The Power of Shutting Up and Sitting in Silence

Kathryn Smith went to an Ashram, and it made her feel better about everything.

Kathryn Smith | Longreads | October 2018 | 14 minutes (3,450 words)

 
I spent New Year’s in a hot pink temple shaped like a lotus flower, surrounded by 100 other people with their eyes closed and their legs crossed like pretzels. I had taken a vow of silence and not spoken to another human in three days. It was so quiet that I could hear the twinkly lights on the ceiling humming.

I’m a mid-30s white woman with a cat, a small apartment, and a mid-level office job. I don’t meditate, really. I vociferously hate chanting. I don’t know what I think about swamis in long orange robes who believe energy runs through everything and rocks have feelings — I have a 401K and a thoroughly sensible life.

But I went to an ashram because I thought it might fix something, and I think it kind of did.

***

I’d booked my New Year’s yoga retreat reservation in a hurry one November night, stuck in the office late with a troublesome tightness in my shoulders. I was strung out from work, anxious about seeing friends and family over the holidays, dreading the part where they’d ask me how I was doing.

When I told people about my plan, they oohed and ahhed about the yoga part, but when I’d explained that I would be in silence, only a few nodded in understanding. Most people looked at me as if I’d told them I was voluntarily spending the holiday in jail. Usually I would have omitted that detail to avoid being perceived as weird, but, unusually for me, this time I didn’t care. And that seemed like a start.

I’d booked my New Year’s yoga retreat reservation in a hurry one November night, stuck in the office late with a troublesome tightness in my shoulders.

On check-in day, I drove through winding, wooded back roads in Virginia, worried the late December setting sun would leave me lost in the freezing darkness. When I finally found it, the ashram looked less like a shining beacon in the night and more like a sensible community college: a small cluster of buildings with vinyl siding, surrounded by a parking lot.

Inside the main building, shoes weren’t allowed, and a middle-aged woman with kind crinkly eyes signed me in and handed me a packet with maps and a daily agenda. She was dressed in all white and wearing a lot of beads. She told me she lived in Washington, D.C., like me, but came to the ashram once a month. “I just have to get back here as often as I can,” she said, smiling beatifically. “You’ll see what I mean. You’ll feel the magic.”

I asked when the silence would begin.

***

Our days were structured: A swami wandered through the hallways of our dorms at 5:30 am playing the violin to wake us up, and we jumped out of our bunk beds to head to meditation and yoga before sunrise. Each session began and ended with a long, group-wide “Ommmm.” I was terrible at this; my om sounded tinny and small and its vibration in my throat made me cough.

I shared my austere dorm with two roommates. We silently maneuvered around one another while getting dressed in the morning, barely making eye contact. In line for breakfast, shuffling in my socks on linoleum floors in the cafeteria for tea and oatmeal, it occurred to me I had no choices to make; I was completely surrounded by people, but I didn’t have to deal with them one bit. It was not being alone, exactly: It was more just like not being at all. And it suited me.

The ashram’s spiritual tradition was Hinduism, but the overall theme of its approach to spirituality was: Whatever works for you. A logo of a giant lotus flower with a different religious symbol adorning each petal indicated that all religions had common themes, that there were many paths to one truth. I agreed with this generally, but found the message a bit vague. Signs with bland guidelines were everywhere: DO GOOD BE GOOD, one over the auditorium door commanded us, without any additional instruction or punctuation. A whiteboard with a quote from the founder of the ashram and the guru that its swamis studied and followed was repeatedly updated throughout the day with motivational proclamations like: “You can do whatever you want — you can achieve whatever you want — if your WILL is strong enough!” I thought this would better suit a poster in a third-grade classroom with a photo of a mountain on it, or a kitten hanging from a tree branch.

A long line of framed photos of spiritual practitioners and thinkers winded around the walls of the main auditorium. I examined them: Sri Sarada Devi (very beautiful, eyes cast humbly downward), Swami Vivekananda (great turban), Swami Chidbhavananda, Lord Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Mary, and Jesus. I was surprisingly fairly happy to see Jesus’s portrait, which usually isn’t the case. I wanted to point to him and say, “Hey, I know that guy!” But I couldn’t.

