Recently I went to Thailand to participate in a ten-day silent yoga retreat on the island of Koh Samui. I still find it difficult to connect my actual self to this story: Julia in Thailand. I never assumed that spiritual journeys to Southeast Asia would be even a tiny chapter in my biography, just as I didn’t consider going to university in Heidelberg but rather to a liberal arts college in Philadelphia. The foundational creeds of my family were intellectual rigor, social justice and The New York Times. We weren’t a religious family, but we believed religiously in work, study and the benefits of sacrifice. Despite our financial resources or the actual possibilities of making such a trip, a wife/mother/professional didn’t cross the world in search of contemplative focus. My mother left our family only once for professional development when she was starting a progressive school. The only other solo trips she made before we went to college were to visit her dying mother. This was, of course, not only an issue of our ethos, but of the degree of freedom enjoyed by women in her generation (not much). Our family cosmology enshrined a job well-done, a selfless act, a virtuous (albeit celebrated) career. This has made us productive and reliable but not necessarily fun. When I arrived in Argentina at twenty to visit my boyfriend’s family, I fell in love with its grandeur and chaos, the brokenness of its sidewalks, politics and traffic laws. What could be better than living in a beautiful place that was impossible to fix? When I went to France as a student, I didn’t find wild bohemians and artists on every corner, but a rigid set of class distinctions and aesthetic norms. But in Buenos Aires, beauty was soft, buildings crumbled and grown men played soccer with the abandon of boys. Finally, I had arrived where being was more important than being good.
As a yoga student and teacher, I know plenty of people who have gone to India to deepen their practice. Many have sold their cars or saved for years, leaving their jobs or risking their financial security to go so far. I, however, didn’t have to give up anything to make this trip to Thailand, except for what I know and whom I have believed myself to be. But this isn’t the first time I’ve gone far in order to learn. I’ve traveled to Mexico, Manhattan, California and Colorado in search of different yoga teachers and their knowledge. On every trip, I’m certain that I have exposed myself to real danger in the name of a questionable mission. Every time the plane lifts off the tarmac, I have only one thought, “And if we crash and my children lose their mother because she wanted to do more yoga?” The root of this word, yuj, presents acute problems in such moments. What does it mean to explore union through an act of separation? What is joined? Who?
The purpose of my trip to Thailand was to spend ten days in silence with my teachers, Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor. They were offering their first extended retreat in silence at the wondrous Samahita center on Koh Samui. Richard and Mary have taught there for years and now have a house on a neighboring hill. Several of my friends have been to this small paradise, or because they live in Asia or Europe, and Thailand is closer than Boulder or because they study with Paul Dallaghan, Samahita’s founder. Or because they wanted to. Like many of us, I assume that only very terrible or very wonderful things happen to other people. Other people die, age, wrinkle and go to Thailand, the Maldives and Bora Bora. But despite this belief, I made my reservation, bought a ticket all the way to Koh Samui and waited in line for hours to get the yellow fever vaccine. I took three weeks off from work and my family during the busiest time of the year and mustered the courage to tell my parents, “I’m going to Thailand to study with Richard and Mary.” I expected them to scold me like an adolescent, but they held their tongues and left me with the fear that I might actually go.
What led me to this decision was both potent and mysterious, something between a hunch and a dare. At (almost) 45 I felt the need to go a little farther, to commit more deeply to my seated practice, to try something radical (but without involving my hair or someone else’s spouse). What awaited on the other side of the world, I suspected, was more than an encounter with my beloved teachers or the novelty of a different culture. But what, who? When I tried to imagine my physical body in Bangkok, my mind came to a full stop, spinning like the colored wheel on a computer screen. Julia in Thailand? During my first semester at college I used to wait for an alarm to sound when I walked through the campus gates, loose in the world. What would happen when I found myself alone in Asia? Twenty years in Latin America have rumbled the foundations of my puritanism, but the infrastructure is still online.
Despite all my doubts, limitations and neuroses, I took three planes without missing my connections or being detained by immigration. I stumbled through the Bangkok Airport, tired but whole, and after 31 hours of air travel, I found myself on the beach at sundown where a Theravada temple shone in the gloaming and crescent-shaped boats rocked gently in the bay. Instead of the most brazen woman in the world, I counted myself one of the luckiest, aware that my body had taken me, once again, where my mind couldn’t travel. As in asana or love or motherhood. After bringing another human being into the world, it becomes clear that we underestimate our capabilities. But even in the face of such a miracle, with time we forget, we cloud over.
