Unless you’re lucky enough to live on a private island, chances are your life is full of noise. Even when we’re physically on our own, we’re usually still chatting with friends or scrolling through social media pages on our phones. Most of us rarely—if ever—experience true silence.
With all that mental noise, we could all use some peace and quiet. But even when you’re craving silence, going more than a few hours without talking may seem like an intimidating task. If you find yourself fatigued and ‘addicted’ to distractions, a silent retreat might be just what you need.
What Happens At A Silent Retreat?
Maybe you’re picturing a Buddhist monk who’s undergone years of training to be able to live in silence. But in reality, silent retreats are a lot more doable—and a lot more diverse—than you might think.
Silent retreats usually follow a spiritual path, but there’s no end to the variety of traditions you might encounter. Some focus on just one tradition—like retreats at Catholic monasteries—while others draw from a variety of sources. You might see combinations like Zen practices imbued with Muslim Sufism, or Ayurveda combined with Judaic Kabala. On the other hand, some retreats leave you alone with yourself with no spiritual emphasis whatsoever.
Most, but not all, silent retreats include yoga or walking meditations. Those that don’t, still often emphasize outdoor activities like tennis and hiking. Accommodations vary depending on the retreat’s philosophy, ranging from completely private hermitages to beds shared with strangers. There’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ silent retreat; every retreat is different. Some silent retreats aren’t even completely silent! Many host daily lectures or assigned group discussions to break up all that quiet.
The Benefits Of Silence
Silent retreats in any tradition take the energy you use for external communication and channel it inward. This type of structured silence is growing in popularity, no doubt thanks to the communication-burnout many people feel in our 24/7 high-speed world.
Prolonged silence lets practitioners recharge from the stresses of daily life, but the practice of silence and its intention goes beyond relaxation. Outward silence shines a light on the parts of your inner life you don’t usually experience, teaching you to acknowledge and process even your most uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
This practice of observing your inner landscape can teach greater stress tolerance and emotional balance that lasts long after the retreat is over.
A silent retreat can also provide an entirely new perspective on major life changes. It’s not uncommon to see expectant parents and new retirees on these retreats. True silence removes the pressure of outside influences, allowing you to examine what really brings joy and meaning to your life. Focused periods of meditation can help you uncover your innately joyful nature and teach you to sustain it, even in the face of change and hardship.
True silence is a deeply personal experience that’s different for everybody; the truth is, there’s no way to know exactly what will happen once you’re alone with yourself.
Silencing The ‘Monkey Brain’
Anyone familiar with meditation knows that trying to quiet your thoughts can trigger your “monkey brain,” the part of your mind that swings from thought to thought like a chimp on a set of monkey bars. Trying to quiet your mind can make your thoughts spin out of your control. No matter how prepared you feel, this will almost certainly happen to you.
Luckily, your monkey brain has a limited lifespan. It takes at least 24 hours of silence for your thoughts to slow down and stop swinging from branch to branch, but once that happens, you’ll be able to relax into the silence, creating a heightened awareness of both your emotional and physical environment. It’s tempting to look for a quick fix that will get you straight to the relaxation point, but the uncomfortable stage is just as important as what comes after.
Silence And Solitude Is A Journey
Going on a silent retreat is, essentially, embarking on a journey—and as with all journeys, you’ll face difficulties along the way. Real silence requires being alone with yourself, and being comfortable with that solitude. This can be hard even for the most introspective among us.
You may experience an intense emotional reaction to the struggle of simply sitting with your thoughts, and that’s okay! It’s all part of the process.
Think of a silent retreat like an expedition to map your mental landscape—you’ll need to include both positive and negative thoughts. The destination, if you’re patient enough to get there, is a place of compassion for all aspects of yourself, and that’s a reward that’s worth the journey.