***

I liked the swamis who led our activities in their long orange robes. The ones in charge were all women, and they were extremely earnest, with a sly humor. One reminded me exactly of the grandmother from The Wedding Singer. Some of their longer talks put me to sleep — a lot of the retreat was me trying not to fall asleep in different rooms all over the campus — but they had an intriguing calming effect, mixed with a low-level hum of joy.

The first morning, a woman swami with bangs and a long gray ponytail spoke to us for a long time about meditation. She was so cheery, she almost twinkled. Yoga tradition says the mind is a drunken monkey stung by a scorpion, she told us. The mind is doing what it wants; and now you are training it, like a puppy.

I found her order to let go of our thoughts, as if our thoughts constantly tortured us, hard to swallow. I kind of liked my drunk monkey thoughts, I thought. Most of them, at least. I came to the ashram to be alone with them. And my thoughts were pouring out of me into my journal. What if during meditation I missed a good one and forgot to write it down?

Another swami appeared before us to give us wisdom. She was less twinkly. Distance, she told us sternly. Drop all attachments. With attachment, when something is taken from you, you’re depressed. Well, she had me there, I admitted.

My elegant grandmother had died the month before, 10 days after a diagnosis of stomach cancer. She’d seemed at peace, surrounded by me and eight other family members. We kept watch at her bedside for days and nights that dragged on endlessly; then, in one surreal, dazzling moment, she took her last breath and it was over. It was a shock how suddenly and completely she was gone, how quickly we burst from awed, silent grief into a flurry of activity, sorting and dividing her clothes and lotions and lipsticks between us, ordering flowers and getting the obituary in the paper and hosting the funeral and then packing up the picture frames displayed at her memorial and driving numbly back to our regular lives.

It was all too fast, and I don’t think it suited her. She had had a meditative approach to life. She’d rolled her hair each morning, sitting for an hour in front of her dressing mirror. She would remain at the dinner table long after others had finished eating, methodically chewing each bite. Her home was slow and silent the way that old people’s homes always are — but it was never stuffy; it was bright and spotless and impeccable, like she was.

***

A few Christmas decorations — bows, stockings, a freaky-looking doll version of baby Jesus in a crèche — were slapped up around the ashram’s main rooms, and colorful holiday lights decorated our dorm entrance. But the holiday spirit ended there, and I was fine with that.

I’d walked into Christmas and Hanukkah parties alone all holiday season; I’d sat in the church I’d grown up in on Christmas Eve among the couples in my growing family, sticking out like a sore, lonely thumb.

Around me, friends were announcing really hopeful things: two inspiring, hard-fought second marriages; a big new job; a pregnancy, after years of waiting. I felt happy for them all but somehow numb, not understanding how others’ lives were progressing and mine was standing still, or maybe even going backwards. If grace is not resenting others’ blessings, I didn’t have a trace of it.

***

It took two days of wandering around the grounds before I reached the top of the hill and saw the Lotus temple, and I stopped short at the sight of it: it was hot pink, with fountains and statues of elephants guarding its long walkway. It belonged in India, with its fluorescent petals; yet here it was, in the middle of the rural Virginia landscape. I actually heard hunting gunshots as I approached it. This completely out-of-place, transcendent, absurd building: It was inspiring and embarrassing all at once.

**

Like every other woman I know, I had lived through 2017 simmering on a constant low boil of anger. I routinely called members of Congress’s offices to hiss. I glared at men who dared glance at me on the metro. I turned off NPR for a year, unable to listen to the dulcet, polite tones of the newscasters talking about the mess we’d made of the world. Mostly, I felt helpless.

I found her order to let go of our thoughts, as if our thoughts constantly tortured us, hard to swallow. I kind of liked my drunk monkey thoughts, I thought.

The people who gave me hope were on fire with anger, though, walking around with a deep-rooted fury in them that I hoped would keep the evil tide at bay. I’d gone to some meetings in folding chairs, started volunteering in a church basement, venting my rage and trying to figure out what we could do about it.

I didn’t want to be some guru floating off into the ether, I decided, glaring silently at the long line of photos of spiritual practitioners winding along the wall. I didn’t want to not feel anything. I wanted to be with the people in the church basement in the folding chairs. I wanted to stay angry, keep the fire burning. I wanted to be involved.

