Recently, I attended a silent Jewish meditation retreat with my 19-year-old daughter. There were about 20 women total who, during the retreat weren’t allowed to talk, write, or read (though Torah learning was permitted during breaks), even to interact with one another even through gestures. All we could do for 16 hours was meditate, guided by our teacher, Rachel Dasa (who was, thankfully, allowed to talk), eat, sleep, and pray. Here are some of the surprising things I learned from those 16 hours of silence.
In my regular life, I realized, I am constantly distracted from myself. Busy doing, reading, listening. And at the retreat, with all my usual distractions removed, I was surprised to discover how much I enjoy my own company. I could have gone on that way for a few more days.
At the same time, I realized that with all distractions removed, uncomfortable and unresolved memories and feelings seemed to pop up out of nowhere. Rachel Dasa explained that this is very good, it means we are getting rid of whatever mental junk is weighing us down. And the truth is, after the high of the retreat, I expected to go home to my kids and get ready for Shabbat and feel grouchy and overwhelmed. But instead, even once home, I felt unusually calm and happy. Unusually junk-free.
As we meditated, Rachel spoke a lot about how we are connected, through our bodies to both Heaven and Earth – our heads reaching to Heaven, and our feet down to the earth. And that made me realize how, in my regular life, I fight being pulled down to the earth by the physical, the material. If I wash dishes, for example, I pass the time by listening to a Torah class that pulls me up heavenward from my earthly chores. But being connected to earth, I realized during this meditation, is also important. In fact, one is not necessarily superior to the other. Focusing fully on earthly tasks feels really good. Holy, even.
During the retreat, the moon was nearly full, and most of the night of the retreat it was hidden behind clouds. I saw it rising, so bright at one side of the sky at 9 p.m. I saw it mid-sky at 2 a.m.. And I saw the moon orange and setting at around 5 a.m. These times made me think about how the Midrash compares the moon to a woman, and that night I was reminded me that even when it is hidden behind clouds, the moon shines bright. Like a modest Jewish woman, shining her own light, in her home, behind the scenes.
The most moving part of the retreat for me was a part that might well sound the strangest to you. But, I guess all of this might sound quite strange, come to think of it. During meditation, Rachel often asked us to focus our full attention on the space between our noses and upper lip. Rachel reminded us that this was where the angel kicked us before we were born, so we forgot all of the Torah an angel taught us in utero. And that made me think of all the Torah, the holiness, the connection with Hashem that was taken from me so abruptly before I was even born. And how much, for years, before I became religious, I yearned for that connection, even though I couldn’t put a name to it. And how much today (even though now I can put a name to it, thank G-d) I yearn for it still.