Good Escapes

Friday, February 22, 2013

Would you spend 10 days in total silence?

silent meditation retreat Vipassana

Silent retreats are the spiritual equivalent of a marathon. You can expect to spend prolonged periods in meditation, sometimes totaling 10 hours a day.

While going on a yoga retreat or a spa junket is a popular way of using your vacation to chill out and go deep, a growing number of stressed-out urbanites are spending anywhere from a weekend to two weeks in total silence on a Vipassana insight meditation retreat.

The practice of staying silent has long tradition in Eastern philosophy, and it has very relevant modern-day application, explains Massachusetts Insight Meditation Center’s Gyano Gibson. (And not just because there’s no texting, emailing, or reading novels permitted.)

“Refraining from chatter forces you to become aware of the mind and its inner-terrain, becoming more present,” says Gibson. Of course, many go into silence seeking a way to deepen their spiritual practice. But it’s also becoming a popular way to deal with life transitions, such as breakups, loss, and career changes.

Leslie Hendry, a former attorney, did her first silent retreat in India after going through a painful breakup. “I was really in a transitional period and hoped to get some clarity. Though I almost missed ‘talk day’ because I didn’t know we were allowed to speak again!” says Hendry, laughing about the language barrier.

So, what happens on a typical retreat day? The silent retreat day begins early—don’t expect to sleep past 6 a.m.—and includes a day-long series of “sits,” or meditations, usually broken up by work practice, like preparing meals or cleaning, or a talk given by an instructor.

Many centers, like the Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts, or Spirit Rock in California, also allow for one-on-one discussions with an instructor “to make sure we’re not losing our minds,” jokes writer Valerie Reiss, who completed a 9-day Vipassana. (Apparently that’s a common feeling before the peacefulness kicks in.)

Guru S.N. Goenka

Practicing self-awareness through silence was popularized in the 1970s by Guru S.N. Goenka, who introduced the West to Vipassana, or insight, meditation.

For many, remaining in silence, without any distractions, can be challenging. Some centers even require students to refrain from non-verbal communication, such as making eye contact. Attendees usually reach a period where they “settle in” to the practice, but exactly when (and if) varies for each person. And many report that it never gets any less difficult.

“I had many little moments of accomplishment, but it never got easier for me. You’re definitely monitoring the clock.  Toward the end you surrender to the process, probably because you see the light at the end of the tunnel!” says Hendry.

Despite the challenges, many retreat-goers, like Leslie, are return customers. “When you break the silence, it’s just the best feeling. Partially it’s because you know it’s over! But I was left with a profound sense of clarity. You become aware of how trivial many of your obsessive thoughts really are.”

Reiss agrees: “Physically, I lost this level of tension I had been carrying around. I couldn’t necessarily feel it happening, but being so physically present forced me to let something go. I don’t even know what it was.” —Carla Vass

For more information on silent insight meditation retreats, visit www.dharma.org or www.spiritrock.org

Have you done a silent retreat? What was your experience like?  Tell us in the Comments, below!

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