I didn't speak for three months in 2008.
I was 19 years old, and I had just finished what I thought would be a "gap year" (it turned out to be four). I spent the summer after high school working two full-time jobs and sleeping never to save up for a year of solo traveling along the West Coast of Canada and the US. It was exhilarating and exhausting and terrifying. But when I got back to New England, the reality of the school year ahead dawned on me.
For one disgustingly humid weekend in July, I attended a new-student orientation at U Mass Amherst, where I was set to be a freshman. I was in an orientation group of 400 students feeling very old and very worldly. After a year of traveling and hosteling with 20- and 30-somethings from around the world, I felt like I was surrounded by a bunch of infants. I look back on that weekend almost 10 years later and see that I was both right and wrong. I'd built up a bit of an ego about all the very important soul-searching I had done, and I had no interest in hearing about summers spent life guarding on The Cape.
I left that weekend not having made any connections, knowing I needed to do something drastic. I was suffering on a cellular level; I was in pain all the time and didn't know how to be with other people in a way that felt manageable. I was often overwhelmed and anxious around others. So I took the last bit of savings I had and signed up for a three-month long meditation retreat deep in the woods. It was probably the exact opposite of being a freshman at a big state school. I was completely giddy.
Whenever I tell people that I didn't speak for three months their first response is usually, "I could never do that!" You probably could. I got used to it very quickly. There is something intense and magical about sharing a space with 60 other people in silence for three months. We moved through our days without making eye contact or touching, without knowing each other's names or having heard each other's voices, but I felt a profound care for and from all of those people. I don't remember ever feeling lonely.
The schedule was breakfast, followed by sitting meditation and walking meditation on repeat until lunch, sitting/walking until dinner, another meditation session, dharma talk, chanting, meditation, bedtime. Not only did I not talk, I didn't write, I didn't read, I didn't listen to music, I didn't see a television or phone or computer screen. I didn't paint or draw. I didn't exercise beyond gentle yoga. I kept celibate.
When you strip away all of these distractions, it's kind of like putting your experience into a pressure cooker. We often use entertainment as distraction. When you take away the distractions, you're left with a big old pile of feelings and thoughts you were avoiding. And trust me — it's a gross and shitty pile.
I noticed that flossing my teeth, making my bed, and reorganizing my closet could all be very entertaining and distracting tasks. I would sometimes compose elaborate letters in my mind to those who had wronged me in the past. Other times, I'd try to remember all 50 states in alphabetical order (I don't think I ever got them all). I'd make up stories about the other yogis in my head. I'd create elaborate outfits from the six pairs of yoga pants and 12 T-shirts I had with me.
But eventually, I started to feel the boredom and not be so swayed by it. It just became another experience to get curious about. I didn't feel the need to get sucked in by it, or believe the thought that I ABSOLUTELY HAD TO DO SOMETHING. I would sometimes sit with such extreme boredom and think, Wow, I am not dead. I can actually handle this. It comes and goes. It's fine.
My experience of my own thoughts changed completely over the course of those three months. When you don't have speaking as an option, you are forced to look really closely at what's happening in your head. It's an opportunity to watch what your mind does all day long without getting all riled by it.
For example, I might normally think of my ex and then immediately jump into judging him, then judging myself for not seeing sooner all the negative things about him, then wondering if it's all hopeless because I'm always going to go for guys like that, and then spiraling into thoughts about my painful childhood, etc., etc. When you are alone with your thoughts, you start to notice the ones that come cycling back. The well-trodden paths are so obvious. And sometimes hilarious. I developed short-hand for them so that eventually I could say to myself, Oh, it's the William spiral. And I didn't actually need to indulge it. Sometimes just noticing it was enough to make it evaporate.
I also realized that the thoughts didn't stick unless there was an unprocessed emotion associated with them. I didn't ruminate about how bland soup was at dinnertime. But I often ruminated about my ex. And when thoughts about him came up, I let the feelings come, too. And I let myself feel them.
I think the biggest gift for me about that retreat was the opportunity to be alone with my experience. I began to retrain my mind away from the idea that my feelings depend on those around me and vice-versa. In developing more subtle observation skills, I gradually began to feel more at home in my body. I grew up with trauma and instability, and it was liberating to discover for the first time that none of my thoughts or feelings, no matter how dark or scary, were going to kill me. I had the ability to bear witness to my own suffering. I had the ability to feel it and let it wash through me. I realized that those experiences were not permanent. And if they came and went so quickly without me having any say, how could they even actually belong to me? I felt like I was setting aside a huge burden.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had decided to go to school that fall. I was an overwhelmed, introverted 19-year-old starting to understand a childhood of pain. I can't say for sure what U Mass would have been like for me (I never went), but I know that when I left the retreat it was with a confidence that I didn't know was possible for me. It was the confidence of a person who has sat quietly with grief, rage, terror, and also happiness, love, excitement. I'd learned that I could have an intimate relationship with myself. And once I had developed that ability to be with myself, being with other people stopped being as overwhelming. I knew that I could take care of myself.