I Did A 5-Day No Talking, No Tech, No Chewing Retreat So You Don’t Have To

(Not because it was that painful, but since many don’t have the time or patience for a silent retreat, here’s what I learned on my first one.)

I snapped this photo just before the silence. This dock near the retreat center was my favorite spot to not talk (Location: San Marcos on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala)

Some of you veteran meditators may be thinking, “A measly five days? That’s a silent retreat with training wheels. I’ve done the 10 (or 30!) day Vipassana.”

Meanwhile, the majority of you are likely thinking more along the lines of, “Holy Mother of Discipline! Just shutting up for a single day qualifies for a medal, and that’s before the points for barely eating and no texting are tallied up.”

If you’re in the latter group of novice mouth-closers like I was a week ago, here is a (hopefully) enlightening account of what one might gain from the experience.

But first, the ground rules:

No Talking:

The obvious: no verbal communication using words coming outta your mouth.

The less obvious: no written communication like using a notepad or wearing an adorable miniature chalkboard around your neck. Non-verbal cues like eye contact and smiling were left up to our own discretion.

No Tech:

Full-blown digital detox, baby. No texting, Facebooking, or Googling tips for how to stay silent. No screens of any kind — even old school screens called books. No reading! And no listening to music, either. All these inputs, while enjoyable, serve as distractions from your journey inward and learning to just be with your own thoughts.

I had my phone on airplane mode for five days, which is a very long flight. (Part of me wishes they had locked our phones away as on stricter retreats, but then I wouldn’t have been able to use my iPhone as a very overpriced alarm clock.)

No Chewing:

The original liquid diet, aka Nature’s SlimFast: nothing but all-natural fruits and veggies. Freshly blended fruit juice for breakfast, pureed veggie soup for lunch, another juice in the afternoon, and as much water and tea as your bladder wants to deal with.

Mmmm…Watermelon juice for breakfast. I had most of my “meals” with this view — it made not chewing 35% more bearable.

The goal of this semi-starvation meal plan isn’t to torture you, though it certainly felt that way at times. Normally a huge % of our body’s energy goes toward digestion. And often on foods that are hard to process or shouldn’t be in our bodies in the first place (ahem, Chili Cheese Fritos). Simple, healthy liquids give your body a break so it can funnel more energy and focus toward meditation.

Why I did this: The obvious answer is that I’m a masochist. The other one is that like many of us, I’m looking for deeper answers to questions like:

What’s my purpose in this life?

How can I better harness my body, mind and spirit to be a more loving, happy and productive human?

And of course, how quickly can I learn to levitate?

Now, on to some answers!

What I learned:

1. When your voice is silent, everything else gets louder. Good lord, our senses miss so much while we’re constantly blabbering. Within a few hours of putting myself on mute, I started noticing cheesy, wonderful things. How the water looks like silk when the lake is so calm in the morning. The texture of (liquid) food — not just how it tastes but how it feels. Even the subtle, satisfying sound of fingernails against your skin when you scratch an itch.

In other words, when your mouth closes, your eyes and ears and nose really open on a new level.

2. Inner stillness should not hinge on outer stillness. There’s a saying that it’s easy to be a monk in a monastery (with no distractions or temptations around). If so, then it’s proportionally harder to be a monk in a college dorm with adjacent zoo, daycare center and wedding hall.

For reasons not entirely clear but probably financial, my meditation center rented out its vacant pyramid-shaped cabins to a group of 15 college students visiting Guatemala on an agriculture studies project. Bless their teenage hearts, they tried to keep it down once they realized their neighbors were mimes, but it still felt like having a gaggle of illiterate geese crash your book club.

The geese inadvertently taunted us with their audible quacking and unlimited bread consumption. The town’s numerous local dogs (no metaphor, actual dogs) also did not get the memo about our silent retreat. They barked literally all niiight looo-oong. Perhaps to drown out the dogs, the locals blasted Spanish techno music at all hours. Honorable mention goes to the man who tested a loudspeaker at 4am for no discernible reason. A monastery it was not.

