BEING THERE : Sounding Retreat

My silent treatments started four years ago. Stressed out, worn out and wigged out, I wanted out-- of town, that is. But I was in no shape to make travel plans, so a friend of mine took one look at me and, over my feeble protestations, signed me up for a retreat in Palos Verdes shepherded by a Benedictine monk. A silent retreat. No talking allowed.

I had never meditated in my life, nor have I ever been accused of harboring even the vaguest New Age tendencies. The possibility of my remaining silent for more than 10 minutes was a remote one. But my friend insisted and, besides, she was going, so I figured if things got too painful we could sneak in a conversation or two.

At first, there were moments when water torture or self-flagellation would have seemed more pleasant, but I quickly discovered something amazing: Once the burden of speech is lifted, so go all the social obligations and deliberations that clutter up your mind and time. Suddenly, I didn't have to decide or discuss a damn thing. All I had to do was show up and shut up.

Relieved of the usual distractions and endless, crucial daily chitchat, the mind and spirit can pay attention instead to thinking and reflecting in an internal workout called "meditative listening." It's amazing what you can hear when you stop talking

We were pretty much on our own. Some read, some slept; I prayed and attended lectures on spirituality given by the monk. He invited questions, but I had turned purist and couldn't think of anything worth breaking my silence to say.

By weekend's end, I left reluctantly, arriving home so deeply refreshed I knew I had hit pay dirt. Since then, I've done my silent treatments in the California desert; in an old mansion in Montecito; in a cubicle in Big Sur, where monks serve your meals to you, prison-like, through a vestibule door; in a castle nunnery in France. I look to them as my yearly safety valve.

Apparently, I'm not the only one anxious for silence. There are now several books that list retreats all over the country for the increasing numbers of "silent disciplined." And the last time I visited the Montecito retreat, nuns informed me that I should call May 1 at 9 a.m. sharp for a summer slot: So great is the stampede for silence that by 11 a.m. the entire summer is booked.

Amazing thing, silence. A sound you rarely hear.

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