Going on a ten-day silent retreat in Bad Antogast, a small hamlet on the edge of the Black Forest in Germany punctuated by a handful of farmers’ houses and terraced fields, was my wife’s idea of a fun vacation, not mine. Left to my own devices, I would have preferred to trace the Alps, hiking a well-known trail and marking it off on my list of accomplishments. I get a kick out of tangible outcomes. My wife suggested I learn to quieten my mind. I was unconvinced. She booked me in anyway.
Located in Germany’s deep south, close to the Swiss and French borders, Bad Antogast is encircled by mountains and forests, making it difficult to reach from any German city. That’s not necessarily a bad trade, for all the clockwork German precision also melts away as one leaves the hustle of the cities behind. Appearing unannounced in a valley, it’s a village custom-built for experiments with reclusiveness. There are no markets to be seen, no traffic. A mineral water spring is the only tourist attraction.
The Silence Retreat is located on a slope. My room was a minimalistic rectangle, the windows of which opened onto the forest. Wooden flooring, thick woollen blankets, and a warm bed turned it into a comforting nest Cellular network didn’t penetrate its walls. Everything about the retreat suggested silent enquiry, mostly within. The trouble with wandering minds like mine is that even silent pauses are pregnant with planning. In my free hours, I conspired to mountain bike to the neighbouring villages of Maisach or Griesbach or go looking for the hidden spot, somewhere up in the mountains, from which a sole parasailer sometimes appeared out of thin air and remained hanging in the blue vastness for long hours.
Conversations were difficult to strike up though. Walking past the cowshed next door, I’d spot men separating hay into small heaps for their animals, and women working on the slopes, growing potatoes and cabbage. In this part of the world, they still dress the old German way in Iederhosen, the leather pants that last a lifetime. The farmers smiled at me, and treating this as an invitation, I walked 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 a choice, more a necessity.
To fill the hours of my ten-day stay, I took to walking with the feverishness of a dervish. The trails here gain a gradient as they slant upward, with temperate mixed forest of pine and oak taking over the fir that lines the lower hills. There are no beginnings or ends to the paths. They all seem to merge into one another, before circuiting to the tarmac in the valley below. From the gaping slits in the curtain of trees, thatched huts in pastel hues of red and yellow are visible far out in the valley. After a day of walking, once the sun lost its shape, I would walk back towards one of these huts and curl up next to a fireplace.
The next morning, the cycle would begin again, and I would follow another forest trail. So often was I spotted on the dust-laden tracks zigzagging across the forests that the village folks would wave at me from a distance. For once, in these narrow settings, I became a recognizable figure. The Black Forest is a neat absorbent It ingests everything: the sound of my footsteps crushing dry leaves, the vaporous puffing from the efforts of a solitary climb, an orphan grunt from slipping on a wet stone. It transforms these noises into a gentle nothingness, returning not even the slightest rustle. Somewhere on the trail, I stopped to listen. My breath was still heavy from the strain of the climb, and despite the chill, sweat droplets tracked my brow. No birds chirped, even the gurgling of the streams was out of earshot. Stillness dominated.
I noticed that my urge to speak had diluted, and then disappeared. With silence, my perception also sharpened, and I began to notice things that previously would have gone unnoticed. I reflected that people here didn’t blab mindlessly. They spoke in monosyllables and only when needed, as if words were potent vehicles to provide clarity, and should be used sparingly. I stood soaking in the silence. For once, thoughts failed to bubble up, and the indecisiveness I had carried with me faded away. All I could notice was the several shades of green that prevailed on the thick cover of the trees around. Never before, outside a box of crayons, had I perceived such variety of a single colour. I stayed there looking at the valley till the sun disappeared. And thought of nothing. All the travels I had taken so far, all the flights I had negotiated, had brought me to this one suspended moment I closed my eyes. The timelessness was comforting.