Certain that the hardest part (arriving) was behind me, I turned my attention to the course. Ahead were ten days of Mysore practice, hours of seated meditation, and a daily session of chanting and philosophy. All of this surrounded by the sea, tropical flora and sincere practitioners from all over the world. I spent a day catching up with friends I know from other courses and was thrilled to see Richard and Mary, both of them at ease in this landscape that they love. During the first day, they outlined the guidelines for the retreat, reminding us that no one would be hidden behind palm trees to pounce on talkers or cheaters. This experience was for us. If we had come all this way, it was to try something different. The idea was simple and profound, to spend the next nine days in silence, a silence which included words, screens, music, reading and writing. In other words, we would abandon the noisiest narratives in order to hear the more subtle and internal. The texts we would study would also be dense and spare: Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra and The Satipatthana Sutta, foundational sources from the yoga and Buddhist traditions. Before we went into silence, we introduced ourselves, sharing our names and something personal. This is always an interesting moment. What will be the one detail you share with a room full of strangers? Venerated, revered Richard tends to say something like, “Hi, my name’s Richard and I like dogs.” Mary told us that, as a native Floridian, it makes her happy to be at the beach. One woman suggested we remember her as the Australian with the crazy hair; a German wearing jeans said that when his luggage arrived he would be glad to change his clothes. A gentle-faced Japanese man said that he was interested in meditation, after having witnessed the change it fashioned in his wife. Opting for honesty, I confessed that I was worried about spending such a long time without reading. I had stopped in London on the way and my suitcase was heavy with books, J.K. Rowling’s crime fiction, Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon and Virginia Woolf’s diaries. But they would remain closed, resting at my bedside like idols.
Over the years, I have participated in several four-day silent meditation retreats and many long days of asana practice. I have chanted in Sanskrit and forgone sugar and caffeine, but I can’t remember having spent a day without reading or writing (this includes sleepovers, camping trips and my honeymoon). From my early childhood, I have scribbled poems on napkins and carried books in backpacks or purses or under my arm. I have filled notebook upon notebook with ideas, projects and dreams. And always with the idea that this instinct to narrate is an intrinsic part of who I am, not to mention my greatest talent and the easiest way to make myself known. Most importantly, it’s the ace in the deck that helps me to make sense of even the most chaotic experience. And that is what I dearly missed during those ten days in the Gulf of Thailand. Disoriented, free, far from my children and with time to spare, I contemplated the modest desk that concealed my computer within a drawer. Like Virginia Woolf in a room of her own, I dreamed of sitting at the straight-backed chair to work without interruption. But this wasn’t the idea, and what prevailed was not method but madness.
During the retreat, our days were full. We started at 7 am with sitting practice, followed by a few hours of asana and then, after breakfast, we sat in meditation until lunch. But before we met again at four, there was a generous three-hour break. Some practitioners would stretch out on the sand, swim or nap on lounge chairs; they booked massages and had treatments at the spa, and some of them read unabashedly by the sea. It was easy to read their thoughts: I’m fine with the silence and no screens, but hey, I’m on vacation in Thailand — I’m going to enjoy this novel. It was a convincing argument, and I offered it up several times to myself. I had left Robert Galbraith’s intrepid detectives hot on the trail, but I trust my teachers Richard and Mary. I can’t know what they have experienced, but it’s obvious how much farther they have walked down this path. I wanted to try what they proposed: just to watch, to see what comes up when we don’t feed the senses every single second, to witness the process of the mind. Richard often offers a literal translation of pratyahara as, “going forward, not eating.”
Delicate even skin-deep, I didn’t last long in the sun and would return to my room, taking my time on the worn stone paths. Ever the editor, I carried my camera, capturing the details that silence can reveal. Statues of the Buddha and Patañjali rested in shady corners and orchids raised their spidery faces. It was all beautiful, discrete, poised, but that break at midday was a desert. A bottomless sea. Overheated from the beach, I’d shower and gaze beyond the balcony, stretch across the bed and nap for half an hour (I still wasn’t sleeping at night from jet-lag). Though I was careful with drinking water, something had upset my whole digestive tract and unleashed my habitual fears (illness, imminent death, etc). I missed my children and my husband and everything I knew. I wasn’t just far away, I was remote, utterly. “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write,” Virginia Woolf famously asserted, but as she also knew, a solitary room can be the most daunting place in the world.
