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30 days in silence

By Marianne Neifeld - For Living & Being - June 1, 2009

Poughkeepsie Journal

In 2006, Perri Ardman (Gift From Within Board Member) found the silence to touch her own soul. She took a 30-day silent solitary retreat in rural Maine during winter that year.

Staying at a lakefront cottage, with a cell phone for emergencies only, and a 30-day supply of food and basic necessities, her goal was "to be as present and still as possible."

To this end, Ardman spent her days in meditation, writing poetry, chanting, doing tai chi and walking and photographing the frigid terrain of a cold, wintry landscape, while having no verbal contact with the outside world.

"This was a very deep experience that still has an effect on me," said Ardman, 66, a long-term care Insurance agent who works out of her home in Kingston.

"My purpose was not to heal myself from anything or solve a life problem," she said. "My purpose was to get as still as I possibly could and see what emerged."

What emerged, she said, is "a continuing appreciation of solitude and stillness. The discipline of the retreat is still with me - it's something I can call on. It gave me a lot of inner strength and confidence."

With no television, radio, computer or phone, and her only correspondence through postal mail and occasional notes, Ardman relied upon inner resources and focused on her daily schedule. Rising at 4:30 each morning and in bed by 10:30, "I slept amazingly well," she said.

On the rare occasion she was approached by someone, she presented a card she carried with her, noting she was "in silence" and not being rude. People understood.

Although she was seldom in want of anything, she would leave notes as needed at the rental host's house next door. But for the most part, Ardman made do with what she brought.

Ardman, who had been on group retreats before that integrated silence, said she was motivated by a book she once read about a woman's solo retreat.

Between jobs in 2006, "it was an ideal time for me to get away," she said - even with her daughter, Lauren, pregnant with her first child.

Ardman recalled her friend and mentor's warning,

"You're going to want to call to see how she's doing. Don't do that - make your purpose your purpose and don't waver."

Ardman didn't call, although at times she felt like it. And both bode well. "I was happy for her," Ardman's daughter, Lauren, said. "I always feel good when she's taking care of herself."

"The amount of support I've received from so many for this retreat is amazing, and I spend most of my day in ecstasy, grateful, appreciative, happy."

~ from Perri Ardman's journal

Drawing upon her years of Constructive Living practice, an Eastern approach to living that integrates self-reflection with purposeful action, Ardman, a certified instructor since 1986, said its influence during her retreat was great.

"The Morita [action side of Constructive Living] was crucial in not letting feelings deter me from my purpose," she said. "With Naikon [the self-reflection of Constructive Living], I was able to have enormous gratitude."

"One of the things I love most about being here is that I can get up at 4:30 and make any kind of clatter I want or need to make."

~ from Ardman's journal

Today, Ardman has embarked on a venture to help others seeking a retreat. She will discuss their particular needs and desires and assist them with a comprehensive plan.

While some retreats incorporate scheduled silence, Ardman chose to make hers an all-silent retreat because her purpose was to "get as quiet and still as possible," and silence, she said, enhanced the depth of that purpose. But she did allow herself to listen to CDs of classical and new age music, as long as it was her sole activity; one of her goals was to focus on doing just one thing at a time.

"We do not have enough silence in our lives," Ardman said. "We can barely hear our own 'inner wisdom' if we are paying attention to the noise all around us and the constant chatter inside our heads. A retreat is taking a step back from one's usual life.

"Until you've experienced the lifting of the burden of having to speak, you don't understand."

She was amazed by her first experience 22 years ago on a group retreat that included silence.

"I found it a great relief to not have to talk," she said.

"Twilight comes and goes. The twilight loneliness I have felt since childhood does not appear here. Between night and day, peace."

~ from Ardman's journal

One of her most profound moments occurred when she faced a brush with death. While walking on a snowy day, she saw the headlights of a huge highway snowplow coming toward her - and there was nowhere for her to go.

"The snow was blowing a mile a minute," she said.

She recalled the snow pushed by the plow was either going to knock her over - there was nowhere to go with a 6-foot pile of snow on the road side - or she could risk the danger of crossing the icy road and being struck by an oncoming car. "I thought, 'What am I going to do here?'

Ardman stopped in her tracks... and waited.

The snowplow driver saw her and stopped the truck. "It was amazing. I was totally saved," Ardman said.

She marvels at her level of calm in that moment. "There was no fear attached to it, merely curiosity."

"I've fallen in love with trees and rocks. Will this relationship continue after I go home?"

