I am eating lunch in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains when the director of a retreat center hands me a blue badge encased in plastic. It reads, “I’m In Silence.” I stare at the words, absorbing the implications of the vow I’m about to take for the next three days, and wonder if I’ll be able to shut up for that long. If so, it will be a first for this chatty Kathleen, a wife and mother of two teenage boys who works full time in communications at a college. Even worse than not talking, I was forced to surrender my cellphone and laptop upon arrival, severing all connection to the outside world.
As painful as it was, it needed to happen. My brain had grown addled from the constant barrage of emails, texts and tweets, and the infernal din of a daily life in which even my coffeepot and car have a voice. I craved an adult timeout, and my search for solitude revealed I wasn’t alone.
Across the country, silent retreats are gaining popularity as busy professionals and people from every walk of life discover the restorative benefits of solitude and meditation. Many of the weeklong retreats have waiting lists, and the length of time spent in silence depends on the center and the program. Some have silent components, with conversation permitted at meals or evening activities, while others put the kibosh on talking for a period of time ranging in length from one day to several weeks.
For more information, go to: www.meditationretreat.org
“Think of it as a vacation for the inner self,” says Nischala Cryer, co-director of Ananda Meditation Retreat, the facility where I am staying in Nevada City, Calif. “People are coming with big decisions in their lives about what to do. Maybe they’ve just lost someone or are thinking about changing jobs or need that time away.” Silence and meditation, she says, help clear the mind of distractions so we can observe our thoughts and gain perspective. “Sometimes you get answers in silence,” she adds.
I chose Ananda for its do-it-yourself approach to solitude. The retreat center does offer guided group programs for those who want them, but I preferred to construct my own schedule. While Ananda practices are based on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda — and a yogi I’m not — the retreat welcomes the beleaguered of all beliefs. Plus, the rates are reasonable: For $95 a night, you’re given a cabin replete with a flush toilet and a shower with hot water (though cheaper options are available).
I arrive on a Thursday. Though the center can get packed at various times of the year, there are only a few of us, and like me, my comrades in quiet are weary professionals. They sport badges of silence similar to the one Nischala has just handed me and avert their eyes when passing, as retreatgoers are instructed to do.
“So, no talking at all?” I ask, just to make sure there aren’t any loopholes I can exploit.
Sheri Goldberg, who goes by a Sanskrit name (as do all those affiliated with Ananda and its nearby sister facility, The Expanding Light), puts a stack of scrap paper on the table. “If it’s absolutely necessary to communicate, you can write a note,” says Sheri, aka Supriya, a former Seattle policewoman. “It’s considered legal, but only as a last resort.” She then escorts me to my cabin, which is nestled in a grove of pine and cedar trees far from the main facility and dining hall. It’s round and cozy, with a wood-beamed ceiling, a small meditation room and a propane stove.
There’s electricity and a bathroom, but no TV, radio or Wi-Fi.