NEVADA CITY – Summer solstice, the longest day of the year, brings the promise of prolonged illumination, both seasonal and personal.
This is the day I have chosen to begin a 48-hour vow of silence, to seclude myself deep in the Sierra foothills 20 miles northwest of here for a weekend getaway at a meditation retreat for which the selling points are no external stimulation, no outside contact with the wider world (either wired or human) and no inane chatter.
Lest you consider it an act of harsh asceticism rather than a valid vacation option, my two- night stay at the Ananda Meditation Retreat on San Juan Ridge also promised the possibility of a deep connection with myself and the divine, the chance to commune with nature and the nature of my being, and to both unplug and recharge amid stately oak, pine and alder trees.
That I'm neither a yogi nor an Eastern-religion "seeker" matters little. For decades, people of all faiths – and maybe even a few with none at all – have repaired to Ananda's verdant 70-acre spread to meditate and rejuvenate and, most of all, contemplate the meaning of life and their place in it.
Longstanding silent retreats such as Ananda, Esalen in Big Sur and Green Gulch in Marin County lie at the forefront of what some say is a growing phenomenon in personal travel. No less an arbiter than Travel + Leisure magazine has proclaimed silent retreats "a top trend for 2013." The Huffington Post called them a "perfect antidote to work-driven lives," and ABC News gushed "you can find peace and quiet for days on end!"
All over California, from the nondenominational Silent Stay in Vacaville to a Benedictine monastery called the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, retreats have taken root and sprouted in recent years. Supriya, who manages Ananda's retreat along with her partner, Chaitanya, isn't at all surprised.
"Retreats like this are badly needed because it's so hard for people to unplug from phone and Internet," she said. "It's gotten so we're just constantly bombarded with information. People expect you to be at their beck and call all the time. Here, you can slow down."
And relax. And mull. Engage in stock-taking and priority-evaluating. All without the distracting chatter of Twitter and Facebook, Reddit and Instagram, YouTube and Yelp.
Sounds easy. Sounds blissful. Sounds great – until you actually have to unplug and deal with the residual sounds, voices and stray pinging noises searing around your brain pan from "real" life.
Calming down, you soon find, takes hard work, which does not defeat the purpose of the exercise; it only makes it more rewarding once it's achieved.
Or so I'm told.
There I sat on a Friday night, solstice night, on a bench in a circular spot of Ananda's vast garden called the vortex, because it's said to funnel energy within.
This is a prime spot for "secluders," gardener Charles Evans said, to reintroduce themselves to the outer world and to summon their inner world, as well.
Starting to let go
So I stared at the sun, still shimmering through branches of heritage oaks far past 8 o'clock, and felt only slightly bereft without my smartphone or my watch. I tried to envelope my senses in the clean smell of the pines above me, the loam of the mulched oak leaves at my feet, the chirp of birds darting shrub to shrub, the rustle of branches and hum of bees.
But the high-pitched whine of mosquitoes dive-bombing me negated potential reveries. All I could think as I slapped away the mosquitoes was the karmic blow-back I would face from smooshing the little pests.
I wondered what Paramhansa Yogananda, on whose yogic teachings this center's precepts are based, would think of my mass mosquito slaughter.
Then again, I thought, let the mosquitoes serve as allegorical stand-ins for the tweets and texts and status updates that inundate my life. I was thinking that while I was supposed to be thinking nothing at all, merely being, but my brain didn't have an on-off switch, or even a dimmer knob.
Clearly, I was suffering from an "interiority" complex. I should have just been sitting in the garden watching plants photosynthesize, deep inside myself, but these divergent, self-conscious thoughts intruded like the car radio set on scan.
"It's really tough, even for myself," Surpriya said, "and I've been doing it 22 years. I once made the analogy that I'm like an undisciplined puppy, sniffing around and not focusing long on anything. It takes training."
Supriya – that's her Sanskrit name; she was born Sheri Goldberg in the San Fernando Valley – told me this before my veil of silence fell.
