I’ve been to many meditation retreats in the past, but never a silent one. From what I’ve learned in my research on silent retreats, some aren’t radically different than what I’ve experienced at a meditation retreat except that you don’t talk to the other participants during meals or breaks or in sessions (I guess for some that would be radical but it doesn’t seem so for me).
The more radical difference is in the range of silent retreat that’s offered. For example, some provide seminars during the day during which you can ask questions, some provide leaders or guides for voluntary private sessions, some require you to have a private session with a teacher, some require you to regularly do work on the property and some require you to meditate for long hours each day. The most intense version of a silent retreat that I’m aware of is the Vipassana retreat, commonly 10 days long with 10 hours of meditation each day. If you read these accounts of Vipassana retreats written by Ben Casnocha or MeiMei Fox or check out this photo of a private room at the Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage, they may help you with your discipline and resolve at home – yours will seem like an at-home-spa by comparison.
With a stay-at-home retreat what you do is up to you. In the same way that you’d pick a retreat for what it has to offer, pick your activities at home for what you want to get out of them.
The idea is to remove yourself from anything external that causes negative emotions or requires your mind to be occupied with day-to-day life. You want to minimize your mind’s natural tendency to focus on the past or the future. You want to free your mind to be more inward focused and more present in the moment.
Here are some basic guidelines to follow for any silent retreat:
Meditate – This is the one activity that accompanies all silent retreats. If you don’t know how to meditate there are ample resources online to guide you. I know how to meditate, but I wanted to be guided anyway. I enjoy the sound of a soothing voice encouraging me to relax, to contemplate, to go within and I look forward to the meditation when this is a component of it. I used two different resources – guided meditations downloaded from the Chopra Center Meditation Challenge series and relaxation recordings from the Callanish Society. You can choose your own guidance tools based on teachers you may be following or may have followed in the past or search online for what others are enjoying.
I chose the Chopra meditations in part because I had already experienced and enjoyed the Creating Abundance 21-day meditation challenge for free last fall and in part because Deepak and I go way back. About 25 to 30 years ago I attended a free seminar on meditation in a small lecture room at a university in Ottawa. There Dr. Chopra spoke to somewhere between 25 and 40 listeners (you see, we all start somewhere) on behalf of the Transcendental Meditation program. He was exceedingly engaging and his lecture was fascinating. Ultimately, from a meditation perspective he comes from the same roots as I do and I felt comfortable in the familiarity of the meditation tone.
The Chopra meditations are quite short – each recording (which I downloaded to my smartphone so that I could take them anywhere) is about 15 minutes long, including some discussion at the start and then a meditation lasting around 5 minutes. Five minutes is great for a beginner and for people who can’t spare or can’t sit still for longer than that (no judgment – it really is great that anyone can meditate on their own terms). It’s a great way to get new meditators enjoying the experience of meditation without finding the process to be too burdensome.
Ironically their limited length was what got me to find the time to sit down and meditate during the 21-day challenge but I found them to be too short and felt disappointed when they were over, so I altered them a little. Before starting the recording I’d turn on my smartphone timer which was preset to 30 minutes and a peaceful harp tone. Then I would start the recording and when the bell sounded to indicate the end of the meditation I’d stop the recording and continue meditating until the timer went off, usually giving me an additional 15 minutes of meditation time. I’d then turn the recording back on to listen to the meditation session wrap-up. Not ideal, but absolutely doable. And adjustable – I can change the timer setting according to my mood or the time I have available.
The Creating Abundance 21-Day Challenge is currently $39.99 to download and you can get a package of 3 different 21-day challenges for a package price of $99 (please note that I’m not connected to these products in any way and do not receive any sort of benefit if you purchase them). I particularly enjoyed the Abundance series because it is Deepak himself who talks you through them while the other two series have various guest voices on different days. They are enjoyable as well though, and I like the variety that I get by having all three. If you’re interested but not sure about spending the money, wait for the next free 21-day challenge (I suspect there’ll be another).
The Callanish Society DVD was a gift I received over the holidays and it contains 2 verbal relaxation recordings, 3 relaxation piano recordings and 1 recording integrating crystal bowls and Chinese gongs. I used these for preparing for meditations and after meditations, according to my mood.
Walk in nature if you can – Take a walk in a local park or along the water or even a nice walk in your neighborhood if you find it relaxing. But only if you can get there on foot, you won’t be bombarded by traffic and noise on the way and you can be alone. I wasn’t able to do this because I live in a tight community and it would have been impossible not to meet up with someone who would expect me to chat with them. I’m not quite ready to go walking with a sign around my neck.
Relax – Have a bath, curl up on the couch, lie star-position on the floor, whatever makes you feel relaxed. I was surprised to find that I particularly liked lying on the floor after a meditation.
Be mindful – For everything you do, observe what you’re doing, appreciate each action, savor the offerings of the tools you’re working with. When your mind wanders encourage it back to what’s happening now and anything you can notice in the moment.
