Shhh ... a Silent Retreat Guide
“A silent retreat is a gift to yourself to recalibrate, to connect, to learn about yourself in a beautiful way. In such a way that you can only get when your basic needs are taken care of and you are given the time, space, and instruction to meditate in silence.”
Are you ready for a silent retreat? I had tossed around the idea for years but I had never met someone who had actually attended one. One evening at a candlelit dinner party, the guest next to me told me about his Vipassana, a word that I had never heard before. He said, “If you can arrange your life to do it, it will be the greatest gift that you can ever give yourself.”
I scoffed and thought about privilege. Really?! Wouldn't I be of better service volunteering to help the needy of the world? Not a self-indulgent silent retreat! He assured me that it would change my life. For the better. And in turn that will help change the world. Four months later I found myself at Quepasana on Maui for a ten-day silent retreat. I was scared, yet willing to commit. Could I do it?
I did. And you know what? He was right. A silent retreat is a gift to yourself to recalibrate, to connect, to learn about yourself in a beautiful way. In such a way that you can only get when your basic needs are taken care of and you are given the time, space, and instruction to meditate in silence. My friends said that I glowed upon my return. I felt clear and strong. And I carry the changes I made through that retreat to this day.
Here are some tips to help you plan yours.
How to Choose Your Silent Retreat
From California to Maui, Western Massachusetts to Myanmar, silent retreats are available worldwide. Do some research and trust your intuition. Are the teachers qualified? What kind of food is provided? What are the sleeping accommodations—tents or cabins, bunks, or private rooms? Research the reviews and ask any questions you might have to the retreat manager prior to registering. A weekend or four-day retreat is a great way to dip your toes in.
The Vipassana, a ten-day silent retreat, is one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation as a path for self-transformation through self-observation in silence. S. N. Goenka is the founder of worldwide non-commercial silent retreat centers, meaning there is no charge to attend and attendees donate after they have completed the course so that others may attend in the future.
Vipassana means “to see things as they really are.” During the Vipassana, course attendees are guided by Goenka’s audio and video recordings and sit for a full day of meditation in one to one-and-a-half hour sessions.
Most silent retreats that are not called a Vipassana are a variation on it. They may teach a different meditation technique or could include yin yoga movement while the attendees observe silence.
Silent Retreat Myth Busting
Myth: Being silent will be impossible for me.
Truth: Being in silence is possible and can even be fun.
At first, being-in-silence might take some getting used to. I thought I might have to use duct tape over my mouth! Then you realize that most tasks in a day can be accomplished without words.
We were allowed to write notes to the retreat manager about logistics or in case we needed something, such as a nail file or toothpaste. We could write notes to the instructor with any questions about our meditation practice, which he would then read out loud and answer after our evening session.
I have to admit that I had some really fun times in silence. It’s a solo retreat in the company of others who are all committed to silence.
Myth: My family needs me and I could never get away.
Truth: You will find a way to arrange your life to be away and if your family needs you they can contact you at the retreat.
My dad had major surgery six months prior to my retreat and I was very worried about him. What if something happened to him and I couldn't be there for him? Give your family the retreat center emergency contact phone number and email. They will notify you if your family calls and needs you.
Myth: I won't be able to sit for that long in meditation every day.
Truth: Your body will adapt and there are ways to relieve discomfort.
Around day five my legs started to hurt at about Level 11. My instructor saw my discomfort and he brought me a pillow and showed me a different way to sit during our sessions. The pain went away. You can use a pillow, rolled up blankets, or even sit in a hard-backed chair during the meditation sessions.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Read your retreat documents! Read and then reread your retreat documents again. They will be packed with all the pertinent information for your retreat. I was sent a 14-page PDF with the rules to abide by, what to pack, recommended reading before the retreat, details on the food that would be served, the daily schedule, and a strong recommendation to start a daily meditation practice and wean myself off any caffeine addictions. (Bye-bye lattes!)
- Take care of your upcoming bills, water your plants, set up your offline email auto-reply, mail the birthday cards, and get your pets cared for so that you will feel settled and able to go into your course without anything pending at home!
- Give family and friends the retreat emergency contact phone number and email, with the stipulation that it is for an emergency only. This is YOUR time.
- Go all in. Why not? Take this time to do it. The guidelines for my silent retreat laid out the restrictions: no reading, no writing/journaling, and no cleansing or dieting during the retreat. And yes, no cell phones. We turned our phones in to the retreat manager and she locked them up. That was very hard to do, but I did it. And I am so glad I did!
- Schedule some days off upon your return. You will want one or two nights to readjust. And yes, you will be waking up at 4:30 am automatically for a little while!
What to Pack for a Silent Retreat
- Flashlight or headlamp for the early morning sessions.
- Watch or clock to keep track of the daily schedule.
- Your favorite skincare products. You will have the time to exfoliate, cleanse, and hydrate.
- Sheets, pillows, blankets, and earplugs to make your sleeping space cozy and your rest as deep and comfortable as possible.
- A large water bottle to stay hydrated and your favorite tea mug for the bottomless turmeric ginger tea. A touch of home will be a welcome part of your day.
- Speaking of tea: If you are a tea lover bring some of your favorite teas and some extra to share.
- Your favorite chocolate bar or two. You will be really glad that you did.
- Some Advil or pain killer, just in case.
- Clothing. Think layers and pack loose comfortable clothing. The 5:30 am meditation can be chilly and I was glad to have my soft knit poncho, a cotton hoodie, and loose sweatpants. Don’t bring any super tight lycra, itchy fabric, or unbreathable fibers—go for light cotton, linen, and natural fibers. I wore my comfortable bralettes and sports bras with t-shirts and loose sweatpants. Bring your slippers/flip flops for the shared shower areas and for ease of taking your shoes on and off to meditate multiple times a day.
More Info on silent retreats: