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why retreat in silence

2011 June 20

silent retreating in Big Sur

In the last couple of years, I’ve attended several silent retreats.

I remember being in an a workshop where I’d confessed my retreat obsession. A well-meaning woman asked me, “What was the best retreat you ever did?”

“Well, I really enjoyed a silent retreat in Big Sur.”

Awkward silence, followed by a forced smile. “Oh.” I imagine she thought I was going to say a yoga retreat in Costa Rica or on the Mexican Riviera.

When I mentioned I’d been at a silent retreat at a different workshop, someone asked, “Why would you ever want to do that?!”

I guess I should be used to the quizzical looks, or stunned silence.

Frankly, it makes me chuckle.

[Side story: I was in Southern California for an event. We were asked as an icebreaker to answer, “What was the best vacation you ever had?” My partner described white sand beaches. I answered, “Staying in a cave hotel in the middle of Turkey.” I think you get a sense of what I think is fun.]

Doing a silent retreat has been one of the most deeply rewarding experiences in all of my retreating over the years.

why silent retreat?

There is a magic quality to doing anything in communion with others. Ask anyone who has attended a workshop, class, conference or any gathering with intention. It’s the energy of the people who attend that make the difference.

Now imagine that you don’t need to make small talk at meals.

Scary? Intriguing? A lot of people think it’s awkward and uncomfortable, even if they don’t say it aloud.

I certainly found that to be true at the first group meal I attended. I sat across the table from women I wanted to know better. Then, the chair I sat on gave way. Apparently the cushion was loose and I fell through the chair. I made a tiny yelp. I turned red, wriggled my butt out.

No one said anything. I looked at their faces and they were each engrossed in their meal, slowly savoring each bite.

Even though I guessed they were probably pretending not to notice, there was something freeing to not have to caretake.

Silent retreat space gave me the space to notice how much of my energy I do spend playing to an audience, even without realizing it.

silence as a salve

I find silence a rejuvenating, vital part of life. The world is a noisy place and as a culture we reward the loud. We leave our televisions on to keep us company. Social media and mobile phones make us feel connected to the outside world.

We’re drowning ourselves out.

Most people can figure out silence lets us get to a place of contemplation. Religious and spiritual traditions espouse silence as a door to our inner world.

Silence gives space for reflection and contemplation. I see my patterns more clearly. I’m building self-compassion and self-trust that shows up a teeny bit in my life outside of retreat.

Intentional silence allows us to watch our patterns and I’d even posit, to make deeper connection with others. At the end of each of my silent retreats, I’ve had a sense of the other retreatants that hasn’t had a veneer of social strata or political beliefs. I might catch a glimpse of the car they drive, or stray pet hair on their shirt. It’s primarily based on nonverbal communication.

A nod.

Opening the door for me when I enter the meal hall.

Looking up at the clear black sky sprayed with stars and acknowledging a deep appreciation of the same wonder of the world.

consciously cultivating silence at home

Quietude is something I have to consciously cultivate. It’s easy for me to get lost in the hype-driven world.

I use retreats as a means to reach that place in a very intentional way with a physical space, like-minded souls and time to explore.

At home, I step away from the computer and connect to the earth in my vegetable garden. Sometimes I’ll choose to read a book outside, allowing awareness of stellar jay cries, the low buzz of a copper-throated Allan’s hummingbird with a cool breeze softly rippling the pages.

I’ll wash dishes with attention and love–the circular motion of cleansing a cup or a dish soothes. Seeing the bottom of an empty kitchen sink calms.

Intention is the most important tool.

27 Responses Post a comment
  1. June 20, 2011

    you have captured perfectly the magic of a silent retreat
    my moment was laughing hysterically at breakfast
    like i just did when you described the cave hotel in Turkey

    • June 21, 2011

      thanks, Jen! it’s very difficult to explain how silence deepens an experience. hm…a series of blog posts, perhaps?

      sisters indeed!

  2. June 21, 2011

    I love, love, love this. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. June 22, 2011

    I’ve always wanted to go on a silent retreat. I think it would be very fruitful in learning about myself. Someday.

    You’ve inspired me to be more intentional about silence. I live alone except for Atlas, who is not really the chatty sort, and I like quiet so there is often silence. But I’ve been trying the “I’m going on silent retreat while I do this” and the silence really is different when it’s intentional. Curious to do this more now.

    • June 23, 2011

      Hi Elizabeth!

      Have I mentioned how much I love your images and words? If not, I should do so more often.

      I imagine Atlas is a contemplative by nature.

      Love hearing how your silent retreating at home goes. It really does make a difference with intention. Hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it!

  4. June 25, 2011

    I am so glad I got to discover this post and your beautimous reflections.

    I am in a time in my Life where I often live in silence. For hours anyway… I’ve lived tv and radio free for nearing 2 years and I LOVE how it lets me tune in to the things that often fall under a great pile of noise.