~ from Ardman's journal

She considers her retreat a success. "I came away with two chants that came to me, and they were really about gratitude and being present. It was a big surprise, because I'm not a musician at all."

Additionally, after years of deliberation, she became an interfaith minister, enrolling in a seminary that fall.

"There's a continuing appreciation of solitude and stillness," she said of her experience. "It gave me a lot of inner strength and confidence. And the empowerment to do it again. The discipline is still with me."

Perri Ardman offers customized group or individual retreat planning and guidance. Tailored to the needs of the individual, they include weekends or longer, silent or otherwise, both locally and out of state. She be reached at revperri@gmail.com

SCHEDULE | A day during retreat

While in Maine for 30 days of silence, Perri Ardman typically followed this schedule:

4:30-5:30 a.m.: Get up, journal, have tea or lemon water, read, leisure.

5:30-6 a.m: Chant, scripture reading, tai chi/stretches, etc.

6-7 a.m.: Exercise (weights three times week inside; other days outside).

7-8 a.m.: Breakfast and clean up.

8-9 a.m.: Work - make bed, laundry, water plants, clean house, etc.

9-10:20 a.m.: Meditation, sitting and walking.

10:20-11:30 a.m.: Outside.

11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.: Free time inside or outside.

12:30-1:30 p.m.: Lunch and clean up.

1:30-2:15 p.m.: Read/write, ToDo Institute * "Living on Purpose" exercises.

2:15-3:40 p.m.: Meditation, sitting and walking.

3:40-5 p.m.: Free time inside or outside.

5-6 p.m.: Meditation, sitting and walking.

6- 7 p.m.: Dinner and clean up.

7-8 p.m.: Free time.

8:30-9 p.m.: Prayers and chanting.

9-9:30 p.m.: Bath.

9:30-10:30 p.m.: Reading and lights out.

Add some silence

Perri Ardman advises the following to help weave silence into your daily life:

1. Eat a meal in silence with your family. (Family may resist but encourage them to try it.) With each bite, pay attention to the taste and texture of the food. Chew slowly. Consider all of the work that went into this food - what animals or vegetables gave up their lives? How did the food get to you - from farm to store to home? How many people might have been involved? If you live alone, you can do the same thing - eat without reading, without the radio or TV on - let go of whatever "props" you use for company while eating.

2. Take five minutes two or three times a day to sit quietly and breathe. Don't look at the computer screen, turn off the phone, and pay attention to your breathing.

3. Stop multi-tasking for some portion of the day. If you're having a phone conversation, just listen and respond. If you are listening to the radio, just sit and listen. If you're exercising, put away your iPod. If driving the car, turn off the radio. Go for a walk with a friend, but be silent together. One thing at a time. When knitting or sewing or ironing, do just that, nothing else (i.e., no TV).

4. When with another person or a group of people, take three or four slow breaths before speaking or responding to what someone else has said. Notice whether or not the importance of what you planned to say changes. Do your best to listen without planning your own response in advance. Does this change the quality of your listening in some way? How?

5. Make a regular time for silence in your life. It can be once a week for a few hours, or daily for a few minutes. Your brain will not be used to it at first. Your mind will chatter away and do whatever it can to engage you. This is when it can be useful to use a mantra (any word that sounds pleasant to you will do) or to return your attention to your breath.

6. Gather a friend or two together for an afternoon or a day and incorporate a period of silence into your time together, perhaps an hour or two. People can choose whatever activity they want - perhaps reading or writing or some kind of drawing/painting. One suggestion is to look at a natural object - a leaf, a stone, a tree, even a single blade of grass - for about 10-15 minutes and then photograph it or draw it.

7. Spend a day in silence - go about your regular activities. You can write a note and show it to people who speak to you - something like, "I am spending this day not talking. I do not intend to be rude by not speaking to you. Thanks for your consideration." What is it like to visit the post office, grocery store or go to work without speaking? Check it out.

8. It's important not to expect a huge change/transformation - just notice your response to silence. It may be comforting or anxiety producing or awkward, but keep practicing. Whatever comes from it is not controllable, but you may find it becomes something important and meaningful for you.

The ToDo Institute is an educational nonprofit organization based in
Vermont, offering resources and programs encompassing Eastern philosophy, including correspondence courses. Visit www.todoinstitute.org.

Contacting Ardman
Perri Ardman offers customized group or individual retreat planning and guidance. Tailored to the needs of the individual, they include weekends or longer, silent or otherwise, both locally and out of state. She be reached at revperri@gmail.com
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