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Silent retreat: what you need to know

Updated: Jul 1

My first silent retreat was, frankly, punishing.


First, I developed an extremely painful muscle spasm in my lower back from sitting in meditation so long.


Then, my mind started serving up every negative thought about myself that it could generate.


And finally, the Buddhist teacher leading the retreat made us chant, daily, some verses about the inevitability of aging, sickness, and death.

 

“Of course”, he intoned, “If you didn’t believe in rebirth...this would just be depressing”.


I did not believe in rebirth.

Silent retreat: what you need to know

 

Despite all this, the silent retreat turned out to be one of the more valuable things that I have done in my life. And future silent retreats (I’ve done a fair few at this point) were mostly much easier and even sometimes blissful.


If you want to know how to get the most out of your own silent retreats, read on.



This article contains:


 

What is a retreat?

 

What is a retreat?

A retreat is time away from your ordinary life to rest and recuperate, work on a skill, or engage in spiritual practice.

 

There are many kinds of retreat, but silent retreats are usually silent meditation retreats, so those are the ones that I’ll be focussed on here.

 

By convention, the minimum time limit for a retreat is probably a day – anything less than that and you’re just “doing some meditation this morning”.


The upper limit, meanwhile, is the human lifespan: there are spiritual seekers out there who are in “lifetime retreat”, and many more who complete retreats lasting years.


However, if you are reading this guide, you are probably thinking of doing a silent retreat of up to 10 days in length.

 

Silent retreats can happen in dedicated “retreat centers”, in hired venues, or in your own home – online silent retreats have become popular in recent years.

 


What happens on a silent meditation retreat?


What happens on silent retreat?

 

The most obvious answer is…meditation. The amount of it varies, however. You might find a silent retreat that only includes a couple of hours of meditation per day, whereas on other silent reterats you will meditate for 10 hours per day.


In between meditation sessions, you might listen to talks, do some work helping to maintain the retreat center, and have some unstructured time to rest.

 

What does not happen is a whole lot of talking. It is likely to be limited to speech that is essential, for example asking necessary housekeeping questions and talking to the teachers during brief "interviews".

 

These interviews usually last 10-20 minutes and are scheduled to happen every couple of days, either on your own or in a group with other retreatants. They are your chance to ask questions and report on how you are doing.

 

You will probably be expected to keep your phone switched off and perhaps to refrain from reading.


You will have no contact with the world outside the retreat center and no interaction with your fellow retreatants, except where it is essential.


On some silent retreats, you are even encouraged not to make eye contact with others, as this is a form of communication.

 


Why do a silent retreat?


Why do a silent retreat?

Silent retreats might sound wildly unappealing and pointlessly difficult, but there is method in the madness. Silence on retreat can help you to go deeper in meditation, and to maintain your mindfulness in between meditation sessions.

 

This is due to a simple equation:


More stimuli coming in = more thoughts and more distraction in your meditation


Drastically cut down the stimuli entering your mind via conversation, your phone, or even books, and the mind gets quieter, faster.


So, whatever it is that you are trying to do in meditation, you might find that you can do it better on a silent retreat.

 


Benefits of silent retreats


Benefits of silent retreat

Alongside going deeper in meditation, there are a range of benefits that you might get from a silent retreat. Here are some of the most commonly reported ones.

 

Calm and relaxation

 

In the absence of all of the usual inputs on silent retreat, and with a large dose of meditation, the mind and body are liable to calm down more than they ever would under normal circumstances. This can be pleasant and restorative.

 

Clarity

 

As the mind slows down on silent retreat, it gets much easier to notice what it’s doing. And as thoughts occupy less of your attention, it becomes more possible to feel the body.


You might develop a deeper understanding of your mind by watching thoughts, and of your emotional life by noticing how emotions affect the body.

 

In experiencing all of this on silent retreat, out of the context of your ordinary life, you might get a new perspective on yourself and your life, and be struck by insights that would not normally occur to you. (This was a major benefit that I got from my first, punishing, silent retreat.)

 

Catharsis

 

It is not unusual when meditating a lot, especially in silence, to find powerful emotions welling up, often accompanied by memories. Sometimes, it can feel as though these are processed or released, often with much weeping.

