I Ate 20 Meals In Complete Silence & Realized Chitchat Is The Worst

Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
As some of you may know, I recently returned from a silent retreat. Seven days of no talking, no reading, no technology, no eye contact, and a minimum of four hours of meditation every single day. All the meals were also held in silence. That means I had 20 meals by myself, with no distractions and zero conversation.

Prior to this, I had eaten alone (who hasn’t?), but I don’t think I ever ate alone and just ate — there was always some kind of device in my hand, or a book, or a newspaper, or a podcast playing, or a movie on TV. Going into the retreat, I didn’t think that eating in silence for a week would foster any insights into myself. I thought I’d just eat and go for a walk, or go to the next meditation session, or whatever. But, boy, was I wrong. From the very first meal in silence until the last, many realizations came cascading in.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
I worried that eating in silence would be really hard and extremely awkward, but it wasn’t at all. I felt an incredible amount of relief knowing that I didn’t have to be polite or entertain anyone for an entire week. As I sat at the table with my morning oatmeal on Day 1, I couldn’t help but have a small smile on my face the whole time, relishing every single second of the early morning silence. Having breakfast in silence without distractions also made me realize how reading the morning news gives me a dose of anxiety that lasts me through the day. To just eat and BE was such a pleasure. I don’t think I had ever done it before in my entire life! Mostly, I was genuinely surprised how much I was rejoiced in the freedom from socially obligatory chitchat. But as the time passed and silence seeped in, I starting reflecting more on that.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
One of the reasons you don’t get bored at a retreat like this is because in silence you start to see the layers of all your assumptions. As I was eating breakfast on Day 3 — a rice cake with Nutella on it — I realized that I had gone through two full days without talking or making eye contact, and I was still super psyched that I didn’t have to deal with anyone else. But that begs the question of why I engage in chitchat if I hate it so much? And if I am hating it while I am doing it, am I coming off as completely inauthentic to the person I am talking to? Do people even care?! Maybe they just want some peace and quiet,too! I wondered where my sense of obligation to entertain comes from. After some reflecting, I realized there were several layers to my “hostess-with-the-mostess syndrome,” but really what it came down to was this: I chitchat to gain reassurance that I am funny, that I am liked or loved, and that I am appreciated. But in the process, I am making myself anxious and probably in many cases stressing out the other person too.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
That same morning, I was warming my hands on a cup of coffee that hadn’t been sipped from yet, but I was already amped and slightly anxious. I have always ascribed my anxiety to external situations, but that is classic projecting. The reality is that I am anxious and I project my anxiety onto people and situations to explain my feelings. And you know what really amps my anxiety? Coffee. For a long time now, I have a mini love affair with coffee, but once I saw it was a driver of my anxiety, I decided to give it a break at the retreat and switch to green tea. It was clear within just a few days that coffee takes my brain’s anxiety volume and cranks it from a 4 to a full-blown 10. Green tea gives me the nice little caffeine buzz in the morning without any of the anguish.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
One late afternoon, I was having a cup of tea while looking out over a big, beautiful lake and I had the most “in body” experience I’ve ever had. All my senses were heightened because of the silence and it affected how my tea tasted. For example, every breeze that carried the smell of the fall leaves would bring out the grassy flavors of my green tea. As twilight crept in, and the warmth of the day starting to fade, I’d realize how cozy it is to have a hot cup of steaming tea in my hands and feel so much gratitude for this very moment. When a chilly autumn wind would run up my spine, I’d pull my steaming cup of tea in tighter to my face, smell the steam, take a sip, and notice the light toasted rice flavors that balanced out the bitterness. And the more time silence went on, the more the foods and drinks I ingested would really come to life.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
Shredded coconut that I put on top of my oatmeal was the first food flavor that really popped for me and made me think, Whoa! Has this always been this good? In a word, yes, but I have always been too distracted to notice. And, mind you, I wasn’t even practicing mindful eating. Some people at the retreat would take a bite, put down their fork, close their eyes, and chew really slowly for a minute or two. I tried to do this, but got bored on, like, my third chew. So instead I decided to just eat and enjoy. I found that even the simple act of eating silently with no external stimuli helped flavors to shine in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. It made eating not just good, but SO good. And because it was such an intensely pleasurable experience, it made me want to savor it more.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
One day over a lunch of a big salad topped with hummus, I realized that it took me all of nine minutes to eat my entire meal — nine minutes! I had started to notice this at home too: I’ll cook up a nice dinner that takes 30 to 40 minutes to prepare, and then my boyfriend and I will blow through it all SO fast that it doesn’t feel like a meal ever happened. But eating fast is something I’ve been doing since I was a kid — why? Suddenly I remembered that my dad used to tell me, “No one is going to steal your food from you — slow down!” Why the rush? Because I wanted to go play. Now as an adult, I rush through meals because I want to get on to the next thing. But then when I am on to that next thing, I want the next thing, and so on and on. So I am never really in the moment with anything I am doing.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
As I mentioned, at the retreat you are not allowed to make eye contact with anyone for the entire week. But as I was stuffing a cookie into my mouth, I felt like this one guy was staring at me throughout my whole meal.

