Shhh!

Silent retreats help participants tune out distractions and tune into themselves.

by Jodi Helmer

October 2014

For Jennifer Howd, a silent retreat offers respite from traffic noise, email and text alerts, television laugh tracks and loud neighbors.

Howd, 41, a Los Angeles-based freelance film producer, started going to such retreats two years ago to deepen her meditation practice and discovered that silence also helps her tune into her inner voice. “Silence allows me to be with myself in a way that the distractions of daily life do not,” she says.

A number of retreat centers, including Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts, Southern Dharma Retreat Center in North Carolina, Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, offer silent retreats. Options range from a few hours of contemplation along with discussions, one-on-one coaching and outdoor activities to a week or more of total silence.

Omega Institute in New York has been offering silent meditation and reflection for almost four decades. Program development strategist Michael Craft believes silent retreats have become popular because of the number of distractions in daily life. “We tend to have hundreds of different thoughts dominating our minds,” he says. “With fewer distractions, our minds slow down and we start to feel calmer, more present.”

Silent retreats have their roots in Buddhism and are often incorporated into spiritual retreats. But you don’t have to be religious to benefit from a silent retreat.

In fact, the idea of “quiet time” has developed a mainstream following. Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation helps tune out distracting thoughts, which eases anxiety and depression and relieves pain; sitting in silence could also help offset the health impacts of noise pollution, which range from increased stress levels and sleep disturbances to high blood pressure and heart disease.

“Noise pollution robs people of their ability to hear their own thoughts,” says Gordon Hemp­ton, an Emmy award-winning acoustic ecologist and co-author of One Square Inch of Silence (Atria). “It’s more difficult, because of noise pollution, to have time in silence. Seeking out silence is the antidote.”

Benefiting from a silent retreat isn’t as simple as showing up, turning off your cell phone and keeping quiet. During weeklong retreats, Howd wakes up at 5:30 a.m. Her day includes multiple sitting or walking meditations along with mindful exercises like qi gong and deep stretching before lights out at 9 p.m.

“Some retreats are much more strict than others but they are all demanding physically and emotionally,” Howd says. “Being at a retreat with other people who are also in silence and doing the work to connect with themselves is encouraging.”

One of the biggest challenges of a silent retreat, according to Hempton, is getting comfortable with quiet.

“In our North American culture, we’re so used to chattering and filling up the silence with sound that silence can be experienced as socially awkward,” he adds. “It takes time and practice to get comfortable with silence.”

To ease the awkwardness, several retreat centers, including Ananda Village in Northern California, offer guests badges marked “in silence” to alert other visitors. At Omega Institute, dining hall chalkboards allow guests on silent retreats to write their orders and staff are instructed to keep noise to a minimum.

“After a period of time, silence goes from uncomfortable to nurturing and enlivening,” says Craft. “You start to appreciate that there are fewer distractions and start tuning into yourself.”

Silent retreats had such a powerful impact on Dowd that she self-published a memoir, The Mindfulness Diaries, about her experience. One of the biggest surprises was how difficult it was to transition from a retreat back into the noise of real life. “Some people find it hard to be silent [but] I’m an introvert so silence is easy for me; coming out of silence was hard,” she says.

At most silent retreats, leaders offer tools to ease the transition. As a result, Howd has learned to limit activities in the week following a retreat and to set aside time for journaling, reflection and meditation.

Howd incorporates periods of quiet into her life as often as possible. She says, “Silence has taught me how to be more compassionate with myself and the world around me.”

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