Unlike my previous experience on yoga courses and seminars, our daily practice offered hypnotic relief. I’ve never so appreciated the difference between practicing and living. Sitting meditation was easy, asana joyful, but those three hours at midday were the Sahara, the Dead Sea. A similar feeling invaded my room in the hour between the last meditation and sleep (until I woke at one, ready to start the day). But it was fascinating to slip into bed without preamble. When, in fact, was the last time you went to sleep without the company of a partner, or a book, Netflix or a phone? Disconcerted but intrigued, I climbed into bed without the usual ceremony (computer, work, Juan) and listened to the night. The wind moved through fronds and grasses. Roosters and insects called. Waves answered. The darkness was complete, save the flashes of lightning that descended with sudden storms. Shadows trawled across the ceiling. Nothing happened. Everything happened. How challenging paradise had turned out to be, how beautiful and desolate.
During the first afternoon sit, I arranged myself behind a solid man in a white t-shirt. He was a little older and entirely bald, his eyes soft within weathered skin. From the brief introduction, I know he was Australian, though his name didn’t stick. But as I sat close, it became clear that he was also an experienced meditator. I remember studying the loose grain of his cotton shirt, the wooden japa beads on the mala around his wrist and the ease of his posture. He didn’t shift or sigh or twitch. Without thinking, I chose him as my anchor for the coming days. I watched his even gait as he walked, his pleasure in the sea. After the morning Mysore practice, he would head straight for the water in a black suit, goggles on his shining head, and then swim long horizontal laps against the shore. Our interactions were few, a rare acknowledgement on the path, but this man was the heavy who tethered me to earth.
As the days passed, each one a tiny epic, the midday desert became easier to traverse, the evening less austere. I washed and bathed, alive to my skin and its textures, grateful for the friendship of the body. Alongside this ease, I began to perceive the practitioners nearby. I wasn’t alone in my room but surrounded by other beings who slept and breathed, yearned for their families and awoke in the night. Alongside Samahita, there was a group of huts where children and their families played and rested in a small pagoda that formed the center of their communal life. Around its deep blue tiles, animals and insects made their way and coconuts fell to earth with the dense thud of a hand striking wood. As the days passed, I felt less alone and more connected, no longer a pinprick on the map of the world, but another atom moving in concert with countless others. Buddhist philosophy can sound nihilistic and depressing with all that talk of emptiness and suffering. But the experience of practice reveals a brilliant network of interconnection, a constant opportunity to feel the current that flows between everything that is.
At the beginning of the retreat, Mary gave us permission to communicate with our families, privately, mindfully. “Do what feels right on your own and then come back here to be present.” Because of the ten-hour time difference between Buenos Aires and Koh Samui, for me this meant a few Whatsapp audio messages a day. My busy morning was my family’s evening, and my evening their busy morning. And during the midday desert they were fast asleep. My children, Oli and Justi, are used to these trips of mine, but it’s never easy on them and always tiring (especially for my husband). I don’t know if the physical distance made my absence harder to bear, if Boulder and Thailand are equivalent in their minds, but for me it was a radical change. So I tried to bridge this abyss, as I always do, with language. Before I left, Justi and I had started rereading a favorite novel (like me, she enjoys the groove of the known). So I brought this book across the world to continue reading from afar. We have done this before, finishing the most dramatic sequence of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH via Skype. But within the silence and the distance of this trip, I saw the continuum of words that I have laid out before my children, between us. When they were small and I was bored, I would carry a great stack of books to the local café and we would read during the afternoon amidst smoothies and sandwiches. Some mothers get down on hands and knees to play dolls or Legos. I read. I have read aloud for hours beside pools, on airplanes and in hotels. I remember finishing A Wrinkle in Time when we had just moved into a new house, the three of us curled into a ball with the excitement and tension and the strangeness of our surroundings. I have read to them as they finished dinner and during long waits at the pediatrician. Strangers have congratulated me on this no-phone dedication, but during my days in Thailand, I also understood how much of our reading has been an escape, a barrier, a way to avoid real interaction, true presence.