Keep in mind that this person was seated across a massive cafeteria and I have trouble seeing more than, like, 10 feet in front of me (seriously). Nonetheless, I was absolutely gripped by the obsessive thought that he was judging my table manners and judging what I was eating. At one point I got up to get another cookie and I was sure this guy smirked! I felt super self-conscious and thought to myself, How dare he?! How can someone even dare to judge another person based on what they eat?!
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
I suddenly recalled my very first meal at the retreat, before the silence had officially begun. The first few hours on campus felt similar to the first day of school and I didn’t know where to sit — should I start silence now? Should I try to talk to some people to find out what to expect?

I saw an older gentleman whom I had spoken with briefly at check-in sitting at a far table. He seemed like a really lovely, kind person and I was craving a little friendly, warm energy, so I walked over to join him. As I made my way over, I noticed there was a plate on the table that was absolutely OVERFLOWING with lettuce. Like, the lettuce was piled almost 6 inches high and spilling off the sides of the plate onto the table. No dressing, no “extras,” just lettuce. This struck me as super strange and my mind immediately started constructing a mental story about the person who would be sitting there: They’d be neurotic, they’d be awkward, they’d ruin my dinner; my senses were on high alert. I almost turned away to find another seat, but then my check-in buddy saw me and motioned for me to come sit near him.

I put my plate next to him and distinctly away from Lettuce Person. Within 10 minutes, a young man came to sit down at his lettuce plate and started eating it with his hands. “Weirdo!” a mocking voice in my head taunted. But, as he got absorbed in the conversation with the table, it was clear that he was a perfectly nice dude who had VOLUNTEERED to be on staff for the week to help make the silence possible for all of us. He had done silence before and knew what a transformative experience it was and he wanted to help out. So basically, he was a super lovely, generous, considerate person who just really liked lettuce. End of story. All my bullshit was just that — MY bullshit. We all know on a basic level that we shouldn't judge other people's food choices (in fact, we shouldn't judge people on appearances and assumptions at all), and yet in reality we do. We do it every day.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
After some soul searching, I realized that what it comes down to is this: I am embarrassed by eating. And I think that has to do with societal/cultural messages surrounding women and food, but it also has a lot to do with my former life as a model. Because in that industry, people really do judge you for what you eat and how much you eat, and even how you eat. And while a lot of models may pretend to be eating a double-decker burger with cheese and fries every single day for lunch and dinner (“I’m just naturally thin!”), that’s simply not true 99% of the time. It certainly wasn’t true for me. I used to eat dinner before work dinner parties so that it would appear that I wasn’t eating surrounded by my fashion colleagues.

