Kyol Che: My Month of Silence and Meditation

Diamond Hill Monastery, Cumberland, RI
In July I attended a month-long silent retreat. Tonight someone asked me if my retreat was worth it, or whether it was it just “some hippy shit I already knew.” Kudos for calling all of Eastern philosophy hippy shit, but even more kudos for asking a question so directly. In response I thought I’d write a blog post about the retreat experience. Partly for myself--I was contemplating this post for the entire retreat--and partly because I know there are people out there interested in retreats, in spirituality, or in hearing a story about me in pain. Whatever floats your boat.

Retreat Basics

The retreat was right outside Providence, RI on the grounds of the head temple of the Kwan Um School of Zen, a Korean style of Zen that made its way to the US in the 70s (I think). The temple where most of the retreat was held was in the middle of the woods, abutting a small lake that was teeming with frogs, birds, insects, and even fireflies. It was hot, but you really felt like you were in nature. The retreat had about 20 people on average and lasted 4 weeks. People would enter and exit twice a week. Most people stayed a week, but a few of us (7) stayed for the duration.

The Typical Day

The dharma room (not full), where we meditated
Each day consisted of a combination of bowing (15 minutes), chanting (2 hours), sitting meditation (a million hours) (okay more like 8), walking meditation (2 hours), work period (like chores, 1 hour), formal Zen meals (1.5 hours), and rest (3 hours). Wake up at 4:30am (1:30am Pacific time) and lights out at 9:40pm. It was tough in the beginning but you settle into a routine, and then it was tough at the end asI was anitpicating going back home and counting the hours. The bowing is not a deity since Buddhism doesn’t really concern itself with a deity and is different than a typical devotional religion like classical Judeo-Christian religions. The entire retreat is held in silence except for formal Zen “interviews” with teachers. The interviews are opportunities to ask questions and deepen your practice with koans, which are kind of like riddles that you can’t answer with normal thinking. You have to go beyond (or before) thinking to answer them. That’s a whole other story.

Formal Zen meals are held in silence and are very prescriptive; they’re almost like a ceremony with tons of forms and rules to abide by. Kinda stressful at first but you pick it up quickly. The food was roughly the same every day, although the soup we ate for lunch and dinner every day changed from day to day. The food was actually pretty good, even though it was basically the same. In formal Zen meals, you have to eat everything you take, and you don't take anything yourself, you're served food from others. It's actually quite beautiful to see a "you first" mentality instead of the typical "me first."

So What the Fuck Did You Do?

Founding Teacher and 78th Patriarch,
Zen Master Seung Sahn (d. 2004)
Well, a whole lotta nothin. But nothing is a lot different from what we’re normally doing, which is making noise and being distracted. Let’s break down the goal of Zen practice and the means of achieving that goal.

Zen Buddhism starts with the Buddha trying to find a way out of suffering. But the goal of Zen Buddhism isn’t just happiness, but also purpose and meaning and wisdom. All of these come from quieting the mind and investigating the nature of your identity and whether or not it’s truly separate from the rest of the universe, or just a part of it, in the same way that black and white parts of the yin-yang symbol are a part of a greater whole. (That’s not just an analogy; it’s the origin and meaning of that symbol.)

To get to a place of non-thinking, we can apply certain techniques, but we have to be careful with techniques, because if we apply a technique with an expectation of a result, we find ourselves back in the domain of thinking. It’s like a rat wearing a little hat and carrying a clipboard trying to tell you that you have a rat problem--your solution just reintroduces the problem.

So instead, we take the approach of non-attachment or the Middle Way, where we drop all expectations of changing and making progress and try and face what’s already happening right this very moment without thinking about it or analyzing it or evaluating it. We just watch what’s coming into our experience--whether sounds, visuals, smells, tensions in the body, the breath, or even thoughts. They’re all coming and going and we don’t really futz with them. We just watch them come and go, like a breeze blowing through a window. We’re the window, watching things pass through. It’s almost like we’re not applying any technique at all. I sometimes like to ask myself “what is it I’m trying to run away from?” and then just sit with that, letting it all just happen without interference.

This technique, if we can really even call it that, takes some time to really understand. And in the end, it’s not really an understanding at all, since that’s just a form of thinking. It’s a practice. After a while of not engaging the mind, the mind starts to slow down and your awareness of whatever’s already going on becomes heightened. You feel more present. Sounds and visuals become amplified. It’s not magic; it’s because that’s all that’s really left in your experience because you’ve subtracted the thoughts out. The present moment and your sense of being in it is just the remainder.

What Did You Get Out of It?

Porch for walking meditation
When your thoughts aren’t pulling you every which way and distracting you, you naturally start to feel more aware of your present situation. But it’s a lot more than that, because you realize how your excess, wandering thinking really impacts your experience. You can see how without excessive thinking you’re calmer. You have less anxiety and self-doubt. You’re more optimistic and you can see things working out and not falling apart. Not because you’re naive, but because you’re just not so negative. You feel more authentic, more yourself. You can relate to people more authentically and have a desire to connect to anyone. You have a desire to help and care for them--anyone, not just people you know. You don’t want to sacrifice yourself, but you want to be kind. And you feel happy. And you start to feel other people starting to feel happy by being around you. I think that was the most inspiring part.

You develop insight into people and situations, not because of your thinking but actually because you’re not thinking. Situations seem more clear and solutions appear naturally--solutions that lead to balance and harmony.

You also start to make connections between meditation and your daily life because meditation becomes a kind of template for everyday life. You see how your approach to meditation and frustrations with it are symbolic of the same frustrations and problems you encounter in your relationships with others, job, and in your relationship with yourself. For example, I got to see clearly how I tend to find problems with situations and people and myself in the same way I find problems with the quality of my meditation. I’m always fixing and working on everything instead of letting it be. And the fears I have of disconnection and failure arise in my relationships (I’ve had social anxiety since forever) the same way they do in my meditation.

My Experience: Overall, Highs, & Lows

Overall, it was tough but not impossible. I was tired and my knees and back and shoulder hurt for most of the retreat. I would vacillate between frustration and release/surrender, until one teach showed me that all of those evaluations were just more thinking.

Highs included moments of deep, deep quiet, moments of extreme self-love, laughing and crying harder than I have in years, moments of insights, friends, and something that, I hope, will never go away. There was a moment where we were eating in silence, in a dimly lit room, in the pouring rain...that was one of the most beautiful moments. The other was at dawn, where the sunlight painted the dharma room a warm orange and made the trees outside glow. I wrote a few poems, a few jokes, and a whole bunch of short ideas on meditation practice.

Lows were body pain and fatigue and the heat.


I started practicing years ago but went on this retreat to investigate some parts of myself, my direction in life and career, and my experience. I went in with questions and got some answers, but they didn’t really take the form I was expecting. It’s like solving an equation in an unexpected way, and with only a part of the answer, but you know you’re onto something, I guess. I can’t really say more than that because there are parts of my experience I’m keeping private and am still processing.
If you’re interested, I encourage you to go to a class or find a Zen center in your area and talk to a teacher. Be brave and go on an adventure. It’ll change your life.