A few years ago, my husband, Mike Brady,* and I decided to spend a weekend at a yoga health center in the Berkshire Mountains. I had been to the center once before and had enjoyed the daily yoga, organic food, and walking trails. The center also offers a variety of health-oriented workshops for those who like to mix self-improvement with their vacations. The workshops have names like One Breath at a Time, The Straightforward Path, and Ignite Your Passion. I signed up for a meditation workshop, which I thought would help me figure out what I should do with my life. This was Mike Brady’s first time at the center. He preferred not to improve himself and said he’d be content to read a book and look at the lake.
On my first day, I left my sandals at the door in a row with the others, and joined the dozen attendees sitting in a circle on the floor of the meditation room. Our meditation instructor bore a striking resemblance to the actress Judi Dench. We went around the circle and introduced ourselves. There were a husband and wife in their sixties from India, a good-looking man in his forties from California wearing a concert tee shirt, a young woman with an eyebrow piercing, and the rest were assorted housewives from Connecticut. Most people would have lumped me into that last group just by looking at me, but I live in Pennsylvania.
At our first session, Ms. Dench outlined the various meditation techniques we would be learning: seated meditation, walking meditation, metta meditation, alternative nostril breathing, and using mala beads. And to enhance our meditative experience, she strongly suggested that we stay in-silence during our time at the center. Whenever we were outside the meditation room, we were not to talk unless absolutely necessary. She passed out nametags for each of us to clip onto our clothing, but instead of our names, they said, “In Loving Silence.”
Mr. California raised his hand. “I’m here with my girlfriend who’s taking a different workshop. Am I allowed to talk to her?”
“No. And I’d like you to conserve your energy as well,” said Ms. Dench. The women in the class giggled like middle schoolers, myself included.
After our first session, I met Mike Brady back in our room. He pointed to the “In Loving Silence” sign on my chest.
“Oh my God. Are you truly not going to speak?”
“Yes. I want to get as much out of this weekend as possible so I’m going to try to really do this.” I whispered.
“Wow. Good for you.”
“I’m going to get changed for afternoon yoga,” said Mike.
I nodded and watched Mike put on his workout clothes. He put away his laundry and tidied up his side of the room. I put on yoga pants and did the same. It felt out of order somehow to be in the room with him with neither one of us talking when we weren’t in the midst of an argument.
As we left the room I whispered, “Did you have a good day by yourself?”
“Whispering is still talking, Terry.”
At dinner in the communal dining hall, I made my way down the buffet and joined Mike at a table. I pointed to my turkey kibbee with yogurt cucumber sauce and pantomimed rubbing my tummy and smiled.
He raised an eyebrow. “Is Charades allowed?”
On his plate were tofu fajitas with Mexican bean salad. If he closed his eyes, he might as well have been at Chili’s at the mall. I had the urge to tell him to try some of the more unusual offerings in the buffet. I took a breath. He can eat whatever he wants, I told myself. Prohibited from making conversation, I looked around the dining hall. I noticed the trees outside the windows and the huge paintings of Buddha decorating the walls. I watched groups of women eating together and tried to guess which workshop they were attending by eavesdropping on snippets of their conversations. I counted the men I saw and from that, estimated 25% of attendees at the center were male. I observed these thoughts as they passed through my mind like clouds floating across the sky. After dinner, Mike and I took a walk around the grounds without speaking, and then went back to our room. There was not much to do at the center at night. There is no TV in the rooms so by 9:30 I was asleep.
The next morning we got up early and I had an overwhelming need to talk, to say things like:
“Are you going to take a shower now or wait until after morning yoga?”
“Do you want to use the bathroom first?”
“What do you think the weather will be like?
“Did you use my bug spray yesterday? I can’t find it anywhere.”
These are the kinds of things I say all the time, how I fill the air with noise. Ms. Dench said before speaking, we should ask ourselves, Are we improving upon the silence? In my case, probably not. So on this morning, I said none of it. I found my bug spray myself, decided to bring a sweater without a ten-minute debate over which weather app is most accurate, and simply waited until Mike was out of the bathroom for my turn. We took a morning yoga class, ate a silent breakfast, and then I waved goodbye. As I walked to my meditation workshop, I couldn’t help but notice how well Mike and I were getting along.
During the workshop, when we were not actually meditating, we were allowed to talk and encouraged to ask questions.
One of the women from Connecticut raised her hand. “Nothing seems to happen when I meditate. I fall asleep or my mind starts thinking of a million things. I’m just not getting it. And I really want to experience . . . God. You know, like in the book Eat, Pray, Love . . . What am I doing wrong?
“Aaaaaah. Yes.” said Ms. Dench.
We waited for her to expound on her answer, but she didn’t.
“No really. I want a real answer,” the woman said.
“A real answer,” Ms. Dench repeated.
“Yes, a real answer. I read the book, built the yoga room, been trying to meditate now for almost a year, paid for this workshop, and I don’t even know if I’m doing it right. Have you read Eat, Pray, Love?”
Ms. Dench smiled kindly at the woman. “Keep at it.”
“That is it.” She said it without any trace of annoyance. The Indian man nodded his head in agreement.
Another woman raised her hand. “Can you recommend a good book on meditation?”
“Go into the gift shop downstairs and walk past the book shelf. Whatever book falls off the shelf, take that one.”
I had to admit there was a certain kind of beauty in the simplicity of her answers. Does it matter which technique you use to meditate so long as you meditate? Isn’t the key to doing anything to keep doing it?
At the end of the day’s session, Mike and I met up and decided to walk the wooded path down to the lake. It was late afternoon in July and after sampling half a dozen meditation techniques I was feeling peaceful. My mind felt as calm as a lake after a rainfall. This is rare for me, to not be plagued by constant thoughts of what I need to be doing next. I was moved by this new sense of calm and immediately wondered, is this how yogis feel all the time? Why can’t I feel this way all the time? Then I stopped my mind and focused instead on just being grateful for feeling at peace. I walked with that thought, thankful for that moment in the woods, my gratitude growing larger with each step, then to such size that I could no longer contain it.
“I’m so happy we’re here,” I whispered to Mike.
Just as the words left my mouth, the Indian couple appeared from around the curve in the path, walking silently in our direction.
“You are totally busted,” said Mike.
After dinner, we headed back to our room and lay in bed reading. Mike moved his body close to mine. I could tell he was feeling romantic. I was too. It had been two days of mountain air and yoga hip openers. There was no alcohol to make us sleepy, no TV to distract us. I hadn’t felt this close to my husband in years. Without talking, we were forced to communicate by actually looking at each other and using hand gestures. We didn’t toss our words out while distracted by something else as we normally did. So there had been no miscommunications, no slights, no you’re not listening to what I’m saying or that’s not what I meant at all. You obviously don’t have a clue as to who I am.
He started touching my thigh.
“I’m supposed to conserve my energy,” I whispered.
He kept going. I read the same sentence three times before finally putting my book down.
“Okay. But I’m not going to talk.”
I slid beneath him. Within five minutes I’d forgotten all about In Loving Silence. I couldn’t help myself. I told him how much I loved him, how good everything felt, how much I didn’t want him to stop. I was bingeing on talk, high on yoga and healthy food and love. I told him how I wished it could be like this always, how I wished we never had to talk again.
*Not his real name, but one he reluctantly agreed I could use for this blog.