Can I take the Silent treatment?
Comedian Shazia Mirza is a professional talker. So when she was faced with nine wordless days at a mindfulness meditation retreat, her biggest worry was: could a chatterbox like her handle the silence... without going out of her mind?
I t’s 5pm and -3°C as I pull up at a town in the foothills of the Himalayas in a taxi covered in monkeys. They’ve been hanging on the roof for the last five miles, trying to grab my Doritos — the most comforting food I’ll see for the next nine days.
jump out of the cab and dash along the dusty road past the queues of rickshaws and street-food stalls. Walking through the gates of the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama Ashram, I am transported to a very different place. The grass is vibrant green, trees and flowers cover the grounds and the mountains rise up majestically in the background. Immediately I feel at peace.
I am greeted by a girl with pale skin, braided hair and an American accent, who looks like she’s stepped out of a 50 Cent rap video. This is not very ashramy. She gives me a key to cottage 32 and promises to introduce me to Swami Radha, the meditation teacher. Swami Radha is a seriouslooking woman from Minnesota who puts her hands together to greet me with a ‘namaste’. She’s not what I’m expecting. I like my gurus to be elderly Indian men with long beards and beads, not Americans in leisurewear. Swami Radha is right-hand woman to 80-year- old Swami Veda, the spiritual director of the ashram. He’s also the co-founder of a meditation centre in Minneapolis and many students come here to study with him. In a few days he’ll be going into total silence for five years. I’m not sure I can manage five minutes.
I’d been curious about meditation for some time. The people I admired — Gandhi, Lennon, Einstein — all meditated, but I had no idea where to start. Then last year I was supporting the comedian Robin Williams in San Francisco and I was amazed by how calm he seemed backstage, nothing like the fireball you see live. ‘This is me in my meditative state,’ he said. ‘I think everyone should meditate.’
A few days later I went to do a show in LA, and there was Russell Brand on stage talking about how he learned to meditate after working with film director David Lynch, who runs a Transcendental Meditation foundation. The same night, there was Lynch himself on TV talking about how meditation helps creative people conserve their energy and give out positive qualities: intelligence, happiness, love, energy, power and peace. I took this catalogue of events as a sign that I had to try it. So I decided to go to Rishikesh, India, where the Beatles famously met the Maharishi back in the 1960s.
It’s said that the serenity of the Himalayas leads you to a spontaneous state of silence. However, talking is my job, my passion. So how would I get on with not talking for at least nine hours a day — with two days of no talking whatsoever?
I arrive just in time for the 6pm group silent meditation. Every evening, all students of the school come together in the meditation hall to sit in silence for an hour. We are instructed by Swami Veda, whose deep, resonating voice guides us. ‘Draw all your senses to yourself,’ he begins. ‘Bring your mind’s attention to the seat you’re sitting on. Draw around yourself three circles of light so that no sounds from outside will enter you and resolve that the mind shall not cross these protective lines of light.’
Since I have never meditated before and am not allowed to ask what to do (there are signs everywhere saying SILENCE), I improvise. It doesn’t go well. I look around at the others who are all doing nothing, in the dark. I’ve been travelling and I haven’t spoken properly to anyone for four hours; I just want to chat.
Dinner is rice, vegetables and dhal, eaten off a bench sitting on the floor. In silence. I go to bed wearing leggings, jogging bottoms, a T-shirt, jumper and shawl, feeling hungry. And cold. I am being deprived of all the things I need to function properly. Heating, talking and cake.
The bell goes at 4.15am. I am in no mood for a yoga session for joints and glands. It takes place in the dark so there are fewer distractions. Regular
yoga practice is meant to lead to a stronger, more flexible body and on a subtler level helps remove energy blocks, all of which will apparently help me meditate. During Savasana — a pose lying on my back — I fall asleep and snore so loudly, the teacher has to wake me.
Next is my meditation class with Swami Radha — where at last I am taught how to meditate properly. She tells me how to sit (on a pile of blankets, legs crossed, knees touching the floor, spine straight, chin tucked in, hands on knees), how to breathe (slowly, smoothly) and which mantra to chant in my head to quiet my thoughts. The theory is that bringing the body and mind to their most natural, relaxed state in this way will help you find the path to your true self. After 20 minutes setting up my blankets (the folding technique is very involved), I think, ‘How long before I am bored, get cramp or start thinking about George Clooney?’ ( Ten minutes, if you want to know.) It is still only 7.45am; I’ve been awake for three and a half hours and haven’t even had breakfast!
Up at 4.15am again. It’s killing me. I go to the shop over the road three times for Kit Kats and muffins. I also need someone to talk to, and the man in the shop looks like an Indian Brad Pitt. The minute I sit down to meditate, the floodgates of thought open. I think about an argument I had with my mum 20 years ago when she wouldn’t let me dye my hair blonde. Next thing I know, the session is over.
My breathing in meditation is getting less noisy. I think about what jokes to do at my gig in Norway. Good or bad, at least I’m doing an hour’s meditation now and my mind is wandering less with each session. Eating in silence is relaxing. If someone comes into the dining hall, we smile but don’t chat. It’s not awkward as everyone knows the rules. Focusing on your food is better for your digestion and weight. I’m getting used to eating less, but enough. I realise that comfort in the mind manifests as comfort in the body. I don’t need to make myself feel better by eating cake.
Later I take a ‘digestive breathing’ class. I speak briefly to a young man from Denmark. Conversations aren’t banned — but once you get used to not verbalising every thought, you find you don’t need or want to talk much.
Today is ‘total silence day’ at the ashram. There’s no communication, not even smiles. It is not just a question of abstaining from speech; you need to give your mind something to do so that you are not caught up in the thoughts you are not verbalising.
Having now been taught a variety of different ways to meditate, today I pull them all out of the bag. When I get back to my cottage that night, I feel alive. I am very aware of myself and everything around me. I write jokes nonstop. Swami Rama says, ‘Creativity flows when the mind is free of anxiety.’ I feel as though I could very easily never speak again.
I am beginning to feel tuned in to myself in a new way. In silence I discover that everything becomes sorted and I really don’t need to say so much in order to communicate with people.
DAY 9 AND BEYOND…
Regardless of what is happening in my life, I try to meditate daily for at least 20 minutes. Some days I’m too busy, too tired or too lazy; when I have a lot on my mind, meditation is more difficult. But the more often I meditate, the better I get at it. My work improves when I meditate regularly. In Norway I storm every night. Russell and co are right — meditation can help you perform better, whatever you do.