully releasing. I never got his name or the chance to thank him, as he had to skip the last meal to make a flight. It doesn’t matter, in that moment we knew each other. One body; you cry I cry. You smile I smile. Laughter is contagious for a reason. We all held space for each other in this weighted silence that was powerfully unifying. I have already joined the zen center back home. I want this for my life as a regular reminder of why I’m in this body. The zen center trains people how to work with the elderly, the infirmed, the grieving, and the dying. I have never encountered more selfless, humble kindness like this in my life. It was astoundingly pure. It cut to the heart of all matters, which as you know, is simply the heart in each of us. This retreat was one giant metaphor for life. I’m so grateful to have stepped into this place with these teachers and these fellow practitioners, and that my life brought me there. What a different experience my entire life has become. It all used to be so uniform and predictable, which used to drive me crazy. If every day and every moment, especially the hard times, brings us to where we are meant to be, then I’ll take this one and keep following it. Every stone is part of the path, and the path is never ending. For the first time in my life, I don’t need to know where I’m going, or with whom. My commitment is to just keep going, flowing, trusting, falling, and getting back up. I’ll wind up where I’m meant to be. Om shanti, Gate Gate Paragate, namaste, or just thank you. It all works. Even words and letters, in all their different meanings and configurations, can be of one linguistic body. It’s why the mute can still speak, the blind can read, and the deaf can be one with music. The possibility for unification is awesome and astounding. When the robed ladies in the zendo played their enormous sound bowls, banging them then catching the vibration and keeping it moving in circles, those sounds engulfed each of us and filled this huge room. Sound is incredibly powerful in its ability to reach our most primal, hidden spaces. Yin and yang, sound and silence. It’s all necessary to create the Oneness.