Three Days of Silence: My Experience at a Silent Retreat in Bali

At 5:30 a.m. the first gong goes off.  A soft, ominous sound that carries across the darkness of the retreat.  

I roll out of bed and climb out from underneath our gauzy mosquito net.  I grab a sweater because, despite Bali's sauna-like afternoons, the pre-dawn hours are actually quite cool.  

Sunrise at the retreat.

Sunrise at the retreat.

On my way down the front porch steps of my bungalow, I slip on my flip flops and make my way through the dim light along stone paths to the Bale, a covered outdoor platform that hosts meditation and yoga sessions. 

For the next hour, I sit in silence, straight backed and crossed legged focusing on the inhale and exhale of my breath.  

I am surrounded by 9 other retreat guests, whose names, countries and occupations I don't know because I've never heard them speak.  We arrange our mats in a circle around two lit candles.  We wrap ourselves in blankets and sit together in comfortable silence, ticking away the moments, recognizing when our minds wander and gently bringing our focus back when they do.  

The Bale, where yoga and meditation sessions take place.

The Bale, where yoga and meditation sessions take place.

This is how each morning begins at the Bali Silent Retreat, a restorative sanctuary an hour north of Bali's cultural center, Ubud.  

The property consists of a few rustic wood bungalows (some private, some dormitories), a dining lodge, a yoga center and a number of gardens and paths for guests to walk.  It is surrounded by dense jungle and rice terraces where young Balinese boys zip through narrow pathways in the rice fields on motorbikes.  

Founded as a non-profit back in 2011, the concept offers a place for guests from all over the world to rest and relax.

The list of things to do at the retreat are many.  You can check out a book from the lodge's library, graze on vegetarian food throughout the day, nap in your cabin or on the many comfy couches around the communal area, go for walks through the jungle or rice terraces, walk the labyrinth, journal or practice yoga and meditation at one of the organized sessions.

Reading in the communal area of the lodge.

Reading in the communal area of the lodge.

The one thing you cannot do is talk.

You're also discouraged from using electronics, which is okay because there are no outlets to charge them.  Additionally, you'll do without meat, dairy, gluten, alcohol and caffeine.

Typical vegan lunch at the retreat.  

Typical vegan lunch at the retreat.  

I was nervous before leaving for our three-day stay.  I had been warned that silence can be challenging.  With no distractions like TV, Internet, music, podcasts, or activities with friends, silence has a way of bringing to the surface things you may be hiding or running from.

To my surprise, I felt a tremendous amount of relief there.  

Not having to speak to other guests was a huge change for me.  

I love people, and I think I'm pretty good at connecting and feeling connected, but like many women I know, I sometimes feel like my socialness is an obligation.  Like I have to always say and do the right thing, I have to be affable and pretty and smiling all the time.  I have to engage people and ask questions because "an interesting person is interested."  I have to make people feel loved and included, and I do that by juggling social situations, always reading the room and looking for social cues to make sure I'm doing it correctly.

A writer I like, Glennon Doyle Melton, calls this her "representative."  She sends her representative out into the world because her representative is everything she's been socialized as a girl to be: friendly, open, happy, thin, pretty, agreeable.  The real her, the one who's loud and grumpy and not attractive and not in agreement, doesn't always get to see the light of day.

So similarly, I feel like I have a representative, and she's really good at social situations, but she almost never gets a break.  Even on the WAY to the freaking silent retreat she was leaned forward in the car engaging the driver in conversation about his family and where he was from and the Hindu holiday he was about to celebrate.

Sometimes it's exhausting.

To go to a place where I don't have to juggle- I don't have to smile and defer and ask good questions and remember where everyone's from and ask how they're enjoying themselves- where I'm not just no longer responsible for the group's happiness, I'm not ALLOWED to be.  Like rules against it.  Not my job.  I'm just supposed to mind my own freaking business and sit by myself.  

It was heavenly.

Walking the rice terraces one evening at sunset.

Walking the rice terraces one evening at sunset.

Even the situations that normally give you social anxiety- like eating a communal meal- were eliminated.  There were no communal tables at this place.  You didn't carry your tray of food into the eating area and then do that fine dance where you look for a spot to eat and smile and act like you're not terrified to sit down with strangers and start a conversations.  

Nope.  

The eating loft at the retreat had chairs spaced way apart from each other facing outward, so you could sit alone with your food and just stare at the trees or watch the sun set or listen to the frogs and the birds in the jungle around you.

What a relief.

Every meal was eaten looking out on the jungle and rice terraces.

Every meal was eaten looking out on the jungle and rice terraces.

I won't pretend that the entire experience was one big cake walk.

The meditation and yoga sessions were challenging.  Sitting quietly for hours on end (2 every day) and bending every which way in 80 degree heat with 1000% humidity (3 hours each day) is not easy.

And, like I'd been warned, my predominant anxieties came to the forefront and kept me up at night.  

I thought about what I'm going to do with my career.  I worried (and continue to worry) that I am aimless in this area and won't live up to my potential.  I fear that I'll settle for a mediocre job in an office that I'll hate, and I'll slowly slip away perking up only for the 10 - 15 days of scheduled vacation each year.  

I know I'm being dramatic, but these are the things I think about.  

I'm so jealous of people who seem to know exactly what they want to do in life.  How did they figure this out?  Do you just pick something and see how that goes?  I feel like I've tried this, and it hasn't always been the right fit.  

The utilitarian side of me argues that that's life.  They don't call it "work" for no reason.  But then I wonder if that's just what people say when they never really found the thing they themselves were passionate about.

Honestly, I don't have an answer.  

The silent retreat did provide me a lot of time and space to grapple with it, and if nothing else, I felt a lot of gratitude that this is something I get to engage with.  

I reminded myself of the good stuff: I am college and graduate-level educated.  I come from a supportive family who I don't have to support financially.  I don't have kids depending on me (just yet).  I have a husband who, to my continued shock, repeatedly states that I'm allowed to go back to the U.S. and continue to take time figuring this out.  I can get a coffee shop job if I need to, he says.  He'll support us.  I love him for this, even though every fiber of my feminist body screams, "I don't need anyone to support me, I can support mySELF thank you very much!"  

So it's still a work in progress.

For anyone considering a retreat like this, I'd highly recommend it.  If for no other reason than to give your hardworking perky representative a day off :).