Yet, wandering the ashram’s halls, I did feel, despite myself, a sense of calm washing over me. I was focusing well, reading and writing steadily like I used to. Like I do when I hit a good flow.

When you peel back the layers of distraction and emotion and still the hamster-wheel of your mind, the swamis told us, you distill yourself down to a single voice, your true self. That self is happy, its voice always calm. It stays there even when your day-to-day minor victories and dramas try to drown it out, burning, a small candle that is never extinguished. 

***

Mealtimes at the ashram were my favorite activity. It was a relief to sit and eat with 150 or so strangers without a word of small talk. Some people looked really miserable, and I worried for them. The more yogically inclined prayed over their food, and ate slowly and robotically while staring blankly ahead. I lingered for an hour after each meal, writing in my journal and drinking tea in the window. I took notes on the other retreat participants. The man with a tattoo sleeve had a LOT of hair gel for a yogi, and I rated as hands-down the worst the couple who gazed adoringly at each other after meditation, each with their hands over their hearts.

The most fascinating were the yoga ashramites, the real people who weren’t spiritual leaders but lived and worked at the ashram, making our food, tending to the grounds, and ushering us around. The younger ones seemed too zealous, infatuated with their own bliss. But some of the older ones, I speculated, might have been a little lost. I wondered if they got chewed up and spit out by the world, or if they just started feeling a little too alone, and being around people in this type of structured setting seemed appealing.

Among the ashram leadership, a businesslike swami of maybe 60 or 65 was my favorite. (Although, maybe she was older — they all looked much younger than they actually were, what with the vegetarian diet and the hours of yoga every day.) She was rail thin beneath her long robes, and had an appealing gray haircut that swooped nicely around her face. Her left hand had a slim wedding ring on it. In yoga practice she was extremely scientific about the poses and even the correct way to say Om.


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In a talk one morning, she said her mother had never understood her choice to study, but boarded an airplane for the first time ever to go to California to observe her daughter’s new life. She’d never fully understood it, but became more accepting of the ashram lifestyle after Oprah publicly praised the benefits of yoga. Thank God for Oprah, she added. This swami seemed sensible, and like she had her shit together. Her given name was probably Deborah.

Partnership and married life and spiritual swami life are two very different blessings, she told us, and she was blessed to walk both paths. She worshiped the ground her guru’s feet walked on, she said; likewise, she worshiped the ground that her husband did. I blinked back tears.

I had just ended a couple months of dating someone, right in the middle of the holiday season. The retreat offered a welcome relief from feeling sad about it. I knew that my difficult feelings about our relationship would pass, that he would turn into someone that I thought about resignedly, with the hard, tired recognition that we weren’t meant to be because he had issues and I would overcome it. But I wasn’t there yet; I was still in the valley after a peak in which I had felt a brief, rare sense of possibility.

He had a kid and an ex-wife and an ex-Other Woman and a big, complicated life while I had a small, simple one. For a minute I had thought maybe my life would become big and complicated too — but he had no space in his for me, and I became envious of his tangled web of anger and sadness and lost love, all the raw, untidy feelings that I hadn’t felt in ages. I did the right thing and set him free — I, who have always been calm and adult about matters like these — and almost instantly, a very nice, available, and emotionally open suitor appeared who I felt absolutely nothing for. And I found myself again where I had been before, where it seemed like I had always been.

***

Farting was a given. It happened everywhere, not just in yoga: In talks, in our karma yoga bead-stringing for prisoners project. And there were a lot of irritated little instructional signs everywhere, masked with yoga-isms at the end. “Hari Om! Do NOT put anything down the sinks; they clog easily.” “Please do not put shoes on top of shelves. Om shanti.” “Please keep doors closed to keep out flies. Namaste.” I enjoyed keeping track of these small signs, but somehow managed to miss the big ones: the markers for the trail to the Lotus temple, for instance, and the one directing me to my restorative yoga class. I rushed into it late and flustered, taking the last available spot in the coldest corner of the room. As I tried to settle in and obediently do my warmup facial exercises, which meant rolling my eyes around as if they were following the hands of a clock, I spotted a portrait of the guru smirking at me exactly at 8 p.m.

