A travel writer on the pandemic lockdown’s silver lining as she reflects on the self-discoveries that can only be found amid moments of great silence.
A confession: I enjoyed the initial days of the pandemic. The shelter-in-place order reminded me of my first silent retreat in 2005, an experience that profoundly recalibrated my worldview.
In the days leading up to the retreat—a 10-day immersion into yoga and Ayurveda—I fretted about food. Never mind the silence, how would I survive without caffeine, sugar, or meat? I imagined sneaking across the highway to the snack shop. As it turned out, having fresh, nourishing food prepared for me three times a day was an extraordinary luxury. I didn’t miss chocolate at all.
Prior to the Covid-19 shutdown, I worried about food again. How long would this crisis last? Would grocery stores run out of supplies? In a panicked fog, I filled my pantry with things I’d never eaten before: four kinds of kimchi, two whole chickens, and broccoli “rice.”
Again, as it turned out, I relished cooking new recipes and trading homemade salsa and sauerkraut with neighbors.
The first day of the silent retreat felt like stepping off a moving sidewalk. Suddenly I wasn’t propelled by external forces; the only forward motion was my own. Retreat attendees had been instructed to leave behind cellphones, books, and any contact with the outside world. We were encouraged to avoid eye contact with one another.
This felt alienating at first, but gave us permission to turn wholly inward—an almost guilty pleasure in a world that demands constant interaction.
Each day I had only a few tasks: wake before dawn, meditate, write in my journal, sweep the cabin, wash the dishes. As the sun rose and set, my own natural rhythms returned.
I felt like a sea creature extending curious antennae. Sitting on the rocky beach I listened to the tide roll onto shore, a global heartbeat that mimicked my own.
At night whales slapped the sea’s surface with their pectoral fins, loud enough to rouse me and influence my dreams.
Mealtimes punctuated an otherwise seamless stretch of time. Eating in silence was awkward, but allowed me to savor each bite. By day three of the retreat, I knew something I’d always suspected: my calendar of Very Important Things wasn’t so important.
The deadlines, the projects, the complaints … they could all wait 10 days. And if they could wait 10 days, could they wait longer? Perhaps … forever?
Each morning as we practiced breathing and stretching, our teacher reminded us, “Yoga is an undoing.” That elusive sense of purpose isn’t found by searching, but rather by shedding the rubbish that’s hiding it. I imagined wiping the glass of my heart’s lantern so the light within could pour out.
The only words I spoke for 10 days were mantras. Initially I thought mantras were inane, a form of brainwashing.
Generations of aspirants say otherwise, recognizing the power of prayer, repeating the rosary, chanting oli. I discovered that I unconsciously whisper mantras to myself all day long—often ugly ones. I’d be better off chanting nonsense, “flamingo flamingo flamingo,” than programmed garbage.
In silence, old hurts surfaced. I resented my cabin mates for minor infractions, hated myself for it, then forgave us both—all without uttering a single word. I saw my culpability in past grievances. Self-discovery isn’t a particularly peaceful pursuit, but it pays in dividends.
Over 10 days, a strong camaraderie developed between the retreat attendees. Having hardly exchanged glances, we felt bonded. I feel that again, on a macro scale. Everyone around the globe is sharing this singular, surreal experience. How remarkable that we’ve been given this moment of pause. It’s come at a great cost.
I hope the lessons stick.
Shannon Wianecki is a writer and editor based on Maui.
This article is part of The Pandemic Diaries, a series of essays written in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.