She checks in guests like the kindly innkeeper she is, showing them their cabins or tent bungalows, the garden, the free-range chicken coop, the solar panels (the retreat is "off the grid") and the hiking trails. But she also tries to introduce them to the way of Ananda, Sanskrit for "joy."
Her final instructions before, well, silently retreating back to her domed office, was for me to check the guest binder sitting on the counter. Inside was a blue laminated badge I was to wear, declaring "I AM IN SILENCE, Thank You," and an essay for neophytes on how to deal with the inevitable "what now?" feeling of vacationing without the crutch of structured activities.
Included along with the helpful hints in the binder's "Time Out for Seclusion" section – "bring spiritual books to read, hatha yoga tools, meditation devices" – was a warning that one might fear being alone and in silence because, "many people are afraid to face their own demons."
But staring down demons, apparently by giving them the silent treatment, is part of what you signed up for. Great thinkers from Thoreau to Merton have alighted to the hinterlands to do battle with the ineffable, and no less a thinker than Blaise Pascal once mused, "All the problems in the world stem from man's inability to sit alone in a small room."
What are those sounds?
The sitting alone part I thought I could hack. What was vaguely unsettling was being silent around others.
At dinner that first night, I took my bowl of Czech mushroom soup and a plate of quinoa, broccoli and salad, and sat alone in the dining room. There are eight of us, alone together. I looked around: a woman in the back corner with two journals open; another woman staring into her bowl mouthing silent prayers; two couples at a circular table being sociable merely with occasional eye contact.
Never had I been so self-conscious while eating. The very act of mastication and peristalsis seemed hideously amplified. When I crunched a radish, the noise seemed as deafening as an explosive blast, the sharp snap of a carrot on my molars like a gunshot, the clink of metal utensils on ceramic flatware as intrusive as a tinny cellphone ringtone.
Yet, I also found I had never been more conscious about what I was eating. I noticed the gradations of texture in the mushroom soup, at once creamy and gritty, the subtle tang of the balsamic salad dressing, the truly cardboardlike components of the rice cakes that substituted for bread.
That night, in preparation for the morning meditation, I read from Yogananda's seminal 1946 book "Auto- biography of a Yogi," which Surpriya suggested would give a primer on the practice of Kriya yoga.
"The vast majority of people here, if not exactly on an Ananda path, are on some kind of Eastern yogic path," she had said. "Sometimes, it's hard for other people to stomach when (Yogananda) talks about miracles that occurred or things that are unfathomable to Western minds. They have a hard time finding it credible."
Surpriya had been, perhaps, preparing me for the section in which Yogananda writes about the immortal Indian saint Mahavatar Babaji who "retained his physical form for centuries" and apparently still lives in the northern Himalayas.
Only slightly less esoteric is Yogananda's explanation of Kriya yoga practices. In short, it's a breathing technique meant to induce a state of tranquility and renew life energy that travels the length of six spinal centers in the body that correspond to the 12 astral signs of the Zodiac.
Learning the mantra
The book also clued me in to the meditation mantra "Hong-Sau," that helps focus the mind on the task at hand. It's "hong" on the inhalation; "sau" on the exhalation. Repeat as necessary.
Early the next morning – I didn't hear the 5:30 gong, but was up anyway, anxiety-ridden about meditating – I gingerly walked into the temple just as spiritual directors Nayaswami Dharmadas and Nayaswami Nirmala chanted to the stock-still adherents.
Supriya had told me this group of Kriyabans – practitioners who had gone through extensive training – had given the OK for guests to sit in on the last half of their three-hour meditation.
I took off my shoes, grabbed a blue yoga mat and found a spot near the back. I unfurled the mat, and staring at me was the familiar Facebook logo. It was as if the universe was laughing at me, saying, "Ha, you think you can turn off thoughts of social media so easily!"
Cross-legged on the mat – even though several Kriyabans were perched on chairs and looked much more comfy – I tried to stay still and empty my mind, but not before glancing around the temple. At the altar were five portraits of spiritual leaders: Jesus Christ, Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, Yukteswar Giri and Yogananda. Below it was a larger photo of Yogananda and a smaller photo of the recently deceased Kriyananda (born James Donald Walters), Yogananda's disciple and founder of the Ananda retreat in 1968.