Do yoga – Again, there are ample resources online to guide you through yoga poses if you aren’t sure what to do. A few years ago when I wanted to take up yoga I googled “best yoga videos” and purchased Ali MacGraw – Yoga Mind & Body (please note that I do have an affiliate marketing connection to this link through Amazon and will receive a small commission if you buy it – but I would recommend you buy it only if you can find it at a reasonable price). It is visually stunning and the voice and background tones are soothing and relaxing (this youtube video will give you a taste of it), but it’s also a bit pricey at the moment. It’s not a beginner’s yoga video but Erich Schiffman, the yoga master in the video, explains how to adjust the poses to your ability level. I’m sure there are many other great yoga videos available. Because ambiance is so important to me, this one suits me perfectly.
Journal – Write in a journal at least once each day. Try to keep it positive. You may want to write about thoughts and feelings you’re having throughout the retreat. I prefer to write and rewrite about all in my life I’m grateful for and what positive influences I wish to be a part of my life going forward. While I write I ponder each point and notice how really great it is. It’s easy to take these things for granted when you don’t take the time to think about them in a conscious deliberate way.
Create (peacefully) – Get out your crayons, paints or pencils and create something peacefully visual; your guitar or harmonica and create something peacefully musical; or your pots and utensils and create something yummy. The key is to choose whatever will bring you joy and whatever will engage you so much in what you’re doing that you forget to think about all the things that usually occupy your mind – in other words, whatever will help you to be in the moment. Note that this activity will put your silent retreat on the more active side of the range, if that’s your choice. It has its benefits too.
No entertainment-oriented activities whether silent or not – No TV, no novels, no online videos, no radio, no podcasts. Entertainment is usually designed to intensify our emotions, and often not the positive ones. That’s not the point of this exercise.
No news – Cut yourself off from the outside world. You don’t need to be thinking about the accident that happened, the organization that stole or cheated or lied or the state of the economy. The more you can get away from negative influences, whether in retreat or not, the better you’ll feel.
No mental work – Forget about the job jar, the project you’re working on at work, the detailed things you tend to think about all the time. They’ll pop into your head anyway during your retreat but try not to engage with them. If you start writing an email to your colleague at work to remind her how to do something, or working on your finances to see where your savings are at, your retreat is kinda over…
No banned substances – I hope this isn’t a show stopper, but no glass of wine after a long, hard day of being silent. Altered states of consciousness from external substances will not enhance your silent retreat.
As I was planning this for myself I had a lot of questions about what I should or shouldn’t be doing outside of the general guidelines above. Here’s how I answered them for myself.
Do I have to do all of these things?
How you structure your retreat is entirely up to you. You’ll get a different level of benefit out of doing different things, but because we’re all so unique it’s impossible for anyone else to say what would be best for you. Certainly it’s worth trying activities before rejecting them as something you wouldn’t like. That way you’ll have learned what works well for you (but by the way, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try them again later, because your likes will evolve). Personally though, I think that a silent retreat needs to include either meditation or yoga or both. These techniques are proven pathways to “going within” and thinking and feeling happier. If that’s all you want to include, and nothing else, then you’re likely to get to that inner place sooner and stay there longer than you would with lots of activities.
One of the reasons that retreats at retreat centers work well is that the participants are told what to do and usually follow instructions whether they really want to or not. This opens them to thoughts and feelings they would never have had if they were to choose their activities themselves, and can lead to profoundly enjoyable experiences. Many retreat participants have reported intensely uncomfortable feelings doing something until, after some repetition, they have a breakthrough that is life-changing. Keep this in mind when you’re choosing not to try something or giving up too quickly.
Can I communicate with anyone, just a little?
During silent retreats participants are often allowed to communicate in order to carry out some kind of work or perform some function. In other words, on an as-needed basis only. In some cases that’s done via written notes. I translated this for myself to mean that I could do the same with my husband if something came up that needed attention. And I cheated a little on that, knowing that it would diminish my experience a little. A text message to say goodnight seemed harmless enough. The thing to keep in mind with retreating is that anything good and positive is better than nothing. So if you stumble here and there don’t worry too much about it, you’re still getting some benefit from the experience.
Can I read, listen to, or watch anything?
Since many retreats offer seminars and videos on spiritual topics, I copied this at home, taking care that anything I chose would support the purpose of the retreat – positive, peaceful and blissful images, sounds, thoughts and feelings. I listened to meditative music, read passages from a spiritual book and watched a video on happiness. I found the video to be the most distracting, taking me out of my silence, and in future would choose only spiritual teaching style videos, if any at all.
Can I engage in any chores at all?
The thing about working at a retreat somewhere other than home is that when you do work you’re working for others. You’re cleaning the floor or preparing the meal or washing the dishes or working in the garden but it’s going to benefit someone else. If you do work at home you have an attachment to the outcome, you want to tick it off your list, and it feels like work, not like helping others. I know this because I did the laundry on the first day of my retreat. I thought that since some retreats include work it would be all right for me to do work if I were mindful about it. But it really does have a different feeling than doing work somewhere else for someone else. I wanted to get the task off my list and have clean sheets to slide into that night. It was a chore, not a gift, and as such it took away from the peacefulness of the day.
There are many meditation and retreat purists who would be more strict about what you should and shouldn’t do. I take the flexible, adjustable approach because this is entry level, so one objective is to want to do it again and another is to learn what works. The main objective though is to clear the cobwebs in your conscious present watchful mind, the ones that have been growing because you’ve spent so little time there. Open the drapes, let in the light and dance in the space you’ve created.
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