Five days of silence…my friends laughed in astonishment. I’d signed up for a retreat at a Buddhist centre in the woods: no reading, no writing, no talking, no eye contact. My friends were amused (amazed?) because they were familiar with just how much I could talk. But maybe not with why.


I talk in self-defense. Or at least that’s how it feels. I talk to seek reassurance and attention, to fill the silence, to make myself real. My words are a thicket, a fence flung up to keep threats out. It takes a lot of work—a lot of words—to keep this little ship of ego afloat. 


The verbal flow will always be a part of me, but sometimes I feel trapped within the facade it creates. It’s as if the words construct this superstructure on their own, with little contribution from my deeper self. 


So I welcomed the idea of all that silence. Once I got to the retreat, where the only sound would be the bell that called us to meals and meditation, there was indeed a deep release in being with others without having to perform, or worry about what they thought of me. As we entered silence together, I felt a connection with them that ran deeper than words. We were all in the same boat, all dealing with the same problem: ourselves. 


The first thing silence teaches you is that the loudest place in the world is the inside of your own head.


Each day, we woke at 5:15 am and shuffled to the meditation hall, sitting down to the hard work of concentrating on the breath. As we’d been taught, we tried to discriminate between those thoughts easily released and deeper feelings that had to be “sat with.” Not judged, not analyzed, not obsessed over--just faced and moved through. We’d been warned that “challenging energies” would come up at random: desire, shame, aversion, fear. And I managed to hit each one in turn. In the emptiness, ancient guilts resurfaced. Doubts hollowed out the ground I stood on. Along with the others, I sat and breathed, hoping to ride it out, hoping to step through.


On the fourth day, my own personal black dog appeared. Perhaps he’d missed me in these last years of relative happiness. I recognized his scent immediately, felt the sucking sensation of going down into that familiar and seemingly bottomless well of fear and anxiety. But then the bell rang. 


Time for walking meditation. I charged out to the woods, making for the tree-line like an escaped captive. I did not pay attention to the breath. I did not notice each step. 


The woods were full of fog and melting snow, and they knew my story. For a yogi, a Pagan, a Buddhist — the forest is where you go to find the truth. It is also where you are silently embraced by a force that does not, cannot, judge you. I remembered I was more than my words, more than my thoughts. I was a mystery of body and soul, a creature of the Earth, a child of the Goddess. The black dog would always be with me, my familiar. But so would something else, something that had been there—breathing, watching, waiting out the storm—all along. Something just as strong and twice as precious.

I know its nature if not its name, and it was what I found in my silence, in my waiting for what was already there.