Dani Shapiro
December 8, 2008

On Solitude

I’m back from three days on silent retreat. The schedule was this: Forty-five minutes of meditation before breakfast, then three hours of meditation (both seated and walking) before lunch, then another three hours in the afternoon, then dinner. Then another hour and a half before bedtime. It was the gentlest possible immersion into such an experience, with two extraordinary Buddhist meditation teachers leading the group and giving talks. But still, gentle as it was, it was extremely tough going for me. There was definitely a hump to get over — and once I had begun to get over that hump, it was already time to go home.

I didn’t get to know my fellow retreatants. I saw them out of the corner of my eye, and made up stories in my mind about them. 150 people–spanning many decades, shapes, sizes–all made a commitment at some point to come on this retreat. Perhaps sitting in front of their computers, as I did last summer, reading about The Garrison Institute, or these particular teachers, and making a split second decision, as I did. Of course, some of them were old hands at this; the ones who settled on their cushions with their own comfy blankets and water bottles. It was oddly intimate, living with these strangers, each of us going through our own internal adventure. Each morning I brushed my teeth and washed my face alongside the other women in the communal bathroom–something I haven’t done since college. We ate our meals next to one another at long tables, chewing thoughtfully in silence.

Now that I’m home again, and time collapses around me as if I had never been gone (the dogs, the homework, the lists, the school bake sale, the manuscripts) I am thinking about the quality of that particular kind of solitude. Looking around at the other people on the retreat, I was aware that I am alone most of the time, and I wondered if it might be even more difficult for those people who spend their days surrounded by co-workers. I do have a solitary life during the daylight hours. But I often fight that solitude even as I live it. I run from it, I distract myself. It’s as if there’s something terrifying at the center of it, and I’m afraid to look. After three days of going incrementally deeper, closer and closer to the core of that place, I am at the moment less afraid. My mind polished, settled, clear. How long will it last? Stay tuned.