The narrative structure of my inner mind announced itself during the first days in silence. I did not experience a tidal wave of thoughts, but rather of poetry. Yeats, Plath, Hopkins, Cummings, Auden. I could identify some of these fragments as they came unbidden. Others slipped in like ghosts.
“Where the green swell is in the havens dumb
And out of the swing of the sea”
“This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary”
“Not that they die, but that they die like sheep”
“The lowest trees have their tops
the ant her gall, the fly her spleen,
the little spark its heat”
“Right, like a well-done sum.
A clean slate, with your own face on”
Deprived of other texts, these words filled the vacuum. I remembered a radio play by Alan Bennett about an old lady who falls, alone in the house, and breaks her hip. She can’t move and spends her final hours remembering her life, moving back and forth between her dire situation and the past. From her new vantage point, she spies a cream cracker under the sofa. Despite her mania for cleanliness, she ends up eating it before the play’s somber end. In the absence of my habitual diet of translating, editing and writing, I clung to the book I was reading with Justi. Because it was difficult to find a time to talk, I sent her one audio message a day in which I read a full chapter of The Mysterious Benedict Society. I knew that she would wake up to this gift every morning and listen to it as often as she liked. In the quiet of my own room, I savored each word, delighted by the play of sound and aspects of the plot I hadn’t appreciated before. Crisis! Meaning! In theory, these messages were for Justi, but they were my water in the desert, a small boat capable of crossing an ocean. Pretty pathetic, pretty real.
In Teach Us to Sit Still, the writer Tim Parks narrates his own experience with Vipassana meditation and how it leads him to question the health of his profession. Feeling transformed by silence and seated practice, Parks describes the “intense, slow pleasure” of eating and how “sitting silently at table with the others was also an intense pleasure, watching their silent faces as they ate, watching their concentration. Breathing the evening air was beautiful.” The thought that follows this ecstasy is: “I should definitely stop writing… How could I possess this deep calm day by day if I went on writing, hoping, fighting?” Weighing this decision in his empty hands, Parks meets with the retreat’s senior teacher and shares this urge to abandon his trade. He explains to the teacher, “The fact is, more than anything else, words seem to take me away from the present moment. I’m never really here. Always word-mongering. I feel a lot of what’s wrong with my life comes from words.” Faced with this heartfelt confession, the teacher takes his time and then replies, “We’re speaking now. We’re using words now. It’s quite pleasant, isn’t it? Maybe useful.” Parks is frustrated by this simple and seemingly “offhand” answer, but when he returns to the cushion, he is moved by the disciplined heterogeneity of the other practitioners and wonders, “Maybe the real change would be to stop trying to impress myself with all this talk of drastic changes.” Embracing the notion that words are not really the problem, just as his posture (too hunched) is not a true obstacle, he returns to his breath, to practice.
Richard and Mary agree that narratives in and of themselves are not the problem. But during those ten days, they asked us to observe when we had fallen into the rut of a story, either familiar or new. One of the principal gifts of formal practice is to observe when these tales begin spinning themselves out, and almost always, they are old yarns. As opposed to seeing is believing, in mediation, we see not to believe.Eddie Stern describes this process in his new book One Simple Thing:
“The problem with narratives, though, is that no matter how well intended they are, if you hold too fast to them, they will limit you, no matter how based on freedom they are. Any narrative is a bind, any narrative is illusory, any narrative will keep us stuck in avidya. The only narrative that leads to freedom that we can tell ourselves is one of no story. If during the day we can spend some time watching every story that comes up in our minds, and not identify with the story, the mind will get very quiet.”
And so it was. After the poetry, the fear, the audio messages, finally I was a little quieter, calmer, more aware of the stories that presented themselves and then continued on their way. Some were so familiar that it was like embracing a musty old aunt or an annoying cousin, but this wasn’t the time to invite them in for tea. They could head down to the beach and bother the Germans. Sometimes they needled their way in anyway and I did make them tea. At night, when I woke at odd hours, I no longer worried about getting back to sleep. Any rest is good rest, I told myself. My swollen abdomen began to smooth itself out, as I played it safe, eating only what I knew I could digest (this, in and of itself, is a profound notion). Writing down my request for the hotel staff, I hired a car to visit a nearby temple and bought a tiny Buddha from a chubby monk I found sleeping behind the till. During the day, I stopped looking for my anchor and simply saw him in the sea.
