A Quiet Place

Most people would love a weekend retreat where no one speaks. But how would this chatty millennial keep silent? 

WORDS Jess Swanson
November 2018
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In the days leading up to my trip to Solano County, Northern California, I couldn’t shut up. This was largely due to the fact that, for an entire weekend, shutting up was all I’d be doing. The literature promised that my visit at the Silent Stay Retreat Center would help me “connect with the inner spaciousness of the heart.” All I could think of was a marathon time-out session.

When I told friends I’d booked a stay at the resort—which discourages not only talking but instant messaging, hand gestures and expressive eye contact—their reactions varied from “that sounds peaceful” to “I would die.” The Uber driver who picked me up from the airport in Sacramento just raised her eyebrows. Maybe she was a grad.

Before arriving at the retreat, I’d pictured sweat lodges and fire pits, but it quickly became clear that this would be a more comfortable form of soul-searching. At the end of the drive stood a neat ranch-style house with mountain views, a swimming pool and hot tub. 

I was greeted at the door by Ruth Davis. She and her psychologist husband, Bruce, opened the property in 2012, catering to folks eager to switch the world off for a while. I was confused when Ruth asked about my flight. Was I hearing voices already? She smiled and explained that the silence would begin once the other guests had arrived. As she led me to my room, I reminded myself that I could always turn on the bathroom faucet and talk to the mirror if I got desperate.

After stuffing my phone under the mattress to avoid temptation, I heard a chime, signifying the beginning of our first meditation session. I emerged from my room and followed Ruth into a sandalwood-scented space, where Bruce was already seated, smiling like the Buddha statue behind him. Also, there were the six other guests I’d be ignoring this weekend—all female but for a young man with horn-rimmed glasses and a sketchbook. 

"People’s reactions to the resort ranged from 'That sounds peaceful' to 'I would die.'"

The session lasted 45 minutes, which seems longer when you’re sitting cross-legged on the floor trying to avoid eye contact. As time melted away like a Dalí clock, I speculated about the noises that brought these people here. Crying babies? Twitter pings? My lower back started to ache, my right leg had gone numb and it took all of my restraint not to say “Ow.” 

Free time presented different challenges. Without internet or TV, the other guests became my primary source of entertainment. Peeking from behind a book in the courtyard after dinner, I watched the glasses guy sketching furiously, wanting, but not daring, to ask what he was drawing. When a buck with giant antlers appeared in the meadow 15 feet away from us, my eyeballs darted back and forth, anxious for someone to react to the creature, but no one did. 

Being silent is like being invisible. It’s much easier to sneak up on people—and much easier for them to sneak up on you. A woman with a flowery tattoo startled me when she approached with a bowl of figs she’d picked, miming for me to take one. Later, as a couple of young women made lunch, I walked behind them to fill a glass of water, causing one to shriek. I realized then that the first rule of Silent Retreat Club may not be “No Talking” but “No Hysterical Laughing.”

On Sunday morning, I lay in bed and quietly counted my fingers—I’d gone 38 hours without uttering a word. And, I have to admit, it felt pretty good. Waking up to chirping birds, rather than an angry phone alarm, removed a layer of stress. Sipping coffee in the courtyard removed another. By mid-afternoon, I was at one with the universe—or at least this patch of California countryside.  

As the day wore on, my thoughts stopped circling around emails and deadlines. Instead, I focused on the moment and what I wanted to do with it. Have an oatmeal cookie? A three-hour nap? My fellow guests, too, seemed more at ease. Throughout the stay, I’d been waiting for somebody to crack, but nobody did from what I could tell. 

There was one form of communication allowed, however. 

On the last night of our stay, I spotted a leather-bound book on a small table. It was filled with hundreds of entries from previous guests—people who needed a break from belligerent bosses, noisy neighbors, messy relationships. Nathan from Arkansas admitted he’d found the silence difficult at first—“I even called the airline to see how much a quick return ticket would cost”—but was now plotting his next visit. 

I flipped to the last entry, written by the woman with the flowery tattoo, who was named Cindy and was a new mom. It occurred to me then that maybe the fig she’d handed me earlier was more maternal than rebellious—born of an impulse harder to resist than speaking. 

I woke up on my last day to Ruth’s chime, and after this the realization that everyone else had already left. I meditated alone, and the room felt enormous. When I went downstairs for coffee, it struck me that the silence was perfectly natural, that it was all mine, and that felt strangely lonely. 

Later, on the way back to the airport, the driver bombarded me with questions: “What was that place? What’s a silent retreat? Did you really not speak? Not at all? So what did you do all day?” 

Man, I thought, this guy can talk.

Jess Swanson

Jess Swanson is the associate editor at American Way and Celebrated Living. She graduated from Columbia University School of Journalism. Her reporting has taken her from the python-infested Everglades swamps to a bubbling onsen in Tokyo to a lava-spouting volcano in Nicaragua.

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