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6 Surprising Lessons I Learned on a Silent Meditation Retreat

When I tell friends that I went on a silent meditation retreat, 95 percent of them say they couldn’t handle not talking. Yet when you commit to quiet stillness, you have the space and time to discover things you fail to see or may have even forgotten about yourself.

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Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center, a Silent Meditation Retreat.
Suzanne Christine Photography

Using three pillows, two blankets, and a floor chair with back support, I have built the perfect meditation throne. It is Day 2 of my week-long silent meditation retreat and I am ready to drop in for the morning session. Fifteen minutes into it, everything goes to pot. My shoulders ache, my legs are numb, and my mind fights against the emptiness that surrounds me. I try to reset and get back to something that feels right. It doesn’t work.

There is no calm bliss.

There is cessation of my thoughts.

There is no way I can sit here for another 30 minutes, I seethe silently.

How I Found Myself on a Silent Meditation Retreat

I keep circling back to a question my girlfriend asked me before I left: Why do you want to do this? I think I said something along the lines of wanting to step away from it all and explore mindfulness. I admit, it was a somewhat generic and clichéd response. And now, in this moment, I don’t really know what I am trying to accomplish by being here. Just when I think I can’t take it anymore, the bell rings, shocking my nervous system. I open my eyes and feel relief.

I am one of about 100 people at Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center. Set among the foothills of Marin County, Calif., the center certainly delivers on its promise of an idyllic setting: 411 acres of quiet, wooded land to buffer the outside world; simple yet beautifully crafted meditation halls; and a staff that radiates kindness. It’s so lovely that at the end of Day 1, my mind and body had become amazingly familiar with the schedule of alternating seated and walking meditation. I fall asleep surprised at how easy the transition from hectic, noisy real-life to calm, silent retreat-life seems.

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Of course, that gentle entry comes to a halt during the second-day morning meditation session. After lunch, I feel restless as we prepare for our next seated meditation. Within minutes of closing my eyes, my anxiety reemerges, so I revert to the one thing I remember from our orientation: the power in focusing on steady breathing. This calms me, and gradually, my resistance disappears. After the session, I recognize the first of many insights that would emerge that week: It’s not the silence that is difficult; it’s how you navigate within it that is challenging.

When I tell friends about the retreat, 95 percent of them say they couldn’t handle not talking. Yet while on my silent meditation retreat, I quickly learned how enjoyable it is to eliminate the kinds of discussions that typically occupy our days. When you commit to quiet stillness, you have the space and time to discover things you fail to see or may have even forgotten about yourself. Here’s what I learned during a week of total silence.

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6 Lessons I Learned on a Silent Meditation Retreat.

6 Lessons I Learned on a Silent Meditation Retreat

Lesson No. 1: To reconnect with yourself, you’ve got to disconnect from the “noise” that surrounds you.

Being able to sit in quiet stillness is a powerful experience. Without intrusive work emails, addictive HBO series, home project lists, and other daily distractions, I was free. No conversations to navigate and no expectations to manage. A silent retreat is a rare opportunity in our modern lives that allows us to truly let go and travel inward.

Lesson No. 2: Instead of trying to change things, it pays to get curious about what already exists.

I’ve been on retreats before—and usually they inspire me to make lists (long lists) of things I need to work on or change once I get back home. On the flip side, going on a silent retreat inspired me to see things I might normally miss—like the delight in exchanging smiles with strangers, how amazing it is to watch birds fly, and the satisfaction of being able to grow a full beard. These days, I’m able to continually remind myself that there is a constant evolution around (and within) me that happens every day. As one of my yoga teachers once said: “We have never been here, now, before. Can you become aware of this?” What I know now is that going on a silent meditation retreat is a surefire way to become aware of this.

Lesson No. 3: It’s crucial to find your own truth rather than simply regurgitate what others say.

Prior to my silent retreat, I dabbled in meditation and was familiar with the ideas put forth during the evening dharma talks. Yet during my week-long silence, I had the capacity for deep reflection—and I really examined certain ideas without judging my thoughts as good or bad. I landed on the fact that it’s OK that I may always struggle with the question, “What do you really want to do with your life?” or how I am selective in whom I dish out kindness to in my family. One question I explored intensely while on this silent retreat was this: “Why do certain things resonate with me?” It forced me to cultivate an internal honesty about what is important to me and took my thoughts into unforeseen areas that made me smile. 

Lesson No. 4: Moderation is a beautiful thing.

Since I no longer had open access to food—and no ability to ask for extra or call in a late-night order—I was piling my plate during meals to stock up. Then, during breakfast one day, I had an interesting insight: My gluttony wasn’t about satisfying my appetite; it was about letting a programmed behavior drive my actions. There was an unnoticed greediness about taking as much as I could even if I didn’t need it—something that seemed to me to be a blend of societal influence and personal fear. I thought I was an advocate for environmentalism, but failed to see how some of my consumption habits didn’t support this. The quiet self-reflection that happened that morning caused me to better understand that I need to be conscious of how I can be a better steward through my daily decisions.

Lesson No. 5: You don’t actually need words to communicate with another person.

Flowing into solitude was great, but I also found joy in observing those around me on the retreat. As I watched others, I found myself trying to figure out their stories and uncover why they were there. In a strange way, I felt deeper connections with people I never talked to at this retreat than with some people I have worked with for years. It was a result of giving myself permission to flow naturally around complete strangers because normal communication was removed. This also allowed me to tap into a collective energy that spoke to my intuition instead of my intellect.

Lesson No. 6: The person I am is not too far from the person I want to be.

I realized this while on a beautiful hiking trail, alone, on Day 3 of this silent retreat. I was filled with gratitude—for following my urge to attend this retreat, for sticking to my vow of silence, and for all of the things that awaited me back home in our anything-but-silent world. Rather than gravitating toward my doubts and disappointments, as I often do, I simply felt happy and thankful as I thought about all the people and events that led me to be where I was at that very moment.

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