On the ninth day, we came out of silence during lunch. It was a gradual process, reluctant at first, but inevitably things speeded up. First we began walking faster, then the volume of our voices began to rise and suddenly we were chattering, the unnecessary questions tumbling out: “Where do you live and what do you do?” I went swimming with a friend I’ve known for years and she showed me how to pass through the reef that hems in the rest of the bay. She’s had experiences in her life that happen to “other people”, refugees and the victims of earthquakes. I’m never sure quite what to say, but in the sea we had a simple and sincere conversation. A warm current carried us out and we rode it back together.
That afternoon, between one session and another, my friend the anchor sought me out, asking how I’d managed all those days without reading. I told him about my audio messages with Justi, half-ashamed and half-amused. Beyond any of the health benefits or gamma wave activity that scientists enjoy touting about meditation, the greatest boon of contemplative practice is to take oneself a little less seriously. The anchor told me that he was a psychologist (like my parents) and that yes, absolutely, he was more comfortable with sitting meditation than asana. It was a brief encounter, but the following day he bid me goodbye with the words: “You’ve made a big impression.” As he walked steadily away, I felt the gratification of having being seen, followed by the uncomfortable and lingering question: had my gaze, my neediness actually left a mark? What a burden we press onto others, how quickly our vulnerability become can be weaponized. But the anchor went back to Australia and, lucky for him, I don’t have his email; I won’t be able to send him poetic descriptions of his silhouette in the water or his profile at sunset, to confirm that he was right, that I am special. Ten days in silence weren’t enough to cure me of this impulse to charm and adorn.
I went home to Buenos Aires with luminous skin and the sea in my hair. I embraced my children and husband with renewed love and commitment. A mom at school asked where had I been and could she go too? I looked amazing! Still dizzy from jetlag, I went to a presentation for the publishing house where I work and was overcome with gratitude for my colleagues, their talent and vision. My friends, my family, the garden, the dog. It was all wonderful.
This high lasted around five days, pretty much the same time it took me to cross the Sahara of midday in Thailand. As I tried to surf a rising tide of work, my seasonal allergies returned with new fury and I considered popping each itchy eye out with a spoon. My nose bled from sneezing, and I realized just how much work had accumulated in my absence. I had a book presentation for which I wasn’t prepared and the cookbook I was editing hadn’t magically corrected itself in the desk at Samahita. I couldn’t believe the velocity each day required: to school, to work, to the bank, to the office, to pay a bill, meet a workman, file the papers, pay the toll. After contemplating a steaming mug of chai as my main activity for two weeks, I had lost my fluidity in multitasking and my cool. More than “observing” my own narratives, I was responsible for writing them and they had better be good! After three consecutive simultaneous translation jobs, we had a wedding to attend in Uruguay and our son’s twelfth birthday to celebrate the day before leaving for the US to see my parents. The words that came unbidden were Alexander Lowen’s: “The pace, the pressure and the philosophy of our times are antithetical to life.”
I never appreciated so keenly the difference between practicing and living. And living was difficult, or at least living like I did, despite my privilege and my practice — though I suspected my busy schedule wasn’t the problem, just as words weren’t the true dilemma for Tim Parks. I thought about Jack Kornfield’s book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry and the stories he recounts of experienced meditators who return after months of cloistered revelation, only to cry as they walk down the streets, unable to face the rigors of family life. I remembered the answer Dena Kingsburg gave to a young practitioner who asked why it was necessary to ride the wheel of samsara, why not just go into the forest now like Patañjali? Dena leaned forward, her long hair loose, eyes narrowing in on her prey, “Because the forest is easy.”
