What It's Like to Spend Five Months in Silence

What, my friends have asked (at least the ones who didn't think I'd lost my mind), is it like to spend five months without talking, writing, or even updating my facebook status?
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I have been a law professor, magazine editor, and the director of national nonprofit organization. I went to Yale Law School, founded a successful dot-com software company, and have written three books and 200 articles. My childhood nickname was "Chatterduck." But last year, I decided to spend five months on silent meditation retreat, mostly in Nepal.

What, my friends have asked (at least the ones who didn't think I'd lost my mind), is it like to spend five months without talking, writing, or even updating my facebook status? Short answer: not what you'd expect, but more powerful.

First of all, not talking is the easy part. You don't go crazy, and you don't forget how to speak. (The silence was never absolute, either; I had a ten-minute interview with my teacher every day.) There's just not that much to say anyway, when all you're doing is sitting and walking, and noticing the moment-to-moment sensations of whatever is going on. Eventually, the silence becomes second nature -- even for someone like me.

Much harder than not talking, though, is not thinking. In the form of Buddhist meditation I practiced, vipassana, or "insight," meditation, the objective is neither to indulge thought nor to suppress it, but simply to let it be, along with everything else. Thoughts arise, thoughts pass, and the job of the meditator is just to notice them and move on. In this way, it's possible to gradually unlearn the habitual tendency to grab onto pleasant perceptions, thoughts, and feelings and push away bad ones. The Buddha, my teachers, and I have found that some measure of liberation eventually results.

Easier said than done, of course. In practice, it's just about impossible to stop thinking. This, itself, is an important lesson: that the mind is not under our control. Nor does it naturally stay on lofty topics like the meaning of life, the universe and everything. I often daydreamed of utterly meaningless drivel -- I must've rehashed the plots of the Star Wars saga a hundred times over the five months of retreat, for reasons which still escape me. (I think it had something to do with meditation training being a lot like Jedi training, but who knows.) All this without any intention from me.

It's at this point in the story that most of my friends usually roll their eyes and say that the whole thing sounds crazy. However, having emerged from five months of silence, I can safely say that it was among the sanest things I've ever done. Not the easiest, to be sure, but infinitely more balanced, awake, and instructive than the chatter-filled world I live in most of the time.

Eventually, you see, the noise really did subside, and the mind started to relax. This is the trick: that in meditation, every goal is achieved by giving up on it. The more force one applies, the more resistance arises in response. On the other hand, the more letting-go, the more letting-be -- the more peacefulness, clarity, and awareness.

Once again, this is easier said than done, because for several billion years, we've evolved the basic instinct to hold onto the pleasant and push away the unpleasant. If we didn't do this, we wouldn't eat, run away from predators, fight when necessary, or reproduce. Natural selection does not favor Buddhism. So while "letting go" may sound pleasant and relaxing, it runs against aeons of biological conditioning.

But it is possible. For example, many times on retreat I would taste a delicious food, and be able just to notice the many sensations of chewing, tasting, and swallowing; the knowledge that the taste was pleasant; and the desire to have more of the food. Or, I would experience great hunger -- in this particular Buddhist tradition, no food is eaten after noon -- and being able simply to notice, without judging or acting out, the physical sensations of hunger, the emotional effects that came with it, and the multitude of thoughts that arose as well (why am I doing this, I'd really like a granola bar, etc.).

What's the point of noting all these mundane sensations, feelings, and thoughts? Well, enlightenment, of course, which comes as a result of seeing directly and in one's own experience that perceptions arise and pass of their own accord, that none of them ever really satisfies, and that there's no self or soul separate from the sensations, feelings, and thoughts themselves. Consciousness just happens, and the interiority of our experience is an illusion. There's no there, here.

The trouble with "spiritual" truths such as these is that they are often banal when conveyed secondhand. But when seen directly, in one's own experience, even the simplest of bumper-sticker bromides has the power to change one's life. For example, just knowing that you are perfectly okay without that car, house, success, lover -- and with that backache, mortgage, conflict, and envy -- can be moving to the point of tears, even though, intellectually, it's pretty lightweight stuff. I can't really explain why this is so, but I have seen that it is so. What to a busy mind is just another spiritual throwaway may, to a quiet mind, be the gateway to liberation. Thus even extremely mundane perceptions of eating, breathing, and walking around are grist for the mill of awakening.

In other words, when it comes to insight, it's not the "what," it's the "how." There weren't many weird mystical fireworks that shot off during my months of silence -- just a lot of time to see the ordinary very, very clearly. This is true in everyday experience, too. It's not like most of us don't know what's good for us; we do. We're just too busy chasing the next pleasant experience to live up to our own ideals. Sure, what really matters is timeless and free -- but the timeless and free is also boring. So we get back on the hamster wheel and start spinning.

Five months of silence is long enough for the wheel to slow down, and real progress to be made along the path of insight. According to the tradition in which I practiced, the mind really does relearn some of those basic instincts, growing a little wiser and a little less obsessed with itself, and those new lessons don't disappear, even as noise and distraction return. Well, easier said than done.