My not-so-silent retreat

I had the honor of reading this piece at the book release for How to Break Up With Your Phone, the new book by my dear friend and always thoughtful observer of culture, Catherine Price. Writing this piece gave me a chance to take stock of all the ways my phone has become central to the way I experience life, for better and for worse, and has inspired me to try to push my phone a little farther to the periphery. I hope you’ll join me in reading her book and participating in The National Day of Unplugging on March 9-10. Maybe we can sit an have an uninterrupted conversation over a cup of tea that day!

Last month, during the cold dawn of 2018, I went on a silent meditation retreat. Or at least, it was supposed to be silent. But more on that soon.

I’ve been trying to get better at life since I can remember. My two favorite genres of writing are self-help and memoir and even better if it’s both. I have trialed every diet you can imagine – vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, whole 30, the zone, paleo – each with its delightful and ultimately unsustainable qualities. I have meditated for what is probably a total of months at this point. I have exercised, yoga’ed, slept more, slept less, bullet journaled, pomodoroed, prayed, and decluttered (n.b. there are important things in life that do not in fact spark joy. Two words: menstrual pads). I have kept meticulous track of every calorie, every minute, and every dollar and I have learned something from every one of these exercises but the most salient lesson of all has been that on some basic level, I cannot be improved. I am who I am. Gluten-free or not, I am an inconsistent, somewhat anxious ball of desire and wonder and love. I have difficulty with routines. I am perpetually about to cry because of the sorrow and beauty of it all. I am bad at email.

And yet, I still hold out hope. And so, I created an impossible space in my impossible schedule to attend the five-day silent retreat. The retreat was supposed to start at 6pm on a Wednesday and as is usually the case, I overscheduled my day so that at 5:55pm, I was frantically driving through the dark and winding roads of suburban Philadelphia trying to find the retreat center, my Google maps app frantically trying to correct my course, “Turn left, then turn left. Turn left. Turn left. Make a U-turn then turn left.” I parked, huffed and puffed my way into the building and tried to compose myself to enter the meditation hall where everyone else was sitting serenely on their cushions.

The retreat leader started to talk about what the retreat would be like. It would be hard, he said. Lots of negative emotions would come up. It’s hard to be still. It’s hard to maintain silence. Did I mention it would be hard? he said again. I must admit I kind of scoffed on the inside. I take care of dying children for a living, so I am hard-pressed to define almost anything I experience as “hard” while on the other hand, my life feels hard all the time so there’s almost nothing that could happen to me on a cushion that wouldn’t feel a bit like vacation.

“And of course,” he said, “no cell phones.” Heads nodded. Solemn faces. “If you must have one, don’t look at it, don’t bring it out, interact with is as little possible.” Hmmmm, I thought to myself. I don’t know about that one. You see, snow was predicted. Inches or even feet of snow. Apocalyptic, school-cancelling snow. I was already feeling guilty for leaving my spouse with the threat of snow hanging in the air, with the possibility of four long days of solo childcare stretching ahead of her. I had to keep my finger on the pulse. Which brings me to the first thing I learned about myself from the cell phone embargo: I suffer from the delusion that I can prevent or at least fix anything, and my phone is the instrument of that delusion. Tina Fey said it best, “It’s a burden being able to control situations with my hypervigilance, but it’s my lot in life.” I furtively checked my phone throughout the evening, refreshing the weather channel page again and again to see if there was any change in the predicted timing or severity of the snowfall. “I’ll drive back if it’s too bad,” I texted my spouse, without any prompting from her, apropos of nothing.

No sane person would have utilized any other means of communication as often as I was checking my phone. You would never turn the TV on and off or open and close the newspaper 12 times in 20 minutes, or call someone several times in an hour to say one sentence and then hang up. Had I attended the retreat in the era before cell phones, I would have had to make peace with the fact that I would not be there for snowpocalypse, that my spouse would have to find her own way. But the presence of my cell phone gave me the illusion that I could somehow be both here and there. Which brings me to the second delusion my cell phone supports: The delusion that I can live in parallel streams of reality at the same time. But what we know to be true is that multitasking is a myth. Your brain can do only one thing at a time. And what I had committed to do during this time was meditate. And was I was doing was trying to prevent snow from falling by looking at my phone.

I proceeded to put my cell phone in a little orange bejeweled bag and carry it with me everywhere I went, like an oxygen tank, like the scarlet letter, like a child’s security blanket. I had brought only comfortable clothes with me — yoga pants and stretch pants – which had no pockets. In order to keep my phone near me at all times for the purpose of controlling the weather and paying my self-imposed marital guilt tax, I put it into the bag that usually holds my meditation bells. I put my room key in the bag with my cell phone and I tried to project to others the silent message “This bag is for my keys, you see, MY KEYS!” But my cell phone didn’t fully fit in the bag and so it was peeking out. “MY KEYS!” I yelled silently, as I carried it from the meditation hall to the dining hall, back to meditation hall, and upstairs to my austere yet cozy shared room.

We had been randomly assigned roommates and I was bunking with a refugee who had been a Buddhist nun before fleeing religious persecution in her home country. We smiled at each other a lot and changed in our respective closets. We turned out the light and there was a velvety silence made more evident by the sound of snow falling outside, a sound that is really a vacuum of sound.

Less than 20 seconds later, my cell phone vibrated. It was the inevitable automated phone call from my daughter’s school announcing the cancellation for the next day. “Fuck,” I thought to myself, but the silence was so complete that I had the momentary fear that my roommate had heard it. I scrunched down in my sleeping bag as far as I could go without suffocating and spent the next thirty minutes in a marathon texting session with my spouse, our carpool mates, and my various babysitters, architecting a childcare solution. In my stress, I didn’t disable the vibrate function and so a few minutes into the texting storm, I realized with horror that my phone had been buzzing every few seconds. I stopped texting and tuned into the regular sound of my roommates’ breaths. Was she asleep? Or was she so enlightened that she was pretending to sleep to lessen my shame?

The following day, the world outside our cloister sparkled white in the clarion, frigid air. The childcare having been arranged the previous night, I managed to keep my phone in its bag for the duration of the morning. We sat. We walked. We sat. We did yoga. We sat. We were silent. We ate lunch, which tasted amazing in the way that food can taste when you are really paying attention to it. After lunch, I layered on every article of clothing I had brought with me and ventured out into the 2 degrees. As I trudged through the snow, the trail offered up a series of visual surprises, each more beautiful than the last: a series of icicles under a stone overhang, the shocking red flash of a bird against a snow-laced branch, and most spectacularly, a grove of thick bamboo arching overhead to form a living tunnel.

The bamboo was a rich green under the snow. It’s visual texture was echoed in its sounds as it swayed in the wind – the hollow wooden knocking of the thick stems juxtaposed against the rustling of its infinite delicate leaves. I wanted to remember it, to remember it forever. I debated the merits of taking off my ski gloves and pulling out my phone to take pictures, but I feared for my fingers. I felt a pang of loss, which brought me to another realization: Since the advent of my phone, I don’t feel like I am experiencing something fully unless I can document it. I can often be found in front of something beautiful or interesting staring down at my phone and flipping through the pictures I have just taken of it. I stood under the bamboo for a long time, trying to absorb its every color and angle.

Each day of the retreat, my phone checking became less frequent, but it continued to demand my attention — an unavoidable conference call, an email that had to be answered, FaceTime with my daughter. I became aware of how often my distractions during meditation were related to the tug of my phone and its many sources of news, trivia, and triviality. One afternoon, as I sat on the cushion, a phrase came into my mind from a GQ article on Brad Pitt that had been shared around on Facebook some years ago, “At my age, you learn to never trust a fart, never waste a boner, and…” What was the third thing?! I invited this thought to pass, but it was an itch that had to be scratched. At the next opportunity I furtively pulled my phone out and googled it and in case you are curious, the third thing is “never pass up a bathroom” and it was not a quote from Brad Pitt, but from an an alligator wrangler he had encountered in the desert. What did it mean, that this detail had been retained in my mind, that I had broken the cell phone embargo for it, that I had been unable to resist the temptation to revisit this article which I never would have seen in the first place in any world in which I had to seek out information based on my native interests. Which brought me to another insight: My phone has filled my head with trivial knowledge and the desire for more trivial knowledge. I know more than perhaps I would know without it, but more of what I know is of little importance.

I don’t mean to suggest that the retreat was a wash. I learned a kind of yoga – yin yoga – that I am practicing to this day. I was reminded of how much there is to notice and be grateful for in this life, and that stays with me, a deep bass note that I can still hear when I get quiet. I rested and practiced being tender with myself and everyone else. But I don’t think I can say that it was a silent retreat, though I didn’t talk to my fellow participants. I was still part of the noisy, busy, 2×7-inch world of my phone.

Like sugar and anxiety, I don’t think I’ll ever be fully free of my phone. It’s how I learn and connect and remember and navigate and plan and even if I could let go of all that, it’s woven into the fabric of how I take care of patients. If I tried to get rid of my phone, the hospital would buy me a new one. But it’s also how I worry and obsess and waste time and distract myself when I should be paying more attention. It gives me a lot, but at a cost. I am never truly in silence. I am never truly still. Next time I go on retreat, maybe I’ll leave it at home and find out what is possible. Maybe.

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