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Mental Health

Is Silence the Key To Calming Your Overactive Mind? Not Necessarily

The story of an extrovert who embarks on a silent retreat.


A few years ago, after several months of experiencing that everyone-needs-something- from-me-at-every-moment-of-the-day-feeling, I realized that I needed to find a new way to manage stress. Thumbing through a catalog for a dreamy-looking woodsy retreat center, I saw a description for a silent meditation weekend. “Silence,” the description read, “gives us the opportunity to disconnect from the distractions of daily life. It’s a bridge to get in touch with our inner selves.” I was intrigued. But I was also hesitant. You see, when many people need to recharge, they soak in a bathtub or go for a run or even relax the day away in front of the latest Netflix show. Not me. When I need an energy boost, I seek out a friend — or even a random stranger — to have a conversation. Yes, I am a full-fledged, card-carrying extrovert.

The Extrovert

For me, connecting with others is invigorating. As I go about my day, I talk to virtually anyone and everyone who crosses my path. I can tell you about the family history of my local Chinese restaurant owner or for which college my florist’s daughter plays lacrosse. Outgoing people like me get our energy from interacting with others, even if it’s just during a quick trip to the supermarket or, before COVID-19, sitting in a bustling coffee shop and chatting up a stranger.

I had long heard about the benefits of meditation — stress reduction, lower blood pressure, and greater mental clarity, among others — but I never really understood. How can you be “in the moment” when there are deadlines looming and laundry calling? How do you quiet your mind when you can’t stop thinking about that awkward dinner conversation four years ago? My mind — and my mouth — are always working. How could I possibly quiet them both?

When I brought up the possibility of a silent weekend to my husband and 8-year-old daughter, they looked surprised — and also pleased. They both urged me to go… albeit, a little too enthusiastically. My daughter stared me straight in the eye and said, “Seriously, Mom. Go. And relax,” she added with emphasis. Then, I swear, as she turned to walk away, I heard her chuckle to herself. “You’re going to stay quiet for a whole weekend? Good luck with that one, Mom.” I’ll show her, I thought — and signed up on the spot.

The Sound of Silence

A few weeks later when I arrived at the retreat, I was immediately taken with the lovely wooded path that welcomed us. I quickened my pace, eager to discuss the scenery with someone. At the front desk, I chatted a tad too long with the manager and only had time to throw my bags into my room before the first class was scheduled to begin.

I rushed across the campus, took off my shoes and left them outside the screen door, as the
sign commanded. The instructor stopped speaking the minute I walked in. Embarrassed, I quickly found an open spot on the floor and rolled out my yoga mat. I looked at the people around me. To my right sat a man with long hair, bare feet, and a brown fringed jacket. To my left was a woman dressed in head-to-toe yellow.

“I’m Barbara,” she whispered, a little too loudly, I feared, although her thick southern drawl delighted me. I nodded, trying to follow the “no talking” rule I assumed was a given at a silent retreat. I couldn’t help but notice that, instead of leaving her sneakers outside the door, Barbara had placed them on the floor beside her yoga mat.

My First Mistake

We started with a simple, seated meditation. “Breathe in. Breathe out,” the instructor said. But my mind wouldn’t quiet down. I wondered where Barbara got her accent. Why was she dressed entirely in yellow? And why did she keep her shoes next to her? My curiosity raged and I was dying to discuss all this with her. Moments later, the instructor broke the silence to allow us to ask questions. I raised my hand and he nodded toward me.

“I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right,” my voice said, sounding almost booming in the silence that surrounded it. Then, more quietly, I continued. “I mean, I think I was. But how do I keep my mind from wandering?” I asked. He looked at me for a few seconds, then said, “There’s a lot of ‘I’ in that question.” “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.” “Think less about the ‘I,’” he responded, then he turned to take another question.

I sat, stunned and, for once, silent. What did he mean? How was I supposed to ask a question without an “I” in it? The instructor’s gentle voice interrupted my thoughts as he told us to try again. But with each breath, my thoughts intruded on my supposed-to-be-quiet mind. I would never get meditation right. Feeling woefully inadequate, I longed to raise my hand and ask for help, but I didn’t dare.

Finally, the class was over, and the instructor softly told us to get a good night’s sleep. “The real work begins tomorrow,” he said in an almost whisper. That wasn’t real work? I’d kept my mouth shut for the better part of two hours. I was exhausted!

Along Came a Spider

The next morning when I arrived at class, Barbara was already there. I sat down between her and the man with the fringed jacket. Once again, she had ignored the instructions to keep her shoes outside. I died a little inside, needing to ask her why she had to keep them next to her. Did she have a foot issue? Did she have something valuable stashed in them? Had someone stolen her sneakers as a child? But I knew my chitchat had to wait. Barbara wasn’t worried about keeping mum. “How’d ya sleep, hon?” she asked.

I was thrilled to converse. “Fine. It was a little warm, but I got used to it. How about…?” In the middle of my sentence, I felt eyes burning on me. I turned to the front of the room, and sure enough, the instructor was staring me down like he was a first-grade teacher, waiting to start the lesson. Once again, I was the problem student. “Sorry,” I mumbled. “Close your eyes,” the instructor guided us. “Reach up. Breathe in. Bend at the waist. Breathe out as you reach down for the mat. Repeat. And again.”

On about the third inhale, I felt a tickle on the top of my foot. As I bent over, I opened my eyes and a green spider stared back at me from the base of my big toe. I screamed as the spider fell off my foot and onto my mat. The instructor turned quickly to me and in a voice that was likely sharper than he intended, said, “What is it NOW?” Fringed-jacket guy muttered, “It’s a bug, lady. No big deal.” “Oh, honey. I’ll get it,” Barbara exclaimed, as she grabbed her sneaker and thwacked, thwacked, thwacked the living daylights out of the tiny bug.

A Different Kind of Peace

The other students stared at Barbara and me, mouths agape. The barefoot dude carefully scooped up what was left of the spider carcass and took it outside. When he came back, he looked shaken. Barbara was too busy wiping her shoe to notice. The instructor looked drained. “I think we could all use a break.”

The instructor went outside and my classmates filed out behind him. Barbara went off in search of the nearest ladies’ room to clean off her shoe. Alone in the meditation room, I felt the opposite of the peace I longed for. I was lonely and uncomfortable. I didn’t belong. The sting of tears rose in my eyes. I thought about my husband and daughter. They were probably leaving her soccer game and stopping for lunch. They’d recap the game and maybe even go for a bike ride that afternoon, talking, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company.

The images of those simple moments calmed my racing mind. I realized how much I missed them — how much I wanted to be there, too. It occurred to me, perhaps for the first time, that I didn’t need to torture myself in silence among strangers. Every day, I had opportunities to focus on the joyful sounds of my daughter’s laughter, a warm breeze rustling leaves on a sunny day, and the soothing sound of waves breaking on a sandy beach.

I quickly rolled up my yoga mat and hurried back to my room. I threw my clothes in the suitcase and left a note for Barbara at the office, to say “goodbye.” As I pulled out
of the retreat center and headed toward home, one of my favorite songs came on the radio. So, I turned it up and sang along. Loudly.

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Mindfulness For Women.

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