"You’ll be staying in Building 3,” explained Danny, as we arrived at Kibbutz Ein Dor, where we were about to spend just under a week at the annual silent Jewish meditation retreat my wife and I have attended for the past several years.
We had gotten to the retreat late this year – our son’s end-of-high-school music recital conflicted with the beginning of the retreat and we couldn’t miss his performance – which meant that by the time we entered the space on Tuesday evening, everyone else was already in silence.
Danny, who as retreat manager could talk, pointed out how to get to the dorms where Jody and I had a private room, where to pick up sheets and towels, and other logistics. Then he added, as nonchalantly as he could, in a slightly choked whisper, which foreshadowed the drama about to unfold, “Oh, by the way, it’s in the women’s dorm. Brian, you’ll be the only guy there.”
Well, that was going to be awkward.
No problem, I’d just explain to my fellow dorm-mates the situation, how because we were the only married couple on the retreat this year, they hadn’t been able to rent an entire separate building just for us, and so it was either me with the women or Jody with the men.
Except that I couldn’t explain anything – they were in silence, I was in silence, and at these kinds of retreats we generally don’t even make eye contact.
“I’d recommend that you use the shower in the men’s dorm. But it should be OK for you to use the toilet in Building 3,” Danny suggested helpfully.
“Do the women know I’m coming?” I asked.
Danny looked away sheepishly, but the answer came quickly as Jody and I wheeled our small suitcases – much too loudly given the general quiet around us – to the dorm. Surprised and uncomfortable glances from a couple of women shot in my direction.
“What is he doing in here?” I imagined them thinking.
“Does he not know this is the women’s dorm? Is he some Peeping Tom? Does he think he can just sneak into some woman’s room without us noticing? Maybe he’s not even on the retreat!”
Nope, this was definitely not going to be easy.
I thought about putting up a sign at the entrance to the dorm explaining my presence, how I didn’t want to make anyone feel threatened or unsafe. But that’s not how communication works at a silent retreat. In the dining room there’s a place to leave private notes – never to other participants – only to the teachers and staff.
THE EIN Dor retreat center is a study in contrasts. The meditation room itself was recently renovated and has lovely wooden floors, an abundance of comfortable mats and pillows and soft lighting. The accommodations, on the other hand, haven’t been touched in at least 30 years. They make a Himalayan guest house look like a Waldorf Astoria.
Broken windows, cobwebs and every manner of crawling thing, plus peeling paint that at several moments cascaded down from the ceiling onto the floor of our room, were our constant companions.
Jody and I – who are strict about keeping social silence on retreat and don’t talk to each other even when we’re alone in our private room – could only share a wry smile.
Not talking can sound like torture, but I find it incredibly liberating. I talk to people all the time for my work. It’s awkward at first to sit at the Shabbat table in total silence, but to dispense with the small talk and focus instead on the food (and the cooking of Ayana Lekach, who calls herself a “mindful caterer” is superb) is a practice we would all do well to try from time to time, even on a non-meditation- specific Shabbat.
I dutifully showered in the men’s dorm and kept my toilet time in Building 3 to a minimum. Other than the looks I received – or had I just projected my own awkwardness onto the women I was now living with? – I had no way of knowing whether my being there was causing a disturbance.
That is, until the afternoon announcement period on our second day there, when one of the retreat leaders spoke up.
“I just want to let you know, in case you haven’t noticed, that Brian is staying in the women’s dorms. He’s not showering there, so don’t worry,” explained Rabbi Jeff Roth, whose Awakened Heart Project co-sponsored the retreat with Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels’s Israel-based Or HaLev.
Someone must have written a note.
A few hours later, Jeff brought it up again.
“And just so you know,” he added, “Brian is not even looking in the women’s showers.”
That, I surmised, was directed as much at me as the other women. I wanted to run away. This was just too embarrassing.
IT ALWAYS takes time – in my experience a good two to three days – just to “settle” on a retreat; to get to that point where you’re no longer thinking about what you need to accomplish at work or concerns about the outside world.
I was still in that period so I allowed myself to fantasize about sneaking away, taking the bus to Afula and going home to Jerusalem.
However, I couldn’t leave Jody a note to tell her that, so I stayed.
The truth is, this was all good “material,” which is exactly what a retreat – and a meditation practice in general – is all about. The real aim in mindfulness is to be able to just “be” with whatever arises, especially uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. It’s not about shutting down feeling or trying to somehow get “quiet.”
Indeed, going on retreat is some of the hardest and internally noisy work I’ve ever done. It sounds peaceful but it’s really the opposite.
Nevertheless, the payoff can be huge.
If you can accept what comes up (not just on retreat, but at any time in your life) rather than resist, if you can sit with the pain – whether physical, emotional or both – without trying to distract yourself through chocolate or TV or sex, the insights can be life altering.
The key is to drop expectations and cede control – you really don’t have any. I was on this particular retreat for a total of 96 hours. I had all of 45 minutes of clarity.
However, that 45 minutes was breathtaking and I couldn’t have gotten there without the support of my fellow meditators in the hall or the other 95 hours of sitting, walking, eating and sleeping mindfully.
“Material” can come from surprising places. The first time I was on retreat, I was shocked that there were other groups sharing the space – and they weren’t silent, not by a long shot. I was livid, my expectations of a pastoral relaxing environment dashed.
This year, it was even more in-your-face.
A group of young Israelis were staying in an adjacent dorm and holding some kind of sports camp on the grounds. We were doing our best at turning inward; as they set up the goal posts and tossed around the soccer ball, their unambiguous objective was to make as much noise as possible.
Had Danny put me in the women’s dorm davka to create discomfort? Even if it wasn’t on purpose, it certainly served the purpose of generating “material” to work with.
At the end of the retreat, the participants were encouraged to say something about their experience. I talked about my four days in Building 3. Afterward, a woman approached me.
“You were the best male dorm mate we could have asked for,” she said. “Especially because you always put the toilet seat down!”
“Thank you,” I replied, breathing out an attentive sigh of relief. “I did that mindfully, too.” The author is a freelance writer who specializes in technology, start-ups and the entrepreneurs behind them. More at www.bluminteractivemedia.com.