The Silence

Luis Sanchis/Art+Commerce


What a dragonfly was doing out here in the desert, he couldn’t say. It was a creature of water, a sluggish slime-coated nymph that had metamorphosed into an electric needle of light, designed to hover and dart over pond and ditch in order to feed on the insects that rose from the surface in soft moist clouds. But here it was, as red as blood if blood could shine like metal, hovering in front of his face as if it had come to impart some message. And what would that message be? I am the karmic representative of the insect world, here to tell you that all is well amongst us. Hooray! Jabba-jabba-jabba! For a long while, long after the creature had hurtled away in shearing splinters of radiance, he sat there, legs folded under him in the blaze of 118-degree heat, thinking alternately: This is working, and I am losing my mind.

And this was only the first day.


What he wanted, more than he wanted the air to sink into the alveoli of his lungs or the blood to rush through the chambers of his heart, was to tell his wife about it, about this miracle of the dragonfly in the desert. But of course he couldn’t, because the nature of this retreat, under the guidance of Geshe Stephen O’Dowd and Lama Katie Capolupo, was silence, silence rejuvenant, unbroken, utter. Three years, three months, and three days of it, the very term undertaken by the Dalai Lamas themselves in their quest for enlightenment. He had signed on, drawn down his bank account, paid his first wife a lump sum to cover her maintenance and child support for the twins, married the love of his soul on a sere, scorched afternoon three weeks ago, and put the finishing touches on his yurt. In the Arizona desert. Amidst cholla and saguaro and sun-blistered projections of rock so bleak they might have confounded the Buddha himself. The heat was an anvil and he was the white-hot point of steel beaten under the hammer.

Though he felt light-headed from the morning and afternoon group-meditation sessions and the trancing suck of the desert sun, he pushed himself up and tottered back to the yurt on legs that might as well have been deboned for all the stability they offered him, this perfect gift of the dragonfly inside him and no way to get it out. He found her—Karuna, his wife, the former Sally Barlow Townes of Chappaqua, New York—seated in the lotus position on the hemp mat just inside the door. She was a slim, very nearly emaciated girl of 29, with a strong sweep of jaw, a pouting smallish mouth, and a rope of braided blond hair that drew in the light and held it. Despite the heat, she was wearing her pink prayer shawl over a blue pashmina meditation skirt. Her sweat was like body paint, every square millimeter of exposed flesh shining with it.

At first she didn’t lift her eyes, so deeply immersed in the inner self she didn’t seem to be aware of him standing there before her. He felt the smallest stab of jealousy over her ability to penetrate so deeply, to go so far—and on the first day, no less—but then he dismissed it as selfish and hurtful, as bad karma, as papa. They might have been enjoined from speaking, he was thinking, but he could find ways around that. Very slowly he began to move his limbs as if he were dancing to an unheard melody, then he clicked his fingers, counting off the beat, and at last she raised her eyes.


Dinner for their first evening of the retreat, after the meager portions of rice and lentils doled out for the communal morning and afternoon meals, had been decided on in a time when they could express themselves aloud—yesterday, that is. It was to consist of tahini, lemon juice, and chickpeas blended into hummus, basmati rice, and naan bread. He was at the stove watching the chickpeas roiling in a pan of water over the gas jet, which was hooked up to the propane tank half-buried in a pit behind the yurt. The time must have been seven or so in the evening—he couldn’t be sure because Geshe Stephen had encouraged them all to remove their watches and ceremonially grind them between two stones. The heat had begun to lift and he imagined the temperature dipping into the 90s, though numbers had no value here and whether it was diabolically hot or, in winter, as he’d been forewarned, unsustainably cold, really didn’t matter. What mattered were the chickpeas, golden in the pot. What mattered was the dragonfly.

He’d done his best to communicate the experience to Karuna, falling back on his admittedly rusty skills at charades. He led her to the entrance of the yurt and pointed to the place where he’d been sitting in the poor stippled shade of a palo verde tree and then used the distance between his forefinger and thumb to give her an idea of the creature and its relative size, jerking that space back and forth vigorously to replicate its movements and finally flinging his hand out to demonstrate the path it had taken. She’d gazed at him blankly. Three syllables, he indicated digitally, making his face go fierce for the representation of dragon—he breathed fire, or tried to—and then softening it for the notion of fly, and he’d been helped here by the appearance, against the front window, of an actual fly, a fat bluebottle that had no doubt sprung from the desiccating carcass of some fallen toad or lizard. She’d blinked rapidly. She’d smiled. And, as far as he could see, didn’t have the faintest idea of what he was attempting to convey, though she was trying her hardest to focus on the bliss in his face.

But now she was bending to the oven, where the flattened balls of dough were taking on the appearance of bread, her meditation skirt hitched up in back so that he was able to admire the shape of her ankles, a shape as miraculous as that of the dragonfly—or no, a thousand times more so. Because her ankles rose gracefully to her calves and her calves to her thighs and from there … he caught himself. This was not right-mindfulness, and he had to suppress it. There would be no touching, no kissing, no sex during the length of the retreat. And that length of time looped out suddenly before him like a rope descending into an infinite well: three years, three months, three days. Or no: two. One down, or nearly down. A quick calculation: 1,189 to go.

He reached for the handle of the pot and had actually taken hold of it, so entranced was he by the poured gold of the chickpeas, before he understood that the handle was hot. But not simply hot: superheated, all but molten. He managed to drop the pot back on the burner without upsetting it, the harsh clatter of metal on metal startling his wife, who shot him a glance out of enlarging eyes, and though he wanted to cry out, to curse and shout and dance through his pain, he just bit his finger at the knuckle and let the tears roll down both flanges of his nose.


The first night came in a blizzard of stars. The temperature dropped till it was almost bearable, not that it mattered, and he stared hard at the concentric rings of the yurt’s conical ceiling till they began to blur. Was he bored? No, not at all. He didn’t need the noise of the world, the cell phones and TVs and laptops and all the rest, transient things, distractions, things of the flesh—he needed inner focus, serenity, the Bodhi­sattva path. And he was on it, his two feet planted firmly, as he dropped his eyes to study the movements of Karuna while she prepared for bed. She was grace incarnate, swimming out of her clothes as if emerging from a cool, clean mountain stream, naked before him as she bent for the stiff cotton nightshirt that lay folded beneath her pillow on the raised wooden pallet beside his own. He studied the flex of her buttocks, the cleft there, the way her breasts swung free as she dipped to the bed, and it was so right, so pure and wholly beautiful that he felt like singing—or chanting. Chanting in his own head, Om mani padme hum.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In