On the fourth day of my 10-day silent meditation retreat, someone spoke to me.
I didn't look. You're not supposed to engage with people. Noble silence is a foundational tenet of the exercise.
"I want you to know that you're freaking everyone out, tromping around out here, playing with that stick like it's a gun."
OK, that's weird, I think. I am a larger man, I suppose, and I have been known to tromp on occasion, and I had been flipping a stick I found underneath a tree. But I'm not acting like it's a gun. I don't engage.
"And playing with knives in the eating space."
I thought this was an exaggeration. Had I practiced zesting oranges with sharp knives to stave off lunchtime boredom? Yes. But I wasn't doing butterfly tricks or anything like that.
"I am an Army veteran with PTSD. Don't worry, I'm leaving after this, but I want you to know that you ruined this for me."
I continued not to look at him, as per the tenets of noble silence.
"You're not gonna look at me, huh? Keep playing with that stick, like a little boy. That's what you are. A little boy."
I continued not to look at or talk to him. He walked away. I was freaked out. Aside from my teacher and the attendant, this was the first time someone had talked to me in four days. I worried that I had, in fact, ruined this experience for him.
I spoke to my teacher about it after the next group sitting. He said I wasn't the only reason the man left, that he was complaining about a lot of things, and I should pay it little mind.
People like me come to Onalaska, Wash., for this Vipassana retreat for 10 days, expecting the silence and inaction to give them instant peace. There are 11 hours a day of active meditation, no meals after noon, no reading, no writing, no meat, no killing bugs. There's no writing, which is harder than not talking, because all your thoughts just sit in your head with no feasible release whatsoever. There's also no strenuous exercise—though one guy did chin-ups on a tree. There's no nothing.
The silence exposes you to extraordinary boredom the likes of which you can barely imagine in the modern world. The silence isn't gentle, not a pillow for sleeping. It's for isolation, to make you square off with the chatter and trauma in your mind, strip you of all your pretenses, and make you deal with it through the meditation techniques you learn in 10 days. If you're jumpy, you'll be jumpy. If you're anxious—and I was anxious as hell—you'll be anxious. If you're prone to boredom, you'll be bored. You can't escape your own mind. You can only learn to breathe with it, sit with its noise until it shuts up.
How I ended up at Vipassana is a long, boring and private story. The gist is that I had some pretty severe anxiety problems this past summer, and I saw a specialist who emphasized mindfulness and taught me breathing exercises to help deal with it. I soon found that these exercises were helpful in other parts of my life, so I started just kind of closing my eyes and paying attention to my breathing for, like, 20 minutes at a time. I found it colossally helpful.
And so, one day, I said to myself: "Hey, I like this. Maybe I should really learn about it, go deep." I attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and some friends from that venerable and beloved wackadoodle institution had dedicated 10 days of their life to attending this free retreat. No one had anything bad to say about it, except that it was hard.
In that moment of my life, the difficulty appealed to me. I'm a perpetually distracted loudmouth who can't even watch a basketball game without checking Twitter, and I've always loathed that about myself. At a time when I was feeling as raw as ever, when my feelings were burrowed up and jumping out of my face like zits, doing something so totally out of proportion with what I have always considered comfortable seemed like the right thing.
And, good Lord, I was uncomfortable. My legs were too big, my posture was poor, my mind's tendency toward boredom was tearing at me. I would stroll the walking paths during downtime, calculating how long it would take for someone to get me and take me home.
But I was learning how to meditate and focus. In the absence of my life full of distractions, I was finally in a space where I could learn how to accommodate and observe my own mind. On Day 10, when we were allowed to talk again, I spoke to more than one person who said I seemed to be going crazy. But in this highly stressful, solitary environment, I was quickly learning that sitting with my eyes closed and observing my breath and my body and my mind was the ultimate tonic for that slow madness.
You don't need to go to Onalaska to learn how to meditate. You could, right now, drop this newspaper in the gutter, close your eyes, focus on the feeling of your breath entering and exiting your nose, notice your mind straying from this task, and gently bring it back. With that, you've figured out a good portion of the technique.
Take a Transcendental Meditation class, use an app, a recording, do controlled breathing, whatever. The purpose of all these methods is pretty much the same, to observe your feelings and thoughts objectively. If you want to be more centered, especially in troubled times, there are few things you can recommend more.
But if you really want to learn how powerful this stuff can be, the extent to which it gives you a clear sense of your own mind, there is no substitute for deserting your brain on an island with nothing to feed it but the gentle awareness of your own body.