Why Christ? I wondered. Were they just covering all the bases, or what?
Later, Supriya would tell me that Yogananda considered Christ "a great yogi who practiced meditations. I know some (Christians) might be up in arms about that, but "
As at dinner previously, I was painfully self-conscious at the start of meditation. My slightest movement – nose-twitch or swallow – led me to think I was disrupting something sacred. A man in front put on noise-canceling headphones about 10 minutes after I arrived, and I hoped it wasn't because he could hear my breakfast-craving stomach rumbling.
Eventually, I got down to some serious hong-sauing. Eyes closed, I tried to will myself to banish invasive thoughts. For a moment, I felt a blankness, a pleasant absence – nothing intruding on the nothingness.
Then I thought, "Hey, I'm not thinking about anything," and the process began all over again.
I could not help it: Thoughts swirled in my brain, a Gertrude Steinian stream of trivial consciousness. I told myself, 'This won't look good for the story,' then scolded myself for thinking about the story when I should have been thinking about not thinking, about letting go.
After a good spell, my overheated mind calmed, my breathing – hong- sau – got shallower until I wasn't aware of breathing at all. I didn't know how much time had elapsed, but I was mildly surprised when Dharmadas intoned, "We'll end this meditation with a prayer."
I'd been sitting for an hour and 45 minutes.
A silent breakfast of oatmeal and a banana awaited me, like a karmic reward.
In the afternoon, after a two-hour nap, I took a hike on one of the retreat's verdant trails, lined with manzanita, oak and pine. I was feeling calmer – or maybe just half-asleep. Ambling along an overgrown fire road shaded by oak branches, I looked down at the trail at a fortuitous time: A rattlesnake lay stretched out sunning itself not 3 feet in front of me.
It was a standoff for a minute or two. I tried to slow my breathing – "Hong-sau, hong–freakin'-sau" – but the snake didn't budge. I stared at it and marveled at its clever camouflaged properties, how it almost seamlessly blended into the landscape. I forgot that its bite can be lethal. We had a moment there, the snake and I, maybe not of understanding but of detente. I gingerly stepped around it, exhaling a mighty "sau," believe you me.
After an evening kirtan (chanting concert) and cleansing fire ceremony, I had no problem sleeping. The snake incident had been recast in my mind from anxious encounter to profound meeting.
The next morning, a Sunday, upon breaking my silence, I told Supriya about all I experienced. She nodded sagely, smiled when appropriate.
When I asked what a snake symbolizes in her faith, she brightened: "Oh, that's a good sign. Snake means 'transition.' "
It was time for me to transition back to the verbal world, the whole crazy, information-besotted spectacle of modern life. When I turned my phone back on in Nevada City, I heard the bing-bing-bing of incoming text messages accumulated over nearly three days, as rapid-fire as rounds from an AR-15 assault rifle.
Tempted to look, I instead turned the phone back off.
Just a little while longer.
ANANDA MEDITATION RETREAT
Outside of Nevada City
Kriya yoga-focused, open to all faiths
Dining room on specific days; other days, prepare your own food
Accommodations: Cabins and tent bungalows, tents
Cost: $25-$95 per night
Features: Meditation temple, massage, hiking and reflective garden
OTHER MEDITATION RETREATS IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
Prepare own food in kitchen
Accommodations: Six guest rooms; three-night minimum
Cost: $115-$145 single; $160-$190 double
Features: Meditation and meditation movement, one-on-one guidance
MOUNT MADONNA CENTER
Santa Cruz Mountains
Eastern yoga practices
Vegetarian food served
Features: Yoga, hot tub, hiking trails
Marin County, near Muir Beach
Vegetarian meals served
Features: Zazen (seated) intruction, Dharma talks, walking meditations
SACRED SPRINGS MOUNTAIN RETREAT
Eastern yogic practices
Choice of raw foods, a mix of raw and cooked foods, or a liquid diet
Accommodations: Basic retreat: is three days, two nights for $690
Features: Guided or silent meditiation, yoga, counseling, juice fast or cleasning
Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. On Twitter: @SamMcManis.