A third silent retreat helped Mai come to a pivotal decision about her life.
Photography by Rudy Meyers
Now what?, I wonder, unsure of how I’m supposed to fill 72 hours of unstructured time. Anticipating my concern, Supriya hands me a folder with a list of suggestions. Taking walks tops the list. “Exercise when you can, in whatever form you like and can do alone,” the paper says. “Do lots of deep breathing in the fresh air.” Other approved activities include meditating (at least two times a day), yoga, reading “spiritually uplifting” books, resting and raking leaves.

Before Supriya leaves, I pin the badge of silence on my sweatshirt, then pantomime pulling the zipper closed on my lips and throwing away the key. I pull a copy of ­Autobiography of a Yogi from the bookshelf in my cabin and curl up on the sofa. It’s no bodice-ripper, but when was the last time I had time to read a book alone?

The next day, I’m awakened at 6 a.m. by the ommm of a gong, signifying the start of meditation. I pull on sweatpants, grab my flashlight and stumble through the dark to a small, simple chapel where candles flicker on an altar. I grab a blanket and pillow and sit cross-legged on the floor, trying to remember words that Nischala told me to repeat. We can hole up in the quietest place on Earth, she had explained, but unless we quell the noise in our head, we may as well be in Times Square at midnight on New Year’s Eve. A mantra gives the brain something to do, she had said, thereby keeping the inner chatter in check. This will be the first time I’ve meditated, and I’m not sure what to expect. I know the practice is pretty common, but the first image that pops into my head is of a gaunt old man with a matted beard on a mountaintop.

I vaguely remember the mantra sounding like a Chinese takeout dish, so when I fail to recall the assigned phrase (Hong-Sau), I substitute lo mein, honoring the lowly noodle with focused intention. I inhale — lo — and exhale — mein — until my breathing becomes slow and steady and I can feel the tension in my body ebb. I do this for what seems like a long time, but when I peek at the clock, only 10 minutes have passed. This is going to be tougher than I thought.

When I enter the breakfast room two hours later, Supriya says hello. I begin to respond, then remember the sign pinned to my jacket: silence. I smile and nod my head. We grin at each other like kids sharing a secret.

There’s so much I want to tell her, like how yummy the oatmeal is and about my experience with morning meditation (I was fidgety and my foot fell asleep and I forgot the Sanskrit word I was supposed to repeat), but I can’t. So we just look at each other and smile. A smile can convey a lot. Supriya holds me in that smile; no talking necessary.

Later on, I decide to explore the property and follow a walking path to a grove containing some of the oldest and largest manzanita trees in the country. The trees’ limbs are twisted and wild, like the arms of a monster in a nightmare, but the red bark is glossy and smooth, impossible not to stroke. After a while, I move to a bench overlooking a ridge where I can see Tahoe’s snowcapped mountains. There are a lot of benches here, and it seems they’ve been positioned strategically for maximum contemplation. I’m content, but the sun moves behind a cloud and the air grows chilly, revealing a universal truth: It’s hard to achieve inner peace when you’ve got goose pimples.