Desperately Seeking Silence
by Lori Andreozzi
The desire to go on retreat—to find oneself outside of daily routines with the time and space to move inward—has long been part of the path to inner peace. While a retreat is often a tranquil experience, the truth is that we must often get through a hurdle or two before quietude sets in. And, as writer Lori Andreozzi shares in this piece on one of her visits to India, what we seek may ultimately not be what we find—but what we find may be exactly what we need.
A dense fog of humid, stale air hangs over the Ahmedabad airport parking lot. What stands out immediately are the numbers of people talking. Crowds gather in small groups, huddled in the most unlikely places—next to cars, on the road, even on the airport grass, casually chatting and drinking chai, spiced Indian tea. After traveling for almost 30 hours, this scene feels like a dream, as hazy as the ubiquitous Indian smog I find myself in once again. I’ve returned to the birthplace of yoga, the country I consider my spiritual homeland—my second visit in two years.
My plans are to travel with my partner and visit his family, but what I most long for is to spend time in silent retreat. My last experience in India was at an ashram that offered more quiet and peace than I could have hoped for; now, without any definitive plans or a particular destination, I’m hoping my partner and I can stumble upon a magically quiet place. It’s a perfectly legitimate approach to traveling in India. Things happen. You get what you come here to find. All I know is that I need to calm my busy mind and turn inward, have time away from the computer screen, and erase all the to-do lists from my mind that seem printed there in permanent ink.
Ironically, our first ride is anything but silent. As our taxi hops onto the city avenue, I enter into a symphony performed with one instrument: the car horn. Drivers in this city of 14 million keep their hands on both the wheel and the horn so with every turn, acceleration, or change in lane there’s another honk. Motorbikes dart through slow-moving cars, people overflow from the backs of cargo trucks, and stray dogs and cows meander alongside the road, oblivious to the chaos around them. We pass a strolling camel, farmer and cart in tow. I’m getting the sense that finding silence this time is going to be more of an adventure.
During our first night in the city, we sleep to the white noise of an air filter and the steady background of the horn symphony. In the predawn hours, I awake startled by a disturbing sound unfamiliar to us in America: howls and cries of wild dogs, packs of them. Unlike the benign barking of neighborhood dogs heard back home, the howls from these stray dogs sound more like deep complaints, cries of estrangement, perhaps loneliness, even anger. I’m awake for some time, hoping the barking will subside. It does, finally, but my mind is now busy worrying about their plight. I realize I’ve begun to create my own inner noise.
As we get acquainted with our apartment, new sounds emerge. First, there’s the daily cawing and squeaking from the bathroom. Outside the window, I discover a family of nesting parakeets, long, lime-green tails fluttering in a frenzy. Another night, I awake to an unusual banging on the windows. I assume it’s the parakeets, but instead there’s a group of rowdy monkeys swinging from window to window. About a week into our stay, our ears are forced to adjust to a new drama: construction outside, which ends up lasting the duration of our time there. Monkeys and parakeets, I can tolerate, perhaps even enjoy (once they quiet down)—they are, after all, part of the cultural experience. But construction—deafening pile driving and drilling—I refuse to accept. My only respite from the constant bombardment of sounds are periods of meditation in the back room, the quietest place in the apartment. As comforting as these meditation sessions are, I find myself frustrated each time I emerge to more noise.
Can I transform this visit to India into a peaceful time despite the noise? When I ask myself this question while meditating one morning, I get an answer: I can shift my determination for finding outer silence to a pursuit for inner silence, a goal not dependent on circumstances beyond my control.
The next stop on our trip is Rishikesh, a spiritual mecca in the foothills of the Himalayas that attracts yogis from around the world. Even with a new commitment to inner silence, I’m still hopeful a quiet retreat awaits me up north.
On the train, my partner and I settle into two comfortable window seats—a perfect opportunity to practice all forms of silence. I close my eyes and turn within. At each stop, the chai vendors board the train, shouting, “Hot chai! Get your hot chai!” And two Indian men next to us strike up a conversation with my partner. They keep asking him why I am so quiet. Am I tired? Bored? Apparently, they’re joining the universal conspiracy to keep me out of silence. I observe the quality of my mindless chatter and smile at the men, but I’m not budging—on this four-hour train ride through farmlands, sleep becomes my silent retreat.
Indian cities are notorious for noise and chaos. In Rishikesh, however, we expect a reverent, calm atmosphere. But it’s not, we discover, a quiet town, and our hotel is no exception. We decide to search for an ashram further up in the Himalayas. We take a tour of one ashram and stop to meditate by the Ganges on the ashram grounds—our first opportunity to do so since we arrived in Rishikesh.
Sitting on a rock by the roaring river, I let the gentle sounds wash over me, giving me a much-needed meditation after what seems like weeks of noise. Ten precious minutes into my meditation, a dog skitters over to me to say hello. He doesn’t intrude, so I continue meditating. Then, I hear a person’s voice speaking to my partner nearby. I try to stay within, but their discussion is getting interesting—it’s about silence.
The man, one of only two guests at the ashram, has just emerged from 10 days of silence. He’s dying to speak to someone and, well, by now, I’m convinced that outer silence is out of the picture entirely. We converse about his life spent wandering through the Himalayas, living in caves, and camping out at this ashram for periods of silence and rest. I find myself feeling jealous. Oh, to jump into his shoes for just awhile! As I speak with him, I have a glimpse of the power of inner silence. I observe myself speaking, laughing, and listening—and yet, there’s an underlying stillness, a place that’s unmovable, as calm as a placid lake.
Our trip to India is winding down, and I’ve now accepted that an actual silent retreat is going to be impossible. Where can we find the silent temples of India, and quickly? In one last desperate attempt, we head for a hotel 20 miles north of Rishikesh, with gardens located directly on the Ganges. It’s our last hope.
We open our cabin windows and the sound of the rushing Ganges is music to my ears. The steady pulsation of nature now seems strange, unfamiliar, almost exotic. Then, on cue, the fan-operated heater starts running, deafening the crash of the river crests. I head outside to sit by the river, meditate in pure, uninterrupted silence—at least the closest I’m going to get to it. And that’s just what I do, three days straight. Except for eating and sleeping, I spend my time strolling through lush gardens, walking along the road, and reaquainting myself with the sounds of nature.
Staying in a remote, beautiful setting like this one presents the ideal circumstances for retreat—but it took us almost our entire trip to find it. Once a year, I try to take a break from the demands of my daily life and focus on my inner needs: relaxation, silence, and meditation. There are times when I just don’t have enough time to take off for a retreat. This adventurous trip to India has taught me that there’s a permanent, inner place of respite—a place you don’t have to travel the length of an entire country oceans away to find.
As I spend my last days in quiet reflection by the Ganges, I sense I have accomplished more than three days of real silence during this monthlong pilgrimage to India. I’ll be leaving my spiritual homeland with a new practice to continue: remaining in a state of inner silence. If I can experience it in the chaotic midst of travel in India, I know I can find it anywhere.
Lori Andreozzi is a freelance writer based in Cranston, Rhode Island. She’s been practicing yoga and meditation for 12 years and has participated in numerous retreats at an ashram based in the United States and India. In addition to her work as a copywriter, she writes feature articles on business and travel for magazines.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.