The lesson here is seemingly to choose a silent retreat set in a quieter location rather than five feet from the center of town. But Alla, real life is exactly like this! It’s full of obnoxious distractions and noisy, illiterate geese waddling around. Exactly. It was a teachable moment. If you can find inner peace amidst all that noise, you realize it’s there inside you all the time, which is quite empowering. As a bonus, I now feel ready to meditate in the middle of Grand Central Station during rush hour.

There really is a stock photo for everything

3. A healthy extreme can still be unhealthy. Confession: I broke the no chewing rule and ate a slice of bread on Day 4 — and another one the next day. (With the kitchen and our phones being left unlocked, it was like living in a rehab facility with a mini-bar guarded by the honor system.)

Breaking a rule served as a valuable reminder that extremes aren’t good even on the healthy end of the spectrum. Listen to your body above all. It should trump advice from articles, nutrition experts and your friend with great abs. My body woke me up in the middle of the night with famished dizziness and said, “Go eat something that requires chewing, you lightheaded idiot.”

In this case the choice was clear. The real challenge is when our sneaky mind tries to speak for our body, in the form of cravings and flagrant disregard for portion control that a body would never sanction, e.g. “You deserve that whole pizza after a hard day.” Deep down we know the difference between what our body needs and what our mind wants— we just don’t like to admit it, because pizza is delicious.

By now I have either scared you off from ever doing a silent retreat or completely piqued your interest (or just made you crave pizza). Either way, here are a few fun exercises to make everyday life a little less loud:

A. Five minutes of socially sanctioned silence

We are so uncomfortable with silence in our culture, especially in the presence of others. I sat with a friend who wasn’t doing the retreat, and she unconsciously filled the void left by my vow of silence by doubling her talking.

Next time you’re sitting with someone you like (or even better, dislike), suggest a five minute silence. Perhaps over a tasty meal or when you’re seated in front of a great view. Give yourselves the permission to be quiet and see what unfolds.

B. A sexier meditation technique

The most common meditation technique I hear about is to count your breaths. This gives your chatty monkey mind a simple job to keep it from getting lost in thoughts. Frankly, I always found counting dull, and my monkey mind found it a bit patronizing to be given a job any five year old could do. So I would lose interest around breath number four and start thinking again.

Then I discovered a simple yet sexier technique: As you inhale, say to yourself, I am. As you exhale, say an emotionally charged word that has meaning for you, like: grateful. Or love. Or joy. It sounds cheesy but it works. Breath in “I am.” Breathe out love or gratitude (or alternate the two — go nuts). Repeat until you believe it, or until you start to levitate.

C. Catalog your thoughts like a non-judgy stranger would

Another thing I learned after meditating for four hours a day is that the point of meditation isn’t to completely clear your mind. That’s impossible without a lobotomy. The point is to observe and understand where your mind goes when it wanders, and then gently walk it back to center without judging your thoughts or getting frustrated.

Along with impartially noticing each thought, determine if it was set in the past or the future. Past thoughts include replaying a conversation you already had or getting lost in a memory. Future thoughts are musings about what to eat later or things you might tell a friend next time you see her. Both types take you out of the present moment, the only time and place where life exists. As soon as I ‘outed’ and categorized a thought, it seemed to stop naturally on its own.

And here you thought I’d let you go without a generic photo of stacked zen stones.

While I’m overjoyed to be talking, texting and chewing again (not simultaneously), I now truly appreciate how silence isn’t limiting — it’s liberating. Our noisy lives and chatty minds could use a lot more of it, whether through meditation or simply deliberate moments of silence.

Going inward is absolutely essential, liquid diets are entirely optional, and I still love my overpriced alarm clock — though airplane mode is now my second favorite smartphone feature.

I’ll leave you with the words of the Dalai Lama:

When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.