Offline and Off-grid, Part 2

By Tracy Keenan

May 1, 2015

I'm back from my week-long silent prayer retreat with no phone, no internet, no talking, and no reading.

 The whole experience is still dripping down into my life like coffee in a French press. I’m not even sure I should write about it just yet, but I also feel an urgency to share it while it’s fresh. Perhaps the implications of it will manifest in more visible ways in the coming days.

This was an interfaith retreat at an interfaith center that is housed in a former monastery, and the leader was a teacher who speaks to many religious traditions, even though he is by training a Zen Buddhist teacher. (Those Buddhists know their way around silent meditation.) I was inspired by Thomas Merton and James Finley among other Christian contemplatives who have benefited from the teachings of their Buddhist brothers and sisters. Besides, I recognize truth when I hear it, and my experience with other faith traditions has been that learning about them only enriches my own.

booksGoing away for a week of silence, I filled my suitcase with books and art supplies (and just a few clothes), but when I arrived, I discovered that one of the rules of the retreat was no reading. After an initial moment or two of panic, I realized what sense this made: reading, even spiritual material, fills one’s head with verbal noise and lots of “thinking,” and this retreat was designed to be direct experience of the peace behind all the noise. So I packed the books back into the suitcase and put it away for the week along with my turned-off cell phone and iPad, and stepped into the event.

I did not know anything about my roommate except, eventually, for her habits, her smile, her love of hiking in any weather, her walk, the sound of her breathing.  There were 164 of us, and I’ll never know their names or where most of them come from, what they do for a living, or where they have been. But I know how they choose their food in a buffet line, how their various footfalls sound in the night in the hall, and how they like to sit when they meditate.  I felt curiosity, annoyance, and deep affection over the course of watching my fellow retreaters. We were discouraged from making eye contact, and there was to be no overt signing or passing of notes.

The point was to carve out a solitary space in which to explore prayer.

At the orientation, they also said that if someone was in tears
(as sometimes happens under such an arduous schedule of silence and meditation – underlying issues may arise) we were to refrain from hugging or even patting someone on the shoulder. If the need were great, there was an experienced counselor one could speak with at any hour. At first this felt counter-intuitive, but as I'll describe later, it came to make sense in this context.

The schedule was oddly busy:

7:30  Group Silent Meditation for 40 minutes
8:30  Breakfast
10:00 Teaching (about meditation, prayer, awareness of ego, reality, peace, etc.)
11:00 Guided Meditation for ½ hour – simple, helpful guides to prayer.
12:00 Lunch
Afternoon: THREE back-to-back sessions of 40 minute Group Silent Meditation with short breaks between.
5:30 Dinner
7:00 Two hour Satsang , or Question and Answer time.
9:10 ½ hour Group Silent Meditation.
10:00 Lights out

One day midweek, there was no teaching at all, but only more Group Silent Meditation.
What did I learn?

My thoughts could range from “I love everyone” to “I feel so peaceful; I could do this forever” to “Oh, my goodness, someone just kill me now.”

Sometimes my silent meditation was antsy and agitated, and sometimes effortless and easy, usually some of both. I am good at a ½ hour meditation. Forty minutes, my joints and muscles and brain often would get electrified.

I learned that doing one thing at a time and giving it care is a way of honoring God.
I am not good at multitasking or trying to think of too many things at the same time. It makes me anxious and stupider and ineffectual. This may be one of the biggest take-away from whole retreat: to do whatever I am doing.

I learned that experiencing other traditions brings new facets to my understanding of my own. There were many things I would hear and think to myself, “That’s the Way of the Cross,” or “That’s what Jesus meant when he said…” or there would be things that would have me hearing scriptural familiarities in fresh new ways.

I learned that I did not miss my devices.
There was a quietness that took hold after just a few hours. I occasionally wished I could Google something I was curious about, or look up something on a map when I was intending to hike. But very soon I remembered what it was like to be a human being. I remembered the kind of concentration I gave things when I was a child just exploring. I remembered the kind of camaraderie that silence fosters, unsullied by social expectations or the rumbles of undertones as people make pronouncements about others or about circumstances. How much of our experience is colored by commentary as we categorize or proclaim something to be good or bad?

I learned that when something funny occurred to me, I really, really wanted to share it. There was a woman who rang a little silver bell about 10 minutes before each scheduled event, and she walked the halls and stairwells ringing and ringing. It never happened that I was not filled with the urge to call out “Bring our your dead,” and then duck back into my room. I never did break into show tunes, but I had a hard time keeping the burble of laughter inside when something struck me.

I learned that eating without a book or conversation is its own kind of sacrament.
Watching others do the same was a thing of beauty. They chose each bite, they moved food around or mixed it with care. Some brought health swag, doctoring up the food with their special powders or nuts or supplementing with supplements. There was something endearing about that.

I often compared this experience with action-packed church retreats and their jovial sense of community, and marveled at the differences. I thought about how much folks (not just church people) fill every space with talk and commentary. At one point, I realized with a start that there would be no gossip, no talking ABOUT anyone else at all – how they dress, what they said, no stories or narrative about who they are, because all that they are is far deeper and more vast than anything that can be categorized or named. (And, besides,  no one was talking at all about anything. Period. So, no gossip.)
rainThere were a few times, but not many, when someone cried or appeared to be struggling with something. It felt odd to ignore them in every way except for prayer, but I also began to understand the value of honoring someone by giving them the space to be with their discomfort and to see what God was doing in them. We tend to flee from or want to immediately alleviate discomfort, both in ourselves or in others, but sometimes it’s the opening through which God can speak to us. Perhaps we can do a little too much hovering and “fixing” with one another.
When I first started speaking again after a week, I discovered that my throat got tired. I wanted to protect the quiet in myself, too. I did not want to comment on everything, fill the air with sound. Even when the sound around me was filled by others, I simply wanted to hold my space there and be among them. I hope I can manage to maintain my awareness of that, although a good quip is hard to suppress.

When I first turned on my devices, there were messages and emails, but I was able to do some triage and make plans for a specific time to address them later. Meanwhile, I could ride a train and look out the window, and do some people-watching.

If I forget this, I can remind myself. There are do-overs anytime I want. That’s what time is for.

Some other things I have learned:
  • To protect my morning meditation time. It quiets my mind enough for God to get in there.
  • To be a little more comfortable with my discomfort.
  • To practice acceptance: of myself and others.  (Practice is just that. Practice. I will not always do it well. But practice may improve my capability.)
  • To be willing to explore things with as much honesty as I can muster.

Would I do this kind of retreat again? Possibly.
But not soon. This was enough.
And it was very much worth it.
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