“You’ll be kicked out of the convent,” my boss said as I prepared to leave for a 10-day silent retreat on the outskirts of Santa Fe. Her words ran through my head again as the van pulled through the wrought iron gate and stopped in front of a row of adobe buildings.
It was a February afternoon in the year 2000 and the New Mexico sun warmed my face. I had a few hours to rest, explore the grounds, and settle in before our welcome dinner. After that, our 10 days of silence would begin.
I was physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually drained. My need for rest prompted me to reserve a single room. On my patio rested a statue of Buddha adorned with rocks, twigs, dried flowers, and coins left by previous pilgrims. After a nap, I went outside and walked the track that would become my solace during the last meditation of each day.
Diving in Head First
Prior to this retreat, my meditation practice consisted of fairly brief periods of candle gazing, daily prayers, and attendance at a visiting teacher’s dharma talks. Looking at the retreat schedule, it was clear that I was now attempting to enter the sphere of serious meditation – five one-hour periods of seated meditation daily, periodic morning dharma talks, and silence 24 hours a day.
The big surprise came at the opening dinner when I learned that in addition to observing silence, I had also signed up to refrain from eye contact for 10 days. My visual nature cringed. My palms began to sweat.
Quiet Hours, Quiet Days
The stillness I’ve experienced during this year’s global pandemic resurrected memories of those ten transformative days more than twenty years ago. The handful of photos I took in the silence have disappeared leaving only memories in their wake.
- The vibrant snap of a strawberry at breakfast.
- The way my restlessness affected the people around me.
- The star-filled sky above the track I walked round and round during the final evening meditation.
- A pre-dawn gathering of my blankets and the wonder of lying beside the lake as the geese made a watery landing.
- Peaceful 2 a.m. visits to the hot tub.
- My surprise at feeling rested and alert after just four hours of sleep.
- An unforgettable sense of being bathed in Divine light and love.
On the Path to a Brighter, Lighter Future
The final dharma talk addressed preparing for re-entry into the world. Listening I wondered, “Would it really be so hard?” During our final lunch together, the floodgates of conversation opened for seemingly everyone but me. Much to my surprise, I was not eager to share or to listen. I felt as though I was still “coming down” from an expanded space.
Fortunately, several of us left for the airport together, which seemed dizzily confusing. Seated in the middle seat of a full flight, claustrophobia set in for the first time.
I returned home to a weekend-long dance competition with our daughters. “Mom!!!” one shouted as I unwittingly drove over a curb on the way. Seated in the last row wearing ear plugs, sunglasses and a hat, I quietly cheered the dancers on – relieved when we could go home.
Like this time of sheltering in, I left for Santa Fe intending to resume life as I knew it. I returned to life and work and gradually stepped up the pace. Yet, something was different. There was no “going back.” I knew what a different, more soothing, way felt like. Life around me wasn’t different, I was. And, that changed everything.