Experiencing Silence in the Black Forest
I travelled the world and found peace in a small German village
I wanted to learn who I am when not thinking.
Mountains never fail me. I always attain clarity of thought and action after a solitary climb. Once, when I struggled with indecisiveness, I thought of heading to the mountains, but for my wife. “Instead of searching for silence, should you not cultivate it?” she suggested. The same evening she booked me for a ten days silence course at a retreat nestled in the German Black Forest. “You’ll get to do all the walking you want” she said. I was unconvinced. She packed my bags anyway.
Located deep in the south of Germany and close to the borders of Switzerland and France, the village of Bad Antogast is a difficult reach from any German city. It’s a small hamlet punctuated with countable farmers’ houses, terraced fields, and a silent retreat. Mountains and forests encircle Bad Antogast in such a way that it appears unannounced. There are no markets to be seen, no traffic, and a mineral water spring is the only tourist attraction – a village custom built for experimentations with reclusiveness.
The retreat suggested a silent enquiry, mostly within. It was built to aid these experiments. Located on a mountain slope, my room was a minimalistic triangle, the windows of which opened into the forest. Wooden flooring, thick woollen blankets, and warm bed whipped it into a comforting nest. My room didn’t catch cellular network. Perfect! I had plans to sit in front of the fireplace, read books and go for long walks in the woods. All alone.
The problem with plans is that they often fail, and expectations lead to disappointments. I realised that I had to share my room with a complete stranger. Overnight, 80 others checked in at the retreat. Gone was the promise of silence, and I searched an escape. However, I had sworn a fair try. So I stuck around.
“No need for artificial pleasantries” our guide told us in the first session, “no sorry, no thanks, no nodding, no acknowledgement whatsoever. Words are not needed.” That’s unendurable, I thought. At the same time, relief dawned. I had an excuse for not introducing myself multiple times over. The roomful of people shushed. With silence descending, the crowd reduced to a notion. In the days that followed only the doors left ajar, few passing cars, and the wind had voices.
Meditation is silence preserved. I was told that I should not force my mind to concentrate too hard but just remind it that I want nothing. I should let the mind wander freely and find its own place. On most days, nothing happened as I sat in wrenching discomfort of the position. Gradually, I let it go. On some days, a screen appeared. It walked me through my embarrassments, successes, long forgotten events, often unremarkable ones, as if wiping the unwanted memory. “Watch every thought. Label it, put it in a mental basket and move on,” I was told. Perhaps I wouldn’t need a lesson in quietness were it not my need to compete, the desire to thrust myself forward, to assert.
In the days that followed, every morning at five I would walk to a big hall adjoining the front garden, sit down on a mat, and close my eyes. The trouble with wandering minds is that even silent pauses are pregnant with planning. In my free hours, I would conspire to mountain bike to the neighbouring villages of Maisach or Griesbach, or discover the secret location up somewhere in the mountains from where a sole para-sailer sometimes appeared out of thin air and remained hung on the blue vastness for long hours.
When not meditating, I would go for long walks. I would walk past the cowshed next door, where men, ancient in age and dressing, separated hay for their animals, and their women worked in the slopes to grow potatoes and cabbage. In this part of the world, they still dressed the old German way, in Lederhosens - leather pants that last a lifetime. The farmers would wave with a smile, and chancing upon the invite I would walk up to them to learn more about their lives. They didn’t know English though, and I had never really taken my German lessons seriously. Silence was less of an option, but a given.
In between the meditations and walks, all of us worked on projects in small groups – silently, without making eye contact. This I found most uncanny. We did menial activities like vacuuming, planting flowers, or cutting vegetables. A huge resistance built up inside. “Have no expectations from your activities” the guide summarised the philosophy of the retreat, “and be 100% into it - as if this was all that mattered”. I made a desperate attempt, investing all of me in one moment at a time. A minute became ten, and then an hour. Little did I notice time drift by. Unexpectedly, even a simple task of planting flowers became an engrossing activity. For once I wasn’t bothered about the fate of things to come. The problems I had brought with me seemed so distant, so microscopic.
In the days that followed, I took to walking with the feverishness of a dervish. The trails here irrepressibly gain a gradient. As they slant upward, temperate mixed forest of pine and oak takes over. There are no beginnings or ends to the trails here. They all seem to merge into one another, before circuiting to the tarmac that had long ceased abruptly below in the valley. So often I was spotted on the dust-laden tracks zigzagging across the forests that the village folks would wave at me from a distance. For once, in my own narrow settings, I had become a recognizable figure.
The Black Forest is a neat absorbent. It ingests everything – the sound of my footsteps crushing the dry leaves, the vaporous puffing from the effort of the solitary climb, an orphan grunt from slipping on a wet stone – and transforms the noises into a gentle nothingness, returning not even a slightest ruffle. Sometimes, while walking these trails, I stopped to listen. No birds chirped, even the water streams gurgled only when approached. Stillness dominated.
Walking through the Black Forest taught me something else. The urge to speak up diluted, and then disappeared. With silence, the perception also sharpened and I began to notice things that would have previously gone unnoticed. For instance, people here didn’t blab mindlessly. They spoke in syllables and when needed, as if words were potent vehicles to ensue clarity and should be used sparingly.
On one such walk, I stood soaking the silence. For once, thoughts failed to bubble up and the indecisiveness I had carried with me to the trip, faded away. All I could notice was the several shades of green that prevailed on the thick of the trees around. Never before had I noticed such vibrancy on a single colour outside a box of crayons. I stayed there looking far out in the valley till the sun disappeared. And I thought of nothing. As if all the travels I had taken so far, all the flights I had negotiated, all aimed to root me to this moment. I closed my eyes. The timelessness comforted me.
Living with strangers for ten days, without a spoken word, would leave us strangers still. Or so I had imagined. When the time to break the silence arrived, none of us felt the need to speak. Like confidants, we smiled speechlessly. I had dreaded the idea of being among strangers for a long period of introspection. But they turned out to be fellow travellers coursing the same road. A realisation sunk in: relationships don’t need the weight of words. Trust nurtures itself in silence.
I had come to battle my problems alone. I left with a deeper comprehension of relationships and stillness like I had never experienced before.
A version of this story appeared in The Hindu