    Thinking of BEing part of a silent group takes me back 5 years. It was so amazing how turning off the volume spoke so deeply. In fact, sometimes I still “hear” that wondrous silence and simply smile.

    • July 4, 2011

      thank you for stopping by. it’s so wonderful to connect with others who have shared the experience of silence both at home and as part of a group. i understand that smile.

      it amazes me to no end how much we can connect with each other without words.

  5. June 29, 2011

    That is Lovely! =D) I Realized that I Like to ‘Talk’ online coz it’s Connecting in a Silent way… I’m Considering a Silent Retreat after Reading this, I Think I will next year. =) Thank you so Much for your Blog! =) *HUGS, LOVE and LIGHT* Mx

    • July 4, 2011

      thank you so much! i hope you do get to go on a silent retreat some time.

      interesting perspective about “talking online”–i hadn’t thought about it in that way before.

      hugs right back at you! thank you for commenting!

    • July 4, 2011

      …and please let me know if you ever do go on a silent retreat. i would love to hear your experience!

  6. July 6, 2011

    I absolutely get this. I haven’t done it, mind you…yet…but I get it and want it. It seems like such a gift to yourself…

    • July 26, 2011

      hi Karen: i hope you let yourself have it. i think it’s possible to do it at home with intention, though, of course, it’s different than doing a retreat in community (or even alone).

  7. July 13, 2011

    I remember a little rom, no talking, what joy – Joy….great post. Sounds of breathing and energy. xox Corrine

  8. July 14, 2011

    That is Lovely! =D) I Realized that I Like to ‘Talk’ online coz it’s Connecting in a Silent way… I’m Considering a Silent Retreat after Reading this, I Think I will next year. =) Thank you so Much for your Blog! =) *HUGS, LOVE and LIGHT* Mx

    • July 26, 2011

      hi there! thanks for the comment! i hope you do let yourself experience it. there are many flavors of it, so be sure to find one that speaks to you.

  9. Rachel permalink
    July 25, 2011

    What a lovely post. I am a silent retreat junkie, going at least twice a year on retreat at Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, CA. I also live alone, and have spent the past two years with intentional silence in my home. Radio is a special treat on Saturday evenings. Still too much sensory input from the computer, but the quiet surroundings in my life do make a huge difference.

    • July 26, 2011

      hi Rachel! so glad you found me! i started attending silent retreats twice a year for a few years now and love it. thanks for the tip on a location in Oceanside. i’ve mostly done silent retreats around my area, but want to do more of it.

      i completely agree that the computer provides too much sensory stimulation. in Big Sur, the population density is very low, plus there is no internet access, nor is there cell phone reception, which deepens the silent.

  10. August 19, 2011

    Another beautifully written post, Joy! And it just so happens to feed wonderfully into my latest creative path…exploring the all-to-infrequent silent (sacred) spaces in our lives. In fact, I was inspired to write The Creative Oasis Permission to Pause Manifesto (see part one below if you’re interested…part two is coming soon)
    Attending a silent retreat has been something that intrigues me for years…yet I’ve never had the courage (is that the right word?) to actually attend one. I feel that it’s in my future and your words feel like another sign to me. Thanks, Joy!

    • August 26, 2011

      Thanks, Jill! Thanks also for letting me know about your workshops!

  11. Freda Ruiz permalink
    December 8, 2011

    You’ve inspired me to be more intentional about silence. it amazes me to no end how much we can connect with each other without words. Hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it!

  12. August 19, 2012

    Lovely! I too, deeply enjoy silent retreats. And silence at home. Luckily, my husband does too…

  13. Diane permalink
    June 23, 2013

    I could sure use some guidance, I have someone staying at my house and after two weeks has left me a note that she was going into a period of silence. I have never experienced this except when someone was upset with me. I have to say I feel disturbed and uncomfortable, as does my husband and son. How should I take this and what do the others in the house do when ignoring someone is considered rude?

    • July 11, 2013

      Apologies for the late response! I have been out of the country. Thanks for this question. It’s a little hard to respond to this as I would ask you a ton of clarifying questions. I think one of the keys to entering silence in the situation you describe is both parties being clear about the boundaries around entering silence and what that means for that person. Only at meals, certain hours or days of the week, all the time? Does this person have a purpose for entering silence? It would have been helpful to have a little more clarification about what is acceptable “silence” For you, is it truly about ignoring this person, or simply acknowledging their presence without words? We can communicate and connect quite deeply in nonverbal ways. Is he or she creating space for introspection, trying to escape or avoid something?

      If this person said they were going to enter a period of prayer or meditation, or said they needed space for art or writing, would you, your husband and son have the same reaction? Just curious.

      I’ll follow up with an email.

      This gives me a lot of food for thought!

  14. August 5, 2013

    silent places can make you feel relax and it can make your mind and body releasing the negative vibes of energy, thanks for sharing this blog my friend.

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