Shhh: The Best Performance-Enhancing Drug Is Legal and Free
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10 p.m., summer solstice; Villefavard, France. Photo: Katie Arnold
I’m walking slowly through a bucolic farming village in the French countryside, gawking at a cluster of 100-year-old stone houses with blue shutters and window boxes spilling over with orange geraniums. It’s nearly 10:30 p.m. on the summer solstice, the sun has just set, and a farmer, finished cutting his hay for the day, is driving his tractor down the middle of the road. The magenta hollyhocks are in full bloom, and in this golden light, even the cows—the fattest, healthiest I’ve ever seen, with cinnamon hides and newborn calves—are exquisite. I’ve left my own little ones at home for 10 days, the longest and farthest I’ve been away since they were born. I should be relaxed, but I’m not. All I want to do is write, run, walk, and swim. I’m hungry all the time, and buzzing with so much energy I can barely sleep.
Is it jet lag or insomnia? Separation anxiety? Nope. It’s the quiet. I’m here at La Ferme de Villefavard on a six-day silent writing retreat, no talking allowed. Before I arrived, I worried that the hush would freak me out or hobble me with homesickness, but the opposite is true: Silence is addictive. It’s a performance-enhancing drug. From writing to running, it makes me better at everything I do.
Natalie Goldberg has been leading silent writing retreats for more than 15 years, not long after she published her 1986 bestselling book, Writing Down the Bones. As a practicing Buddhist for 30 years, Goldberg pioneered a meditative approach to creativity that she calls writing practice, which, at its core sounds simple. There are three basic rules: Keep your hand moving, don’t edit or cross out as you go, and feel free to write the worst shit on the planet. You might think this would yield self-indulgent, stream-of-consciousness crap, but it actually trains you to ignore your inner critic and write what you really care about. When you read your words aloud, which she encourages you to do, you hear the gap between what you thought you wrote and what you actually did. It’s almost always better, richer, and more vivid than you thought.
I’d studied with Natalie once before, in Santa Fe, where she and I both live, and in just five days had managed to vanquish my own pesky naysayer—no small feat, considering I’d spent nearly my entire career working as a magazine editor. For better and worse, critiquing, tweaking, and revising comes naturally to me. If I listened too closely to my cranky internal editor, I’d never write a single word. So when I heard she was leading her first retreat in Europe, I signed up on the spot.
That’s how I ended up here, on a still June night, milking every last drop of daylight from the long, perfect days. Except for Natalie, I don’t know anyone at the retreat, which makes it easier to not talk. No dinner table conversation or feeling obligated to comment on other people’s work. We’ve even been encouraged not to make eye contact. That seemed like overkill on day one, but three days in, I've come to love the freedom: When you aren’t busy yakking or smiling or trying to make other people feel comfortable, you can put all that energy into your writing. For an extrovert like me, it's an epiphany.
Writing practice in the zendo; Villefavard, France. Photo: Katie Arnold
And, in my case, running and walking. I’ve known for a long time that creativity and movement go hand in hand; I often get my best ideas when I’m running or hiking the trails near my home. It’s not like I go looking for them. They seem to rise up from inside me, an alchemy of dirt and fresh air, sun and sweat. When I can’t get out and move, I feel both antsy and sluggish, my brain dulled by the monotony of staying still for too long. Writing, like running, is physical—an endurance sport. If you don't keep moving, you'll atrophy.
Here on a 200-year-old farm in central France, I’m realizing just how connected the two things are. The more I write, the faster and stronger I run. The more I run, the longer I walk—long, looping routes past hay fields, along narrow lanes lined with hot pink foxglove and daisies, before breakfast, after sunset. The more I walk, the faster the words spill onto the page. The more I move, the more deeply I can settle into the 20-minute meditations Natalie leads us through in the mornings and evenings. And the more I sit, the more I crave running. It’s an endless, perfect feedback loop, punctuated by afternoon swims in the iron-rich pond, sunbathing on a creaky old wooden dock, and fresh, healthy meals that our chef concocts straight from the fields, gardens, and pastures of neighboring farms: roast chicken, lamb, an enormous vat of palella. You should see the cheese plates.
