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Shhhhh...

Meditators of all levels are drawn to silent retreats for spiritual awakening and peace of mind.

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.

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