I had just ended a couple months of dating someone, right in the middle of the holiday season. The retreat offered a welcome relief from feeling sad about it.

Guided by our teacher, who had a heavy Long Island accent, I laboriously assumed my first restorative pose with the aid of various blocks and pillows and bolsters. We were to hold it for 10 or so minutes, and immediately I was flooded with mental images of and immediately I was flooded with mental images of my grandmother’s hands, her graceful posture. Tears trickled out the sides of my eyes, down into my ears. Someone farted gently across from me.

I tried to picture her waving goodbye to me, and walking away. I pictured myself waving back. When I straightened up, the teacher said, “That pose was good for grief.”

***

Here are the ways I was a bad ashramite:

– I slept through 6 am morning meditation.

– I smuggled in instant coffee.

– I snuck out of chanting to read my Elena Ferrante novel, which the swamis would probably frown upon, with its Italians who raged against each other, full of desire and smoldering jealousy.

– I smuggled in M&Ms.

– I did not feel beatific.

– I smuggled in champagne-soaked gummy bears.

– Fifty percent of me thought the ashram was on to something. Fifty percent of me thought it was total bullshit.

***

On New Year’s Eve, I ate some of my secret stash of gummy bears to gear up for the chanting, and surreptitiously checked my phone to see if any interesting men had texted me Happy New Year. They hadn’t. I ate some more gummy bears, and worried I’d feel lonely, or desperately sad, during yet another round of Kirtan.

But when I walked in, the couple playing music was not terrible. They were singing chants that made me bob my head gently, and someone in the crowd was wearing a Hillary t-shirt, which I found incredibly comforting.

The twinkly swami with the bangs and the ponytail talked to us for a while.


Don’t judge your own distractions,
 she said. Your mind wandering off and you bringing it back is not a sign that you’re off the path. It is the path; there is no other.

Something settled down in me, finally. It is the path; there is no other. 

We piled into vans to make our way the mile or so to the Lotus temple. I spent the entirety of our midnight meditation period terrified that I had inadvertently left my phone on and it would ring.

The next day, after our vow of silence was lifted and I endured a tearful “sharing circle” in which everyone except me said they felt deeply connected to our group, I snuck out before lunch and started the long drive home.

***

But there is one last thing: For a while after my trip, I felt like I was emerging from being deeply sealed in a peaceful vault. I made room for people in standing-room only crowds on the metro, even the pushiest, whitest men. I chatted with myself silently and cheerfully at work and had long conversations with myself at night about the details of my day, the things I was thankful for, the things I wanted my friends and family to have. I set my phone to “Do Not Disturb” so I could ignore text messages until I felt ready to check them. I laughed at small coincidences, noticed details, hummed little happy tunes. I hummed.

Slowly, of course, this period of being in tune with myself oozed away. Slowly, my stress built up again, seeping back into my shoulders. I started cursing under my breath on the metro as usual, and reaching for my phone, its siren song stream of texts and emails, more and more.

Two weeks after the retreat, sitting in the middle of a Kennedy Center musical about Gloria Estefan during a weekend visit with my parents, I zoned out during the final glitzy number and remembered that the cheerful voice in my head, the one who had kept me company during the whole yoga retreat, had gone quiet for a few days. I missed it, I realized, as the cast danced offstage and streamed into the audience to a deafening medley of “Conga,” “Turn the Beat Around,” and “Everlasting Love.”

The beams of the stage lights swung outward to the mezzanine seats, temporarily blinding us. The dancers in the aisles kicked and shook their hips at an unreasonable speed. There were too many sequins.

The swamis were right: You and the voice in your head — whatever you want to call it — are pretty much all you have in the end. You have to hang on to it, and listen out for it.

The song shifted into a higher key; the dancers kept on dancing. But I suddenly felt myself believing that if you can work on the stories the voice tells you, and make them meaningful ones — despite countless people with better lives than yours, and deep losses and a world that’s burning, and even the finale of “Move Your Feet” — then maybe you might be OK.

* * *

Kathryn Smith is an essayist living in Washington, DC.

Editor: Sari Botton