In 1854, Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden, arguably the first published account of what would be considered a “silent retreat.” The book is now more relevant than ever (despite being over 160 years old). Because these days, purposeful silence, as in going somewhere to not talk or hear anyone talk, is a “huge travel trend.”
Some may scoff, asking why anyone would want to spend their hard-earned vacation days on, well … silence. But for some, the idea is very intriguing.
So much so that, according to a Forbes report from 2014, luxury resorts and high-end business hotel are now getting in on the action with “noise-free zones, triple-paned glass, soundproof walls, and serene settings where the whole sell is the ability to hear a pin drop.”
Silence. It seems like a novel idea. True silence. Not just from outside noise, but from other people, from screens, but most of all, from the clatter inside of our own heads.
What Is a Silent Retreat?
While silent retreats and their offerings vary, most of them are 3-10 day experiences (though some can go as long as 3 months), offering days of solitude, most often with zero interaction with technology. Many incorporate yoga as well, as a way of integrating the mind and body in purposeful meditation. They are marketed for those seeking balance, relaxation, spiritual renewal, and simplicity. So basically, the opposite of spring break in Miami.
Some silent retreats offer more than just a vow of silence. There are silent retreats that help you detox your body, quit smoking and break other addictive behaviors, and even those to help you learn new skills such as weaving and cooking.
The one thing all these retreats have in common though, is a given: silence. From sun up to sundown. Although some offer more flexibility than others, and some have instructors breaking the silence to offer encouragement, guidance, and therapy, they all involve individuals seeking solitude and quiet.
According to Alex Lavy, a New York City high school teacher who’s attended several different silent retreats (including one that lasted for 30 days), such noiseless getaways are pretty straightforward.
“The simple ‘rule’ is that you don’t talk on a silent retreat, with the exception of a conversation each day with a spiritual director,” Lavy explained. And while this may seem like a very antisocial approach to a vacation, he argued that it’s actually a way to make very meaningful connections with others.
“The silence is less a rule than an invitation to relate to other people in a different way. Someone once explained it like this: in everyday life, we’re constantly expected to ‘entertain’ the people we meet,” Lavy said. “On a retreat, there’s no expectation like this. That can be a bit jarring at first — you don’t necessarily acknowledge people when you see them, and you eat meals in silence. But this creates the space for more authentic engagement with people.”
Where Can You Attend a Silent Retreat?
Initially, you’d probably think these retreats would only be in warm, sunny places, like Thailand, Bali, and India (think Eat Pray Love). Most of them, at least those you can find online, are actually in those places. But dig deeper in your research, and you’ll begin to find even more of them. It turns out, you don’t have to stray too far from home to attend a silent retreat.
The Eastern Point Retreat House, for instance, is located in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Run by Jesuits, their mission is to help retreatants learn how to make better choices for themselves and “for relating to the lives of others.” Another prominent option, the Breitenbush hot springs retreat, is located just outside of Portland, and offers everything from complete seven-day retreats to single day trip retreats, “where people can renew and evolve in ways they never imagined.”
Why Go on a Silent Retreat?
This question is perhaps the most important one to consider if a silent retreat is on your radar. After all, if you have only three weeks of time off a year, cashing in one of those to meditate in silence without your cell phone could seem less like a vacation and more like punishment.
Lavy admits that there are moments of difficulty, but it’s often involving personal comfort and growth.
“The silence is at turns boring and tiring (the first few days are mostly for sleep),” he said, “but it is also marked with periods of great joy, sadness, confusion, and all the other emotions one has in general, except with higher intensity. Silent retreats create the space for me to go inside myself, and like most people, there’s a lot to find inside myself.”
As Lavy explains, the mandatory silence not only quiets attendees’ outer noise, but also his or her own interior monologue for deeper introspection.
“On retreat, I get to watch those monologues slow down so I can really hear the voice of God inside me,” he said. “Silence makes me less judgemental, and more interested in noticing my history and my experience instead of judging it. I also notice that I slow a lot: my thinking, breathing, and walking. I notice moments of joy much more easily, and don’t have to chase them or make them stay beyond their time.”
When asked if he would recommend a silent retreat, Lavy couldn’t give a definitive answer. He admits that not everyone is in a stage of their journey where one would make sense. He also warns that some people may not be able to make the time or financial commitment. But for those who are ready and interested, Lavy advocates the “profound experience of stillness and reconciliation.”
Is a silent retreat something on your bucket list? Let us know in the comments section below.