Shhhhh…


By Martha Schindler  |  

Maybe it’s a reaction against our hectic, media-driven new century, or perhaps it’s just the logical progression of a yoga and meditation practice. Whatever the reason, silent retreats are catching on, for beginning and experienced yogis alike.

“We’ve seen a real surge in interest among people from all walks of life, in people who already have a spiritual practice as well as people who have never tried to meditate,” says Ron Fearnow, a manager at Southern Dharma Retreat Center in Hot Springs, North Carolina. “We’re all searching for ways to bring peace into our lives, and the simple act of being quiet is a wonderful way to do it.”

Retreats like Southern Dharma offer meditation programs built around silence, ranging in length from several days to a few months. Most include yoga and moving meditation, while others are composed entirely of quiet contemplation. They are offered in traditions ranging from Buddhism and Hinduism to Judaism and Christianity, as well as nonsectarian formats.

“There’s a tremendous movement among people from all religions and all schools of thought to seek spiritual growth,” says Fr. James Conner, who directs the meditation retreats at The Abbey of Gethsemani, a Benedictine monastery in Trappist, Kentucky. “And they’re finding that meditation is a wonderful way to further that process.”

Ironically, the most intimidating factor about silent retreats for the novice meditator is the constant quietness. “People who meditate for 20 to 30 minutes in the morning are often worried about having to do it for days on end,” says Fearnow. “Or they may practice yoga regularly, but they always do it in a classroom full of people, or they practice in the living room with the stereo on. So the aspect of being quiet seems very strange.”

The good news is that no two retreats are designed the same. Some are intensive, long-term programs, while others last just two or three days and include periods of informal talking, lectures, group discussions, and one-on-one instruction—plus the opportunity for activities like tennis or hiking.

How do you know if you’re ready for prolonged quiet time? “Take it slowly,” says Fearnow. “Find a program and a facility that feels comfortable to you and then sign up for just a few days. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can adjust and how much more powerful your practice can become.”

That said, here are 10 silent retreats that offer a variety of programs and settings for all levels of meditators.

The Abbey of Gethsemani

Trappist, Kentucky

This center is a Roman Catholic monastery founded in 1848 on the principles of hospitality laid down by St. Benedict, which call on believers to welcome each guest as a representative of Christ. Thus, meditators are invited to join the monks in their daily program of prayer, sacraments, and silent reflection, which begins with vigils at 3:15 a.m. and ends with a communal service and blessing at 8 p.m. If you’d like to meditate, but relish your shut-eye, you can sleep in until Mass begins at 6:15 a.m. The Abbey is located on 2,000 acres of heavily wooded land about 40 miles from Louisville, in a section of Kentucky known as “knob country” because of its many small hills. “Silence is a big part of the experience here,” says Fr. James Conner, the center’s director, and meditators are encouraged to walk through the surrounding fields and woods when they’re not participating in formal services. Retreats are held throughout the week (Monday through Friday) and over weekends, although meditators can also arrange for longer stays. The first and third weeks of every month are reserved for women-only retreats. Guests stay in private rooms, each with a private bath, and meals are included in the program. Rates are based on a voluntary donation system; a typical offering would be $25 to $40 a day. (502) 549-4133; www.monks.org.


Insight Meditation Society

Barre, Massachusetts

A Buddhist retreat center housed in an early 1900s mansion, IMS is an hour and a half west of Boston. It was the first Dharma center in the West and has been hosting meditation retreats since 1975. IMS offers approximately 20 retreats a year, most from seven to 10 days. There’s also a three-month-long program available for advanced meditators. The retreats are all silent, except for daily talks and instructor interviews, and include both walking and sitting meditation. Accommodations are dormitory-style and cost $38 a day, including meals. (978) 355-4378; www.dharma.org/ims.

Palolo Zen Center, Honolulu Diamond Sangha

Honolulu, Hawaii

This Zen Buddhist center offers six silent meditation retreats—which they call sesshins—every year, ranging from three to eight days. Visitors can also attend a one-day retreat called zazenkai or sign up for several months of intensive Zen study. The center sits on 13 acres in a quiet valley, just 15 minutes from Honolulu’s bustling Waikiki Beach. Here, your day begins at 4 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m. You’ll spend the time in seated meditation and mindful work practice; silence is observed throughout. Rooms are shared (dormitory-style accommodations) and meals are vegetarian; short-stay rates are $35 a day. (808) 735-1347; www.ciolek.com/WWVLPages/ZenPages/DiamondSangha.html.

