the silent retreat

The silent retreat

by Janice Nigro


A conversation between two way cooler than me California women about a type of retreat where there is no conversation-a silent retreat-and I immediately recognized a parallel in my own world-scuba diving. That’s scuba diving, I shouted out without hesitation, and suddenly I gained respect as more than the nerdy girl taking pictures underwater who can’t stop talking about the unusual creatures that reside there.


Each dive really is a mini silent retreat. My head goes under, and for an hour or more, depending on air consumption and the mood of the guide, I have to keep my mouth shut. Chiuso (I love Italian words). I have logged more than 600 dives which somehow adds up to almost a month of silence underwater.


A whole month to consciously look inside myself or rather outside myself. But I am not exactly sure what the rules of a silent retreat are (I guess no talking) and more importantly what may constitute breaking the rules of a silent retreat. There is a lot that one can say for example with the raising of a single eyebrow (if you can do that).


Scuba diving is not performed without some form of communication. You can’t scream about having just seen a whaleshark but you can pump a fist. At the same time, just seeing one leaves you speechless and reverent. There are for sure some serious hand signals, the OK sign and how much air do you have, and the not so serious, for a pygmy seahorse or a frogfish. Guides sometimes have some kind of noisemaker to catch our attention for something special but I am not a fan of these because, well, they break the silence. I have watched a hearing impaired couple underwater converse beautifully because for them, there was nothing to adjust.


You are forced to experience the world around you without speaking a word for an hour, but it is speaking to you.


There was a moment on a dive near Kri Island in Indonesia when anything that could swim vanished before me in an instant. The fish silently disappeared in unison. I held my breath, waited, and contemplated what might be coming while looking worriedly at the suddenly empty deep blue water scene in front of me. A boat? Something big but not a boat? A natural disaster? It was a silent but somehow not silent school of eagle rays which disappeared as quickly as they arrived. Did we really see that?, I asked myself. I was the only creature who was unaware that they were coming. Yet, I knew something was up as I watched the instantaneous disappearance of the dense cloud of life which a moment before had been parading before me.


Subtle cues communicate action all around us. When is it, that magic moment when a pair of mandarinfish know it is time to mate, that exact moment at sunset when the right amount of sunlight remains sending them in a panic search for a mate, and then the chance to mate is over until 24 hours later when the same moment occurs again.


A cuttlefish makes no sound but rapidly executes a series of color and texture changes either to camouflage itself, or to scare or to potentially hypnotize you. And if none of that works to frighten you away, it will release a bit of black smoke and disappear as if by magic. Still in silence.


Thousands of sardines will swim around you in organized silence until someone in the group makes an abrupt switch. The change is still silent, like a silent symphony.


Ironically sound travels better through the sea than air. You can hear a parrotfish scraping its perfectly evolved teeth on the coral to feed on the algae. Or a humpback whale song sung by a whale which is nowhere in sight. It will stay in your mind forever if you listen for it.


Silence in the ocean is an attribute. No one hears a shark. A frogfish sits and watches like a sphinx. Divers will even see more if they remain calm.


So I could report to my two very cool Californian acquaintances that I have been going to the ultimate in silent retreats for years. Perhaps a little more intermittent rather than a week of silence or even a full day of silence. But there is no TV, no internet, no iPod tunes, nothing to distract you from viewing the world in which you are literally immersed in silence.



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