When I signed up for my first silent retreat several years ago, I was delighted by the prospect of three days without small talk. I was also bent on total serenity, and hopeful that I might experience a vivid spiritual vision (or two). The actual experience, though, was much different than I’d imagined.
For starters, my retreat wasn’t dead silent. At the Jesuit-run Demontreville Retreat House in Lake Elmo, Minn., a guest priest hosted a daily conference. There were talks on spiritual topics where participants listened in silence. There was a daily Mass and rosary. And there were opportunities to meet with clergy for private talks. But the meals were free of chatter, and during our copious free time we kept our mouths shut.
I did relax, especially during the conferences. I even fell asleep during one of them, which was OK by the priests, who know that most modern Americans are woefully sleep deprived. Instead of sinking me into a state of bliss, however, the silence amplified my mental chatter. A couple of things that had been worrying me when I arrived kept nagging me, only a little more insistently. (I ended up taking one of those worries — an apology I had been too cowardly to make — to a priest, who listened with a full-hearted intensity I have never forgotten.)
Although I spoke to only a handful of the 60-some men on retreat before the silence rule kicked in, I felt very close to the group throughout. I also began to understand that a lot of what was rolling around in my head was just chatter, like the clanking of the aging ceiling fan in my room. When I arrived, I’d been experimenting with ideas of God, and I walked away feeling closer to something out there (and in me) that my mind couldn’t fully grasp.
So while the silence didn’t leave me in a state of bliss, it left me changed and motivated to keep changing. It moved my heart.
Silent retreats affect people differently, depending on their personality, experience, and expectations — as well as the structure of the retreat itself.
There are as many formats as there are programs and centers, and daily routines range from structured group experiences with strict rules to hermitage stays where you’re on your own, both physically and philosophically. Many popular retreat centers are in beautiful natural settings, like the rugged Big Sur coastline that cradles the Esalen Institute or the austere desert surroundings of Arizona’s Sedona Mago Retreat center. A silent retreat might also take place in an urban university building or church.
Rules about what counts as silence also vary. Some retreats have policies banning all electronic devices (occasionally, even books), while others limit no-talking rules to certain parts of a building or campus. Some places, like Demontreville, facilitate discussions and communal prayers. Participants sometimes take part in organized meditation.
All silent retreatants have one thing in common: the shared goal of living life without words, if only for a while. This experience offers a break from the constant pressure of coming up with things to say, and the self-consciousness that accompanies it. Being quiet can also make a person more attentive to the outer world, vivifying the senses. Mainly, though, silence takes one deeper into the self, which can lead to a greater sense of self-acceptance and, accordingly, a heightened compassion for others.
“Outward silence supports inner listening,” says James Finley, PhD, a former Trappist monk and present-day clinical psychologist who leads retreats in various centers. “And in that inner listening you meet yourself as you are — you cut off your escape route.”
Psychotherapist and Benedictine nun Mary White, OSB, puts it even more succinctly: “When you’re away from the noise, you can hear an inner voice more clearly.”
Hearing one’s more negative inner voices isn’t always easy. An old favorite that cropped up for me at Demontreville was the nattering insistence that I’m bound to fail at anything I do; I was sure to have a lousy three-day weekend because I couldn’t stay in a serious, retreat-worthy mindset. This self-sabotaging chitchat continued until I gave up resisting it. (I also realized that these negative voices accompanied almost every enterprise on which I set out.) Eventually, this dialogue started to resemble a nervous reflex rather than a deep, distressing truth, and it became more amusing than alarming.
“Usually the first-timers at my retreats are there because something has happened,” Finley says. “They’ve had a crisis, and they want to go within. It can be hard, in situations like that, not to just go and talk about it to somebody. The ego resists it.
“But we also sense that we mostly live in shallow water — that there’s more to life than we’re getting. And as you go through the initial discomfort [of being silent], you begin to find your footing and get grounded.”
This rang true for me. Toward the latter part of my silent weekend, I began to feel more deliberate and less goal-oriented in everything I did. Even if I was just walking the grounds on the way to dinner, at least part of me was enjoying the journey for its own sake — one foot after the other on the path.
Whatever their present level of spiritual involvement, modern silent retreats continue a tradition that has its roots in the monastery. Monks and nuns take vows of silence in several Christian orders. The Trappists observe nearly continuous silence, with hand gestures helping daily communication, while members of the Carthusian order spend most of their time in solitary silence, joining for weekly group walks around monastery grounds where talking is allowed. White explains that these vows are intended “to lessen the amount of noise from the world that the monks and nuns are carrying within themselves . . . to find a space free of words so that they can settle in to the divine presence.”
Whether or not one approaches a silent retreat from a spiritual angle, the experience offers the chance to listen for truths that get buried under busyness, and to feel a sense of connection with something greater. At some point during my retreat, for example, I had the welcome realization that the confusion and anxiety I often felt in the course of everyday life wasn’t cause for despair but an opportunity to stop, connect with that higher power I was discovering, and ask for help. Going forward, I found this new way of responding to anxious thoughts to be far more useful.
“It’s pretty surprising, for a first-timer in silent retreats, how loud and crowded it can get inside your head,” says Patti Sloan, a customer-service rep in St. Paul, Minn., who has attended retreats led by the Buddhist-based Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., where silence includes a no-reading and no-writing rule. “But as the thoughts flood in, one after another — everything from a painful childhood memory to ‘I want peanut butter!’ — the drama of it all starts to lessen.
“I don’t think a religious framework is required,” the 40-year-old Sloan continues. “The main thing is just to be open to receiving what comes up in the silence and to learn from it.”
This sums up the central paradox of a silent retreat: It’s not about zoning out, but about listening and responding. You go for quiet and find it in abundance, but then you are forced to listen to the conversation in your head. Peace comes once you learn to relate more compassionately with that noise.
If a retreat has been fulfilling, it can be hard to transition back into the chatty, distracting wider world. “For a while, you have a different perspective on everything,” says Jenn Brown, managing editor at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y., a large secular spiritual center that hosts silent retreats each year. “Then there’s a challenge as familiar old habits creep back in.
“If they do creep back in, there’s the additional challenge of not being too judgmental about it.”
It felt like I had just gotten the hang of silence when I had to get back in my car and return to my yak-yak world. But I also felt a sense of interior peace that I was determined to maintain. I saw myself carrying this little clear glass bowl of quiet serenity through all the talky demands of my day.
I’m not exactly sure when I dropped that crystal bowl and found myself back battling my inner critic, talking a little too much and too loudly when I felt insecure, succumbing to persistent worry. But having spent time in silence helped me realize that this wound-up state wasn’t my only option.
Jon Spayde is a frequent contributor to Experience Life. He is the author of How to Believe: Teachers and Seekers Show the Way to a Modern, Life-Changing Faith (Random House, 2008).