Karme-Choling Buddhist Meditation Center

Barnet, Vermont

One of the Shambhala International meditation centers, Karme-Choling is a rambling 540-acre facility with a dormitory and large meditation hall, plus seven cabins tucked into the woods and a separate guest house in the nearby town of Barnet. It’s located between White River Junction and Burlington, in the Green Mountains of northern Vermont. The center offers retreats ranging from two-day in-house programs to month-long residencies, which focus on the “three gates” of Shambhala theory: Vajradhatu, based on Tibetan Buddhism; Shambhala, which follows a nondenominational “human warrior” model; and Nalanda, which combines various Japanese arts with Buddhist teachings on subjects such as psychology, health, and relationships. A typical in-house retreat includes daily individual meditation instruction, group practice, and a short work period; it costs $30 a day, plus between $10 and $50 a night for room and board. Guests are encouraged to complete an introductory meditation course at a Shambhala Center before signing up for a retreat. (802) 633-2384; www.kcl.shambhala.org.

Mount Madonna Center

Watsonville, California

Situated on a 355-acre tract above Monterey Bay in the Santa Cruz mountains, Mount Madonna hosts 40 programs a year, including retreats in yoga and meditation, Buddhist thought, and other paths to spirituality. In addition to their formal activities, participants can swim in a nearby lake; play tennis, volleyball, and basketball; and hike. Silence is part of many of the programs, although they allow for some discourse. The facility can accommodate up to 500 people (in private rooms and on surrounding campsites), but programs vary dramatically in size, from about five participants to maximum capacity. A typical weekend retreat costs about $150, plus $58 per person per day for double-occupancy and vegetarian meals. (408) 847-0406; www.mountmadonna.org.


Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health

Lenox, Massachusetts

Here you’ll find combined yoga and meditation programs and retreats geared to almost any level, with dormitory-style accommodations and a large cafeteria that serves bountiful vegetarian meals. Kripalu is also a center of education, offering courses in Buddhist thought, metta meditation, and several schools of yoga. Programs are built around yoga and meditation classes, group workshops, and various guided activities; you can also find plenty of hiking and biking in the surrounding Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. “Retreat and Renewal” programs—loosely structured, three- to five-day courses that include meditation as well as yoga, music, and dance—cost between $77 and $196 per night, depending on the type of room you choose. (Some have private baths; others use a shared one down the hall.) Midweek discounts are available. Meals are silent and guests are asked to observe silence in the evening and early morning. (800) 741-7353; www.kripalu.org.

Southern Dharma Retreat Center

Hot Springs, North Carolina

Tucked into a secluded valley in western North Carolina (Asheville is about an hour away), this 24-acre center is insulated by another 140 acres of privately held land. Open from April through January, the center hosts meditative and contemplative retreats in vipassana meditation, Soto Zen, Sufi, Judaic and several other spiritual traditions. Retreats are small (the maximum number of participants is 25), and all include some yoga. Retreats run from three to eight days, and guests are silent for a majority of the time. Accommodations range from dormitory-style rooms with private baths to campsites, weather permitting. The typical cost is $55 a night, including vegan meals. (828) 622-7112; www.main.nc.us/SDRC/.

Spirit Rock Meditation Center

Woodacre, California

Residential retreats at this 400-acre facility in Marin County, about an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge, range from three nights to three months and are geared to beginning as well as experienced practitioners of vipassana, or Buddhist insight meditation. Except for daily Dharma talks and one-on-one interviews with instructors, silence reigns. Participants begin their day at 5 a.m., spend it in alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation, then turn in around 10 p.m. Meals are vegetarian and fees vary (some are established on a sliding scale). A typical three-day meditation retreat costs $160. (415) 488-0164; www.spiritrock.org.

Tassajara Zen Mountain Center

Carmel Valley, California

Part of the San Francisco Zen Center, Tassajara was established in 1966 as the first residential Zen center in the United States. The facilities were once a hot springs resort and include a pool, bathhouse, and dormitory accommodations, as well as unique stone and pine rooms, yurts, redwood cabins, and traditional Japanese tatami cabins. Double-occupancy rates range from $70 to $150 per night; retreat fees are an additional $100 to $125. The retreats, which typically include silent meditation as well as group discussions and instructor consultations, are conducted May through August. The center is closed to the public during the rest of the year and used for formal Buddhist monastic training. (415) 863-3136; www.sfzc.com.


Vallecitos Mountain Refuge

Taos, New Mexico

This is an “invitation-only” center set up to serve people who work in the public-interest and nonprofit sectors. In order to attend, you must demonstrate you’ve been working in that capacity for at least five years and plan to continue. Aptly named, this Zen center is situated on 135 acres surrounded by the Carson National Forest and operates without telephone, electricity, or television. Its programs are aimed at helping people accomplish goals of social change and environmental renewal through personal centering and spiritual growth. Activities include treks into the forest, silent meditation, and talking circles—anything to help relieve the “burnout” common in public service jobs. Meditators of all levels are welcome. (505) 751-9613; www.vallecitos.org.

Martha Schindler is a freelancer writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.