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?

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - BODY & SOUL -

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?

Day 1

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.

Day 2

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!

Day 3

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.

Day 4

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.

Day 5

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.

Day 6

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.


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.

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