VACAVILLE, Calif. — A few months ago, I found out that my life was about to get louder. Seeing the word “pregnant” appear on a stick can quickly change how you look at — and hear — things.
With quiet and solitude about to become rare commodities, it seemed like a good time to head to Silent Stay, a monastic retreat atop a Vacaville hill about 30 miles east of Napa. The idea, basically, is to shut up while you center yourself.
The concept intrigued me, so I booked the three-night minimum stay. But as the date drew nearer, I began to resist. I rescheduled twice. When I finally committed to a date, I arrived later than I’d been told to, though I’m usually punctual.
As I exited Interstate 80 — I live in San Francisco so it was only an hour’s drive — everything urban slipped away. On these country roads the hills were golden, the wildlife abundant. When I pulled in, Ruth Davis, who owns and runs the place with her husband, Bruce, hugged me. She was as gracious about my tardiness as she had been about my rebookings.
Silent Stay’s main building, with six guest rooms upstairs and a newish country-style kitchen downstairs, has a modern Tuscan look, hardwood floors and updated appliances. As Ruth showed me around, she quietly laid out the rules: This is a “spiritual library,” she said, so just as in a literary library, there was to be minimal interaction. I was not to approach other guests (there were three), although I could acknowledge their presence. I was to keep digital devices turned off. I was to attend the meditation sessions in the adjoining building at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. each day. (Ruth rings a bell so guests don’t have to check watches or phones.)
“Besides that, do whatever you want. Bake cookies all day if that sounds good,” Ruth said. “Just try not to think too much.”
As she said that, she tilted her head sideways and tapped it, as though to empty it out. I laughed and said, referring to myself, “There’s going to be a lot.”
The first day of my retreat was plagued with “shoulds”: I should be outside more. I should sleep less. I should have kept quiet instead of saying “Hi” when I saw that other guest. I wondered what time it was, what I’d do with myself for two more empty days.
Eventually, though, the chatter in my head died down, and I entered a more neutral state of being. Whatever I was doing was just whatever I was doing.
That’s when I noticed that the silence wasn’t really silent. When you banish the sound of traffic, the phone, the alarm clock, the laptop and the TV, what’s left isn’t soundlessness. It’s bird song, the breeze brushing the trees, a rustling lizard, a buzzing fly, a faraway howl. I heard cows moo, a turkey’s ridiculous gobble, other guests coughing and sneezing, the ticking of my room’s ceiling fan and the graceful clangs of the Davises’ many wind chimes, which made the quiet more tolerable.
Silent Stay’s comparative hush was palpable and profound. The relative nothingness made me uneasy at times; I admit to sneaking an occasional glance at my smartphone in the privacy of my room.
The guest rooms are simple and attractively spare. Mine was the size of a child’s bedroom and furnished with a daybed, a slim wooden desk, an Italianate-style iron clothes rack, a balcony, that ticking ceiling fan and not much more. Bathrooms are homey and shared, unless you pay extra for a private bath.
I slept with the sliding door open so that in the morning the sunlight and wind would awaken me. Soon after opening my eyes, I craved stimulation. I wanted to crack open my laptop or power up my phone to check email, read the news, feel productive. Resisting was a struggle. It was also a struggle not to think about time. How much longer until I could return to normal life? Was I doing this wrong? I felt unsure of myself.
I indulged my urge to be entertained by reading from Silent Stay’s small selection of books. I started and finished Eben Alexander’s thought-provoking “Proof of Heaven,” a 208-page memoir by a neurosurgeon who had a profound, weeklong near-death experience.
By the downstairs fireplace, I leafed through the property’s guest book, which is filled with guests’ handwritten epiphanies. One woman wrote that she realized she should return to a former love. Others were reaching new spiritual heights. Reading these enviable achievements made me feel shallow and impenetrable.
I also read parts of “The Magical Child Within You,” a 1975 bestseller written by Ruth’s husband, Bruce, a psychologist who helped usher the “inner child” concept into the mainstream.
Bruce Davis leads the meditation here. In a stone-floored room filled with candles, flowers, pine cones and cushions, his soothing words, delivered with a serene smile, stated our goals: to stop our brains from going “ding-ding-ding” (his finger zigzagged to illustrate a pinball machine), to offer up our racing stream of thoughts, to receive what there is to receive.
I wanted him to keep talking. But he stopped, and we were in silence again, save for a hawk’s cry here, a sparrow’s warble there. Meditating wasn’t hard, though I was thinking too much. One welcome thought: I pondered whether I could incorporate this practice into my daily life. I felt calm and cleansed afterward, the mental equivalent of how the body feels after an invigorating workout.
When Bruce learned that I was expecting, he told me that pregnancy was an excellent pathway to meditation. “Just sit and hold her within,” he said, correctly identifying her gender before my doctors had. “Right now, she knows how to be still and quiet better than almost anyone. She can teach you how.”
Bruce’s spirituality drew me in, although I couldn’t pinpoint its origin. His practice seemed Buddhist, though he’s written much on Catholicism — about Sts. Francis and Clare — and he and Ruth lived in Assisi, Italy, for 12 years. Silent Stay’s décor supplied few clues: There was a Buddha here, a Jesus there and framed Arabic and Hebrew writings.
Having a specific religion doesn’t matter much here. You’re apt to glean peace from this cloister and the nature that surrounds it, whatever your faith.
I took sunset walks to see the wildlife. The hill I hiked gave off a colorful glow. As sounds from the valley drifted up, I was elated but scared to be alone in the dusk (I pictured mountain lions), so I went back inside.
Each night I made myself dinner — spaghetti with garlic one night, an omelet the next — and ate it alone. Eating without a conversation partner or a glowing TV or computer screen was nice. I was grateful for my food and tasted it more. Guests are told to bring their own groceries, but I didn’t buy much, so I was glad that the kitchen was stocked with communal basics: pastas, eggs, cereals, coffee. There’s also a takeout menu you can order from (you fill out a sheet of paper with what you want and hand it to Ruth or Bruce), though no one did.
Unlike many who had signed its guest book, I didn’t have an epiphany at Silent Stay. I eagerly returned to daily life and its digital screens, including the ones that let me see my unborn child.
I haven’t meditated much since, though I wish I would. I still don’t pay enough attention to the food I eat, or keep enough silence around me. Although the lessons from Silent Stay were powerful, I wasn’t quite ready for them.
But I now know how to get there. My task is to remember to follow the road back when I need it most.