 

This has happened to me a lot, including on my first silent retreat. Looking back, it seems that the insights that I got from that silent retreat depended upon getting rid of some old emotional baggage.

 

Digital detox

 

Many of us would like to cut down our smartphone usage, but we can’t seem to find a way.


A silent retreat will give you a total break from the internet and your phone, and you might find that afterwards, when you get home, it’s easier to set and stick to limits on your usage.

 

Boosting your meditation practice


After a silent retreat, you are likely to have more mindfulness, better focus in meditation, and more motivation to meditate.


These effects can take weeks to wear off, so regular silent retreats can be a helpful scaffold for your practice.

 

Making friends with your mind

 

The reason that many people wouldn’t go on silent retreat is that they are afraid to be left alone with their minds. And, honestly, that fear has some justification – silent retreats can be emotionally challenging.


However, through the process of having no escape from your mind and learning how to deal with it on silent retreat, you can get to a place where there is nothing your mind can throw at you that you can’t handle.

 

Something amazing might happen

 

If you do a lot of meditation on silent retreat, all sorts of strange things can happen.


You might find yourself in a state of blissful, otherworldly absorption, or you might even have a spiritual insight that changes how you relate to the world for good.


This is the main point of silent retreat for spiritual seekers.



How to prepare for a silent retreat


How to prepare for a silent retreat

Obviously, you will want to make sure that you have taken care of all outstanding business at home before starting the silent retreat.


There are few things worse on silent retreat than experiencing a sudden, shattering realisation, not about the nature of reality or the self, but instead that you forgot to send an important email.


So, it's worth starting to think about this well in advance, to make sure all loose ends are tied up.


You might also want to do a bit of reading about the approach to meditation that is taken by the teacher(s) who will be leading the silent retreat. Perhaps they have written books or have talks available online.


Finally, you could warm up for the silent retreat by starting to reduce your intake of media and increase your intake of meditation in the week or so leading up to it.


If you arrive on silent retreat with a mind that has already calmed down somewhat and become more focused in meditation, presumably you can go deeper on the silent retreat than if you arrive with a highly agitated mind.


I confess, though, that while I've planned to do all of this in the past, I've not generally managed it, and my train journey to silent retreats has usually been full of podcast listening and last-minute email sending. So, don't worry if that happens to you too.



What to pack for a silent retreat


What to pack for a silent retreat

Apart from the very obvious (e.g. your toothbrush), you might need:


  • Loose, comfortable clothes. You'll be sitting in meditation a lot on silent retreat, so think tracksuit bottoms rather than jeans.

  • Shoes you can slip on and off. Depending on the season, you might be going in and out a lot, for example, to do walking meditation outside, or to get to the dining hall.

  • Any medications you might need. You don't want to be stricken with a migraine or heartburn halfway through the silent retreat.



What is the best silent retreat for you?


What is the best silent retreat for you?

The answer is: it depends on what you are looking for. But let’s break down some of the relevant factors.

 

Length


Realistically, your first silent retreat is unlikely to be longer than 10 days.

 

With that limit in mind, there are arguments for both shorter and longer silent retreats.

 

There is obvious sense in starting with a shorter silent retreat, say, a weekend, so that you have a chance to see what the experience is like before committing to a longer one.

 

However, it is also true that the first couple of days on a silent retreat are often the least enjoyable and useful, because it takes time to get used to it.


At first, your mind and body are still operating at the speed of normal life, and silence and stillness produce a fidgety restlessness, together with uncomfortable, distracted meditation.


So, if you do a weekend silent retreat, you might only get the restless bit, which might put you off, and not discover the benefits that lie beyond it.

 

As a compromise, you might want to do what I did: try both a single day of silent retreat and a longer non-silent retreat, before diving into a silent retreat of a week or more.

 

Spiritual vs secular


This depends, of course, on whether you approach meditation from a secular or a spiritual point of view. However, even if you are resolutely secular, there are two reasons to consider spiritual silent retreats:

 

  1. They may be cheaper. Buddhist retreat centers are usually staffed by people who are working for very little money and instead are living at the retreat center as part of their own spiritual journey.

  2. Secular silent retreats are not that common, so you might not have much choice.

 

Online vs in-person


On an online silent retreat, you can stay at home if you won't be disturbed, or book an Airbnb if you will.