Radishes. They're what's for lunch. Photo: Katie Arnold
Still, there’s something inscrutable about writing practice. Even after two retreats with Natalie, I can’t figure out exactly how it works, or what it will lead to, only that I’m writing like mad, the words pouring out of me. There aren’t enough hours in the day to get them all down. So I stay awake 'til all hours, doing writing practice in my head, narrating what I’m seeing and thinking, latching on to small details I might have otherwise been too distracted to notice: a rusty green wheelbarrow propped up against a stone shed, tiny tinfoil scarecrows dangling above a lettuce garden, a woman in an apron hanging laundry on the line. The silence makes me more aware, and the sitting helps me slow down. All of which helps me run faster and write harder than I ever have. It’s a paradox.
Midweek, we get a chance to meet with Natalie in small groups to break the silence and discuss the retreat. She rarely comments, good or bad, on people’s writing practice, but she does want to know how we’re doing. I tell her I’m not sleeping. I’m worried that I’m going to go home to my kids an exhausted wreck. “How do you feel?” she asks. “Fantastic!” I say, grinning wildly. It’s true. I’m averaging five hours of sleep a night, logging 10 miles or more on the roads, hearing voices in my head, and I’ve never felt better, stronger, or more alert.
“It’s the silence,” Natalie says. She explains that when you stop talking and turn inward, you tap into vast reserves of energy that you’d otherwise be spewing into the world. Silence makes you more conscious and mindful, so you’re paying closer attention and feel more connected to the world around you. She says, “You’re getting energy from the rocks and the trees.” Five days earlier, this might have sounded like hokey New Age hype, but I know she’s right. It feels exactly like that. The organic, local food; the rust-red lake; the farmers lumbering home on their tractors; even the buzz of a chainsaw—it’s all feeding me. And so is the freedom: I’m not at home taking care of two young girls; my husband is.
Of course there are side effects: One woman can’t stop crying—not from any conscious sorrow, but from the quiet and the words inside of her that she can finally hear. Another has writer’s block. I’ve gotten lucky. Or maybe it’s all the exercise. If I were sitting still all day, meditating and being contemplative, I might be dragging too. I decide to stop worrying and go with it. The last time I felt like this, I was 15.
As the retreat winds down, I try not to think about going back to the chaotic, happy mess of real life: deadlines, Internet, parenthood, talking. But the silence is part of my muscle memory now. “You carry it with you,” Natalie tells us before we leave. And I’ve learned that running and moving isn’t just a nice way to clear my mind and to feel strong in my body—it’s my way to keep my creative motor humming and to be more awake, every day, in the world.
Reentry is weird. There’s so much noise in the world, and it all seems amplified. I’d forgotten how loud little kids can be. Even silent things make noise: the taunting blue screen of Facebook, with all those updates, the blinking light on my answering machine. I go running, missing the smooth, rolling farm lanes of Villefavard. That’s its own kind of noise too: attachment, discontent. One morning, jetlagged, I wake up before 5 a.m. and head out for a run. This time, I leave my iPod at home. With two girls in the house and a long list of to-dos, my days are deafening once again, but I know where I can find the silence: where it’s always been, outside, on the trails. I run hard and when I get back, my life is there waiting for me, clamoring for soft-boiled eggs and a bike ride to school. But the silence is inside of me, too, moving through my body and on to the paper.
Silence: It's a drug. Photo: Katie Arnold
You don't have to go all the way to France to bring silence back into your life. Here are five tips for everyday peace and quiet.
1. Try for five-10 minutes of sitting meditation daily. Don’t try to vacuum your mind of thoughts. That’s impossible. Just notice them as they arrive and let them go, anchoring yourself to your breath or the sounds around you. Keep coming back.
2. Do one minute of standing meditation every day. Just stand, feeling your weight balanced equally on each foot. Breathe. If you have kids, encourage them to try it with you, even if it's just for one minute. Don't wait for the perfect moment to meditate. There's no such thing. Just try.
3. Slow down your walking and eating by 50 percent. Feel your feet on the ground, look around and focus on where you are, and really taste food you’re putting into your mouth. If possible, try to eat the first 10 minutes of each meal in silence (hard with kids around—but aim for once a week, even two minutes to start, and build from there).
4. Exercise outside, without music or friends, at least once a week. Listen to to the birds, your feet hitting the ground, notice the way the sunlight is filtering through pine needles. Drink it in.
5. Try a 10-minute writing practice once a week, or a 60-second practice every day. The website oneword.com provides a daily word as a prompt, and you write whatever comes to mind. No editing or crossing out. You don't have to be a writer to see yourself and the world more clearly through writing practice.
For more information about silent writing retreats, go to www.nataliegoldberg.com.