A Guide To Silent Meditation Retreats
As a mindfulness teacher, I often share that I’ve been on several 3-, 7-, and 10-day silent meditation retreats. One of the most common questions I get from students (and friends and family!) is, “What do you do on a silent retreat? Why would you ever want to do that? How do you stay silent for a whole day, let alone a week or more?!”
In a world that’s always on, it can seem unfathomable to willingly disconnect from other people and technology. Silent retreats have been described by participants as “mental marathons.” While silent retreats are notoriously challenging, spending time with yourself without distraction can be illuminating and freeing.
The self-reported benefits of silent meditation retreats have been confirmed by research: silent retreats ranging from 3 days to 1 month have been shown to promote mindfulness, non-attachment, well-being, and improved heart rate variability among participants.
Corporate leaders are starting to catch on, too – more and more, companies are incorporating silence and mindfulness into their offsite retreats to help them reset and shift their perspective.
So, what actually takes place on a silent meditation retreat?
Though most of a silent retreat is conducted in silence, the participants are allowed to speak openly upon arrival to allow for checking in and orientation (typically silence will be invoked the first night or the following morning). Then, the teachers will skillfully bring the participants out of silence towards the end of the retreat (often on the last morning or the night before the last day). This process is meant to provide seamless integration from real life to retreat and back again.
During silent meditation retreats, participants agree to practice what’s called “Noble silence” – a pledge to refrain from communicating with other participants through gestures, facial expressions, and speech. Despite the participants remaining in silence, the instructors typically continue to offer light guidance throughout the retreat. The practice of noble silence is meant to create a safe container for practice where the participants can focus primarily on themselves and their own experience.
On most retreats, there are approved times when students may approach the teacher(s) and ask questions about their practice. Also, if there is any kind of emergency, the participants are allowed and encouraged to speak with the retreat manager and/or teachers.
I went on my first silent retreat about a year and a half after committing to a daily mindful meditation practice. My four-day trip to Margaret Austin Center in Chappell Hill, TX was filled with amazing vegetarian food and the serene nature of the surrounding twenty acres.
Despite the picturesque setting, the retreat was challenging and uncomfortable – I missed my phone, got bored of walking meditation, and experienced physical aches and pains from sitting for so long every day.
A meditator joke about silent retreats is that the silence is the easiest part. More difficult is the hours on end you spend with yourself – in sitting meditation, in walking meditation, and during mealtimes.
Despite the difficulties of silent practice, that first retreat sparked a flame of self-inquiry within me. Since then, I have done many more 3-day retreats, a 7-day retreat, and a 10-day silent meditation retreat. I continue to incorporate several silent retreats into my annual routine for rejuvenation and recommitment to silence.
Ready to join the meditators and corporate leaders alike who have benefitted from rejuvenating retreat time? Here are some recommendations for starting on the journey of self-awareness through silent practice.
Begin Now: Carve out small chunks of silent time during daily life. Ideas include committing to a daily mindful meditation practice and/or disengaging from technology for 15-75 minutes per day. Practicing silence on a daily basis will rejuvenate the mind and body and prepare you for a future silent retreat experience.
Start Small: Consider experiencing silence by attending a half-day or full-day silent retreat with a trusted teacher. A day of silence is included in the 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction curriculum. If you’d like to start with just a few hours of silence with guided instruction, I would recommend attending Mastermind’s Mindfulness for Beginners seminar. The 8-hour science-based curriculum includes a 2-hour silent retreat for restoration and deeper connection to a personal practice.
Spend a Weekend in Silence: As I mentioned above, my first silent retreat experience at Margaret Austin Center spanned from Thursday night until Sunday midday. It was the perfect amount of time for new meditators to experience silent practice – there were even some attendees who had never meditated before! Do a Google search for local meditation retreat centers for your first weekend away.
Experience a Week or More on Silent Retreat: 5- or 7-day retreats can be a great starting point for longer durations of silent practice. I personally recommend the programming at Shambhala Mountain Center, Omega, and Kripalu. Choose a retreat whose teacher speaks to you personally, as you will spend a lot of time with them and their guidance.
Are you ready to begin a journey towards more silence in your life? Leave your questions and comments!
“When you just sit in silence the wind blows through you, the sun shines in you, and you realize you are not your body; you are everything.” -Anita Krizzan