I’m thinking about silence as I prepare to leave on a three day meditation retreat. I’ve gone on meditation retreats before, but this one, in the literature, requests that participants engage in “social silence”. This means silent meals. No eye contact. No hellos in the hallways. Just silence. And I’m truly petrified. You wouldn’t think I would be so frightened of silence. After all, I spend my days quietly. Here I sit, with one of the dogs curled up on the reading chair in my office, the other dog downstairs in the kitchen–my only company during the days. The only sounds are the crunch of gravel in the driveway when a UPS truck pulls up to the house–usually with a package of books from Amazon–or the ring of the phone, which almost always startles me since I’m already turned inward.
So what is so frightening about this kind of meditative, contemplative silence? I suppose that I will have to come face to face with my own distractions. With the way that I manage my daily periods of concentration by regularly turning my attention away from the work, rather than towards it. I remember, when I used to smoke cigarettes, how it felt to take a cigarette break. The box of Marlboros, the ashtray, the matches, the blowing of the smoke–it was a real break from writing. When I quit smoking (this was in 1989 or so, in case you’re wondering) I was at a loss. What was my new cigarette break going to be, without cigarettes? The internet hadn’t been invented yet, or at least I didn’t have access to it. I didn’t have email. I remember the feeling: it was time for a break, but I had nothing to do. I sat there, fidgeting, nervous, waiting for the wave of discomfort to pass. I imagine this is how it will be, sitting in silence.
Here’s my current version of a cigarette break, nearly twenty years later: as I sit at my desk working, I regularly hit upon moments when I need to look away from what I’m doing. Instead of gazing out the window, or standing and stretching, or any one of a number of mentally quiet activities, I check email. I go online and look things up. Depending on the day and the state of my mental health, I find myself on the blogs of friends; or literary websites; I browse my favorite fashion website, though in all the years I’ve clicked through there, I’ve bought exactly two items; and worst of all, I google myself. This is never good, and I try hard not to do it. As Joyce Carol Oates said to her husband Ray at breakfast one morning, when he noticed that the New York Times had a review of one of her novels–I’m not going to read it now. If it’s good, it will ruin my writing day, and if it’s bad, it will ruin my writing day. But either way, I want to have a writing day.
As I embark on this rather brief period of silence that stretches before me like a great yawning gulf, I’m frightened, yes–but also curious to see what happens with no version of a cigarette break.