THE SILENT TREATMENT

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“You hate the cold, and the forest, and heights, and silence. What the hell are you doing here?”

It was a good question, and contained within it, the majority of words Ross and I would exchange for days. At 9,000 feet in terrestrial elevation, we were engaged in a weeklong, silent, meditation retreat, the first big adventure we had taken in a long while. I stared up at the lone skylight in our yurt, and wondered the same thing.

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For years, I’d been craving both a vacation and a road trip through the American southwest. Why? Well. As a person whose profession it is to be on a computer every day, I had this romantic, Thoreau-like vision of leaving all my gadgets behind and becoming One With Nature. To unyolk myself from the iPhone, to replace text dings with birdsong, to not Google!

It was all very lofty.

So I Googled (heh) “spiritual retreats,” and found one just outside of Taos, New Mexico named Vallecitos Mountain Ranch. It looked great! I signed us up, and three months later, we waved goodbye to our cat and our house sitter, and set forth into the west.

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We drove over this gorge on our way there, which, OK – freaked me out. I do other recreational things in my life that involve heights, have always loved roller coasters, blah blah, but something about seeing an 8,000 foot (guesstimating) GORGE is enough to give a native, plains-loving Texan pause.

“C’mon, Tolly!!” Ross jeered at me, standing in the middle of the bridge with arms spread wide, Rose Dawson Calvert-style. I took a few cautious steps, just enough to take this picture, and ran back to the car.

“We are on a schedule,” I said when he got back, pointing meaningfully at the iPhone map and implying that we didn’t have time for things like silly 8,000 foot gorges! I mean, honestly.

[Five minutes passed]

“STOP THE CAR,” I said:

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Ladies and gentlemen, are you familiar with “earthships?” Neither were we! Apparently they are built all over, but headquartered in Taos. We pulled into their subdivision of freaky, Gaudi-like dwellings made of adobe, glass bottles, tires, and found objects. Earthships were started in the 1970s (of course they were!) and originally carved into hillsides for natural insulation, but have since evolved into these weirdly beautiful things. Scattered all over the desert, they look like The Flintstones on an acid trip.

Soon, we arrived to our destination:

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Home sweet home!

Now I’ve meditated before, but I’ve never been on a silent retreat. And specifically, this retreat was for vipassana meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique designed to help you see things as they really are. Which I think we can all admit is incredibly refreshing. And at times, terrifying.

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The first day was hard. I had this aching loneliness in not being able to talk to anybody, including Ross, even while curled up with him at night. Our little yurt was about five paces across, with a gas heater and that pretty skylight at the top.

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These were my perfect conditions for that Thoreau dream. Ensconced in nature, up so high our phones didn’t work and with no electrical outlets in sight (seriously – this place is solar-powered), it was an ideal spot to withdraw from technology and all its shiny distractions. We were even encouraged by our teachers to not write, or read, so as to stay in the present moment as much as possible.

[Record scratch]

NOT READ OR WRITE?! Not escape to a nice story? Not record all my very important thoughts and feelings??

No, no, they said. You can, but you’ll be giving such a gift to yourself to really release all distractions, and give way to the full meditative experience.

On the second day, I cried.

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Every morning, we woke up at 6:15am, and headed out to the lodge for our first meditation. It would be the first of four daily, each about 45 minutes long and punctuated by meals, meditative hikes or walks, and dharma talks. And the thing is, cognitively, I totally got the benefits. I too want a free mind! I’d silently scream, squirming in my chair.

But experientially, I was in a state of withdrawal. I had questions, questions that desperately needed Googling. And I had a personality, a personality that wanted to burst forth and mingle with other personalities.

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Me on a meditative hike, making my “Dear surgeon, if I get mauled by a bear, here is what I look like for the cosmetic reconstruction” face. 

But we’d all agreed to tuck our social selves away for the week, and away they went. During meals, our silverware clattered loudly against our dishes, with no chatter to drown it out.

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One morning I woke up, my breath misting the cold air, and saw a tiny cottontail rabbit hop across the path down to the lodge. For the first time I walked into meditation with a smile, buoyed by the simple (irrefutable?) joy of cute baby animals.

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A gorgeous river that I saw on one of my hikes.

I wish I could tell you that this was my big turning point, that the rest of the retreat was easy for me after encountering my spirit animal: the cottontail rabbit.

But even though it was still hard, I did begin to have tiny breakthroughs. During our sits, I started tuning into this subtle vibration in my body. I loved our savasanas (lying down meditations), and experienced a particularly magical one in the forest under a canopy of pine trees. And I was thrilled, positively THRILLED, when Ross did something so significant as look at me.

Which all made rolling into Austin on Monday a kind of bright, saturated fantasy. Rolling down Mopac: stimulation everywhere! Colors! People! Starbucks!

The first 24 hours, I talked people’s heads off, read, wrote, and generally uncorked myself. If we met up in real life, I’m sorry for unleashing an unstoppable stream of words in your face.

Still. Cradled up there in that New Mexico mountain valley, I think I did manage to brush away some very old mental cobwebs. I can honestly say that my mind is the clearest than it’s been in a long time, and that as a writer, whole phrases and sentences have shone forth these past few days with a clarity I had suspected permanently dimmed.

Maybe there’s no better cure for writer’s block than to — lovingly and just for a little while — shut up.