You then meet with the other retreatants and the teacher online for meditation, talks, and so on.


You will need to keep your phone off and not use your computer for anything other than the silent retreat. And you might not be able to go out, if doing so runs the risk of having to talk to people.


Some silent retreats are online only, whereas others are hybrid, meaning that you can use your computer to join in with a silent retreat that is happening in person somewhere else.


I have been very surprised by the effectiveness of online silent retreats. They seem to be as effective, for me, as in-person silent retreats.

 

Their upsides are that they enable you to:


  • Save money (they cost far less than residential silent retreats) and travel time

  • Attend silent retreats that are too far away for you to attend in person

  • Stay in your own home, which can be helpful if you find it off-putting to share a room with one or more silent strangers on silent retreat

  • Mess with the schedule a little – if you would rather eat lunch at 10 am and nap at the official silent retreat lunchtime, there is no one to stop you

  • (Possibly) transfer the benefits of the silent retreat into your daily life more easily, as you have built a habit of being mindful while in your usual surroundings.

 

The downsides, meanwhile, are that:


  • It is easier to cheat. You might be tempted to go on the internet or use your phone

  • It might be harder to lose yourself in meditation if reminders of your daily life are all around you

  • You might miss out on the sense of bonding together that tends to settle over the participants in an in-person silent retreat after a few days.

 


Where to go on silent retreat (UK)


Here, I am going to recommend three places that run regular silent retreats. They are all well-regarded organisations that, you can be confident, will offer high-quality silent retreats that are not excessively weird or culty.


They all have links to one another and I think of them as being part of the "mindfulness establishment": the network of academics, Buddhist teachers, therapists, and other healthcare professionals who have made mindfulness a credible, mainstream practice.


This is a good thing: it guarantees a certain level of competence and non-weirdness.


There are a number of other silent retreats out there that I won't mention, because they are either run by spiritual groups that you have to be a member of to attend, or they are one-off silent retreats whose quality I can't assess.

 

The Sharpham Trust, Devon


Silent retreats at Sharpham

The Sharpham Trust is the place I usually recommend for people looking for a first retreat, whether silent or not. They have a huge range of retreats across several venues in beautiful Devon countryside.


The three silent retreats offered at Sharpham:


  • Are secular

  • Last 3 to 5 nights

  • Repeat at intervals throughout the year

  • Are in very nice accommodation

  • Offer a mix of single and shared rooms

  • Focus on the development of mindfulness

  • Have fairly gentle schedules

  • Offer a mix of guided and silent meditation.

I have never done a retreat here myself, but I know people who have, and the reports have all been very positive.

 

Gaia House


Silent retreats at Gaia House

Gaia House is Sharpham's elder sibling. It represents the more hardcore, Buddhist end of the mindfulness establishment; or, if you prefer, the more modern, rationalist end of the Buddhist establishment.


All of the retreats here are silent and Buddhist, though of a kind that mostly sounds similar to secular presentations of mindfulness - there is usually no ritual or mention of anything supernatural.


The teaching is excellent: the founders of Gaia House are significant figures in Western Buddhism, and there is no sign that standards have slipped.

 


  • Range from 2 days to 29

  • Are divided between those that are suitable for all and those for which you need retreat experience

  • Are on a particular Buddhist theme

  • Have a fairly intense schedule - usually about 7 x 45-minute periods of meditation, all in silence and divided between sitting and walking meditation

  • Are in an old country house that is nice but not luxurious

  • Only offer shared rooms

  • Are in some cases offered online.


Gaia House silent retreats tend to get booked up quite far in advance, but there are usually a lot of cancellations, so it is well worth putting yourself on the waiting list.


I have been to Gaia House several times and recommend it most highly.

 

Amaravati


Silent retreats at Amaravati

Gaia House is arguably the middle sibling in this family of retreat venues, with Amaravati being the eldest. It's a Buddhist monastery in the exotic location of...Hemel Hempstead. The monks run regular retreats for laypeople, all of which are silent.



  • May be online or residential, but in 2024 residential silent retreats will only run in June and July, due to building works

  • Follow the monks' practice of eating nothing between lunch and breakfast the next day. This only applies to residential silent retreats

  • Are Buddhist, and include some Buddhist ritual in the mornings and evenings

  • Are roughly in the same Buddhist tradition as Gaia House (some of the monks even teach there), so the teachings are likely to sound more psychological than religious

  • Are FREE.

