Getting the Most Out of Silent Retreats

I try to attend several spiritual and meditation retreats a year. Most are just long weekends and, outside of meditation time, they aren’t silent (that is, you can speak with whomever whenever). However, I’ve started attending silent retreats and find them to be so powerful and beneficial to my overall journey that I plan to attend one annually whenever possible.

From my personal experience, I get more out of each subsequent silent retreat I attend. There are many things that I wish I’d known ahead of time.

If you plan to attend a silent retreat, especially one that spans a few days, here are a few preparation tips based on my experience that could help you to make the most of your retreat opportunity:

  • Plan for your retreat as if you’ll be deep in the woods, completely unplugged, and that you’ve taken a vow of silence for that time. The following points will help with some specifics around this.

  • Clean house, pay bills, arrange for someone to check on plants/pets/house while you’re out, and handle other necessities ahead of time so you don’t suddenly feel like you absolutely have to get online or on the phone to deal with some urgent situation.

  • Do a little cleansing of your diet and entertainment consumption for a week or two prior to the retreat.

    • Eating a clean, lean diet without sugar or alcohol, doing a little yoga or meditation, switching over to listening to illuminating music or CDs/podcasts and videos, and eliminating TV (even news) consumption ahead of time I find helps to prime my body and state of mind to enter the spirit of the retreat.

  • Provide any essential contact(s) with the number of the retreat center so they can get a hold of you in the event of an emergency.

    • Remember, you will be unplugged AND silent so you want to make it clear that text, email, FaceTime, Skype or direct calls won’t be an option.

  • Wear a real watch (no - not your watch phone or even a fitbit thingy, but an old school device for time-telling purposes).

    • Why? Did I mention you will have your phone turned off during the retreat!? A real watch is a stress free way to keep on schedule for meals, satsang, meditation, etc. without having to sneak a peek at your phone (which may tempt you to get lost down the digital rabbit hole).

  • Have a small notepad for at-a-glance info that includes the following. The purpose of this is to eliminate the need to go dig something up on your phone or computer.

    • The retreat daily calendar/agenda (when satsang, yoga, meditation, meals, and other pre-scheduled events are taking place and where)

    • Daily note of expected weather temperatures and rain

    • Add any announcements they make during the retreat (such as when a bookstore will be open) and/or anything you add to your schedule (like a massage)

  • Likewise, have pre-printed map(s) of anything you plan to do or visit while at the retreat (such as local hiking)

  • Usually you’ll be provided with a badge to wear. Bring one with you (the kind you can clip to you or wear around your neck). On one side will probably be your name and maybe where you are from. On the flip side, write in clear large lettering “I’m on a silent retreat. Thank you!”

    • When you are hiking locally or at a place where non-retreatants will be, you can quickly flip over the badge so they understand you are maintaining silence.

  • Bring some basics and a few nice-to-have (like your own yoga mat or meditation cushion/chair) but don’t over-pack.

    • Plan simple outfits with layers.

    • Bring comfortable shoes that slip off easily (plus hiking boots if needed).

    • If you’re worried about your wardrobe, hair, jewelry, make-up, etc., you might be missing some of the best part of retreat - which is retreating

  • Bring books that support your journey. But consider not reading as often and also try to abstain from listening to music or watching videos (even if they are ‘spiritually’ focused).

    • I won’t lie, this is a really difficult one for me, especially books. But I have observed that I can use reading as a filler - a way to avoid being truly silent.

  • Bring a journal. A journal is a wonderful way to capture and explore important insights. As with books, though, try to not use journaling as an avoidance technique.

  • Don’t let others who are not “following the rules” get under your skin.

    • There will be people who can’t shut the heck up. Seriously. They will even be chattering on in the meditation or satsang hall before meetings start. Or they cling to their phone for dear life, refusing to turn it off - sometimes even during meditation. Or they are newbies who think it’s okay to pass you a note about getting a car ride back to the airport when the retreat ends. These are irritations for sure. But they needn’t derail your silence or peace! Simply observe your thoughts about these events, then let them go. Forgiveness is the best practice here.

  • Do try to be silent inwardly as well as outwardly. Really allow silence to be a full mind-body-spirit experience. If possible, just allow the impulses to utter words, chase thoughts, use hand-signaling or writing notes to communicate to others during the retreat to pass. And all impulses will pass.

As I think of or learn other important tips for getting the most out of your silent retreat, I’ll update this article. Feel free to provide your thoughts and personal experiences in the comment section, too! Thank you.