But as much as I feel oppressed by this (largely self-created and self-perpetuated) panopticon of judgement, I also absorbed it and would project it outward onto others. Recognizing this “thought chain” lifted the curtain for me, and immediately I felt a huge mental weight loosen its grip on my mind. From there, clarity started to emerge; namely that no one gives two flying f***s what I am doing almost all of the time, and that includes what I am eating, so just let it go. And nor should I take my own weird insecurities and project them onto others. I need to simply focus on my own life and my own inner life. And once I accepted that and stopped my outward looking, my inner life took the mic and spoke to me.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
Every morning (and several times per day), all 350 of the retreat participants would meditate together in the main Meditation Hall. One morning, I woke up super early and couldn’t go back to sleep. Being that I wasn’t allowed to read and it was too dark to go for a walk in the woods, I decided to meditate for almost two hours. Because I was kind of sleepy, the first 20 to 30 minutes of the meditation felt very quiet and relaxed. But as my body and mind woke up, my naturally anxious energy started to bubble up and caused a lot of what’s next? thinking: Okay, first I’ll do this, then I’ll go back to my room, brush my teeth, and wash my face. Should I do a facial mask I packed? Nah. Okay, then I’ll go have a nice, hot cup of tea… Oh, tea! God, I really want tea right now. Maybe I should just go now and get tea? I don’t have to meditate for two whole hours. Or maybe I do, 'cause I said I was going to. Ugh! But tea would be sooo good right now. No, Elettra — FOCUS. Back the breath. Deep breaths... This is not working. I want tea.

Obviously these thoughts created a physical and emotional response — that sort of itchy longing or craving feeling that takes over. And then the weirdest, most beautiful thing happened: A small, very calm, very affectionate voice came from deep within me and said simply, “So, want tea.” This voice then released all the thoughts and allowed the sensation of craving run through my body. And — poof! — just like that, my tea longing totally vanished like a mirage. After that, I was able to sit for another hour and half in total meditative, motionless silence. I know it seems so small, but that small tea voice felt like a real breakthrough for me. Because it wasn’t a conscious thought I had, it didn’t even really feel like “my” voice, it felt like it came from somewhere else, or somewhere deeper.

As I walked out of the Meditation Hall that morning, I felt totally in the present and in the moment. I walked down the road to the dining hall and I had NO thoughts whatsoever. I was so calm, so present. But at the same time, I felt very sharp and alert.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
I have always known that I am an early morning person. Sometimes I wake up at 5:30 a.m. just to have a few extra quiet hours. I love the peace, I love how the light is, and I love that everyone is moving just a little slower. It’s also the time of day when my head feels the most clear and focused. And because of the quietness and my clarity, I’d use that time to bang out a bunch of emails, write and file stories, make to-do lists, read the paper, etc. But ever since my retreat, I don't do that anymore.

I now try to start every day savoring that time, even if it’s just for 30 minutes. Just me, my hot cup of whatever, my little bowl of cereal or oatmeal, the sun, or the morning rain, or whatever is happening. The world can wait for a little while longer. There is no rush. There is just this.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
That same morning, it took me a full hour to get through breakfast. I wasn’t trying to eat more slowly, I wasn’t make any sort of conscious effort to do, well, anything. I was simply living fully within each moment for an entire hour. I didn’t even realize that 60 minutes had passed until I heard the meditation bell calling us to practice.

Over the next few breakfasts, I found that if I really allowed myself to really enjoy that peaceful, precious morning time it would cultivate an awareness, presence, and calmness that would follow me throughout the day. Of course, I would still experience emotional waves — anxiety, sadness, happiness, etc — but the valleys and peaks of my experiences were way less dramatic.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
Back home in NYC, I experience multiple energy drops and/or hangry episodes throughout the day. This has always slightly baffled me because I eat three square meals a day and I am constantly snacking. I have wondered, Why is my energy all over the place when I'm constantly fueling myself? And after my 20 meals of silence, I realize the answer is that I was eating, but I wasn’t really nourishing myself or my body. There is something about sitting down undistracted and enjoying a meal that made me feel more nourished and satisfied. Perhaps there needs to be a physical and psychological union of experience (“I am eating this dinner right now”) to feel the full effects of a meal? I don’t know, I am not a doctor. But I do know that my 20 meals in silence gave me this major takeaway:
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
If my meal is over in 10 minutes or less, that likely means that I am feeling anxious and am rushing through, well, everything. In other words, I am rushing through life. And that begs the question, rushing through life to get to what? Death?! Please! So let’s stop the insanity and turn this whole thing around and think of it this way: There is no time to rush. That’s my new motto! Since I have come back home, I have continued to eat without any distractions — no reading, no music, no podcasts, no phone, just eating. I feel way calmer, way fuller, way more engaged. In short, I feel way more alive.
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