Because these silent retreats are free, they tend to get booked up very far in advance, but a lot of people cancel, so it's worth going on the waiting list.


I haven't done a silent retreat at Amaravati but I have stayed in the monastery for a few days. Based on that experience, I would expect the silent retreats to be very good, though the restrictions on mealtimes could be a bit challenging.


Vipassana retreats, aka Goenka retreats

Vipassana retreats aka Goenka retreats

These are getting their own section, partly because it’s good for Google rankings but also because these silent retreats are the first silent retreat for so many people.

 

These silent retreats are very intense. They all follow the same format:


  • 10 days

  • 10 hours of meditation per day

  • No evening meal

  • Only 6.5 hours of sleep per night

  • The teaching is mostly provided by video recordings of S. N. Goenka, the meditation teacher who founded this particular tradition.

 

The meditation techniques used are:


  • Focussing on the breath. This is done for the first 3 days of the silent retreat, in order to develop focus that provides the basis for…

  • Body scanning. The meditator moves their attention slowly through the body, noticing all of its sensations, for the rest of the silent retreat.

 

These silent retreats are offered for free and are open to all, which probably explains why they are so popular with first-timers.


This can be a problem, however, and I would not recommend these for a first silent retreat.


While their intensity can lead to amazing experiences for some participants, and most of the rest have a positive experience, a few get into trouble, which in some cases can be serious.


Mood disorders, psychosis, and perhaps even suicide have been linked to these silent retreats.


More experienced retreatants also run these risks, but at least they have more of an idea of what they are getting themselves into.


I have not done one of these silent retreats and probably won't. It is not clear that they offer greater benefits than, for example, silent retreats at Gaia House, and they sound more unpleasant. In fact, given how variable people are in their response to meditation, the one-size-fits-all approach of Goenka silent retreats seems distinctly undesirable.

 

The dangers of meditation


The dangers of meditation

It is unfortunately the case that bad outcomes are not confined to vipassana/Goenka silent retreats, and so I need to flag them up.

 

It has become clear in recent years that things can go wrong with any amount of meditation practice, though the risks seem to increase with the dosage and intensity of that practice.


This means that significant negative effects from meditation are most likely to appear on intensive silent retreats.

 

For a full (and alarming) list of all the things that can go wrong, see here. I will only discuss here the ones that you are reasonably likely to run into, based on my experience and that of other meditators who I have talked to.


Painful thoughts and emotions

 

This, honestly, is almost guaranteed - I have probably had to deal with some emotional turbulence on every single silent retreat I have done. And it need not be a bad thing, overall.


As suggested above, it can be an opportunity to learn how to cope with negative mental states, or even to process painful memories so that they cause less trouble in the future.


It is not guaranteed, though, that you will benefit from negative mental states on silent retreat. You might just go away upset, and there is even the possibility that traumatic memories will show up and, rather than being usefully processed, will just traumatise you again.


Bad decisions


It is fairly common on silent retreat to experience insights about yourself and your life, and this can lead to big decisions: quitting a job or a relationship, and/or becoming a Buddhist monk.


However, just because something seems very clear to you immediately after your silent retreat, that doesn’t mean it is a good idea.


I have heard teachers leading silent retreats recommend that you hold off on making any life changes for at least 2 weeks after the silent retreat. Which is sage advice indeed.


Emotional lability


People will sometimes talk about being more “open” or “sensitive” on and after silent retreat.


The technical name for this is emotional lability, and it just means that you experience stronger-than-usual emotions that can change quite quickly.


This has an upside – it feels good to weep with joy when you see your loved ones again after the silent retreat. But it can also have a downside: I’ve also become unreasonably angry with them in the days following my return.


So...


Given these risks, if you have any current mental health problems or a history of them, it is a good idea to raise this when booking the silent retreat.


And if any of that has put you off attending a silent retreat, here is a video of leading meditation researcher Richard Davidson reminding you of some of the benefits of meditation:



 

Conclusion

 

So, there you have it. My first silent retreat was intensely challenging, and yet I have gone back for more again and again. Try your first silent retreat soon, and perhaps you will too.

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