I have a vivid memory of playing at the beach when I was young and watching my father stand in the waves at sunset. I was on the shore and he was in the water up to his waist. It was one of those unusual moments when I was conscious of him while he was unware of me. I knew that something powerful was holding him still amidst such movement, that his thoughts were not resting on the everyday but rather on something deeper, stranger. Then he began walking forward, moving farther out into the sea. I had the sudden fear that he would keep walking until he had disappeared, sinking into oblivion. But then he spread his arms and he swam, out and back.
This is the open sea of practice, where the big questions are heavy in our pockets: Do I want to live this way? Do I need to be recognized? Can I love my children without a narrative? After Julia in Thailand, I feel less confident, more permeable, humbled (yet again). In another book by Tim Parks, this one about literary criticism, he asks the reader to momentarily abandon the idea that “the act of writing, and of reading, is in its nature intrinsically positive and always and assiduously to be encouraged.” When I came upon this passage, I had to resist standing up to applaud. Parks suggests that some writers use their craft to dig deeper into neurosis and dysfunction, instead of undertaking the serious structural change that could benefit both the artist and his or her loved ones. He warns that readers may also fall prey to these artful dodges. Talented and crafty as he is, Parks is willing to write against the authority we give to the printed word, the stretched canvas, the hallowed nature of art itself. After decades of working with artists and writers, I think this is invaluable advice.
I’m certain that both Parks and I will continue to read, write, comment and create. These are activities that bring joy, clarity and freedom, but it’s highly instructive to suspend the notion that stories are our salvation, a divine calling or what make us human. Hopefully, we will also both continue to practice. A few weeks after I returned from Samahita, I translated for Eddie Stern as he reminded students that the written word is the crudest vehicle for the transmission of knowledge, but then he smiled, having just finished a book which he’s now promoting (as will I, upon its translation into Spanish). Despite his veneration for the oral tradition and its ceremony, Eddie is not immune to the desire to make a tangible mark, to leave an enduring story. I wonder what created a greater impact on the students who attended his workshop, the talk of neurons and the nervous system or the hour-long puja and its bells and perfume, flowers and gods.
Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves is amongst her most experimental fiction. The characters create a chorus of voices that mix and meld throughout the oscillation of prose and poetry. Woolf herself called it a wordplay. One of the characters says,“But when we sit together, close, we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory.” Not unlike the feeling in a quiet room of seated practitioners. Towards the end of her life, Woolf searched for truth and innovation in her portrayal of human experience, its multiplicity and interconnection, the “moments of being” that appeared in such contrast to the “cotton wool” of what she called non-being. Her achievements were and remain extraordinary. I wonder, if she were alive today, if she wouldn’t abandon words and work in video or push formal limits or representation a la Marina Abramovic.
I hesitated to write about my days in silence, the confusing and tortuous return. Yoga, as Richard Freeman likes to say, is embarrassing. How obvious we are. How practice strips us bare. I have been tangled in cotton wool for the past few months, over-sensitive and insecure, ready to blame. This narrative has helped me to straighten a few strands of experience, but it will never be as full ad true as silence. I go back to the photographs I took at Samahita and their beauty stands alone, but they are partial and frozen, as rigid as opinion.
Words reduce and simplify, even in a mind as expansive as Virginia Woolf’s or as eloquent as Tim Parks’s. But narratives can also frame questions, they can describe the tides rising within us, or toss a line to someone in up to their neck. Richard Freeman reminds us that the vrtti isn’t the problem. We can refine our thoughts, building a path of stones that will lead us cross a river. Reading Patañjali, I am reminded that each sutra is as dense as mineral and just as sturdy.
I return to the conversation I had with my friend in the sea. The waves carried us out as we swam. Our responsibilities were still continents away and the hard work of practice was done. All we had to do was stay afloat. Out before us, the horizon opened, blue sky above, tinged with white at the edges. This was the same view where lighting had struck the night before during a fantastic storm. But the rain stopped at five as we rose in the dark and walked through the mist toward a temple on the hill. I took a photograph of my friend looking out on the bay from up on high. We bear the same name, but her Julia in Thailand would, of course, be very different. I might not even make it into the cast of characters.
As we swam, sharing the first real conversation in our years of friendship, we melted into phrases. Our territory spread for miles and continents, expansive with children, parents, lovers, languages, friends and teachers, farther off and closer in than we could ever describe. Julias in Thailand, as Thailand, spread so wide that we were indistinct from that single shifting sea.