Silent Retreat: How To Handle The Quiet
Cover Photo By Sayan Nath
By Bruce Davis, Ph.D.
We want to unplug. We want a break from all the noise and confusion in life. We want to take off and have nothing to do, no one to listen to, no email or texts to respond to. We just want to be free. So we sign up for a silent retreat!
But as soon as we begin making concrete plans, the questions begin. How can I not talk for so long? What will I do all day? What if someone really wants to reach me? What do I tell my partner or family? What will people think? Our mind suddenly gets very busy. How am I going to handle the quiet of a silent retreat?
It doesn’t matter so much what the questions are, our retreat has already begun in the flood of questions that are coming to our minds. The transition from our noisy, busy life to the simple peace of silence has begun. The questions, the doubt, all the seemingly-practical considerations are in fact the first steps of the retreat, the first steps of coming into the quiet. Coming into the silence is detaching from our normal comfort zone in the world (even if it is not very comfortable!) to find a new comfort zone within ourselves. A silent retreat supports us to find the real silence within ourselves.
Everyone begins their retreat wondering how they are going to handle the quiet. Normally a few minutes of peace and quiet is great, and then we get busy again with everything we have to do. What do I do with hours and days of silence? Coming into silence with a busy mind is like leaving the fast, crowded highway, pulling into a small fishing village with one dock, one store, and the water slowly lapping at the sea shore. We jump out of the car excited to find such a place, and then what?
As soon as we arrive at our silent retreat, the peace and quiet that is present asks us to slow down. All the questions we had in our mind also begin to slow down. We quickly realize a silent retreat is like spending time in a library. We don’t want to talk. We love not having to tell people our story. Everyone is here for the same thing. We want to simply be with no one and nothing to respond to. We love the sounds of solitude and having time to investigate the longing of our soul.
Okay, where is my room? Do I have time to make a tea before evening meditation? Our retreat is unfolding, moment by moment. One step at a time, can I simply be present? Instead of talking, I want to listen, see, touch, and feel everything around me and most important myself. What is in my heart? How do I stop thinking? My mind is cluttered with so much stuff. All I want to do is stop thinking for a moment and feel!
Most people who make a silent retreat on their own have nowhere to put their busy mind. The silence just reminds them of how overflowing all their thoughts are. For many, it is important to find a retreat program that lessens the busy mind by giving support to listen to and be in the heart.
The silent retreat creates an environment where meditation invites us to come into our inner silence. We are receiving the presence of our heart. This is how we manage the quiet. In meditation, we offer everything that is keeping us busy inside, our mind full of thoughts. Then, we practice noticing and entering the calm center of our heart and receiving the beauty here. Silence, nature, meditation, free time, all help to nurture and affirm this creative process.
The first hours, and for some the first days, are a period of unwinding, a process of letting go of everything that normally keeps us busy and outwardly focused in the world. Moments of restlessness, anxiousness, vulnerability slowly give way to times of simple peace and inner stillness. After bouncing back and forth from head to heart, thoughts to simple being, the rhythm of the retreat is unfolding. We begin finding innocence and harmony. The experience of letting go of our worldly life and coming inside our self is wonderful, amazing! The mind has stopped or almost stopped. There is this abundant peace around and, more importantly, inside of us. The normal world is suddenly far away and not so dominating. We have ourselves, and with ourselves anything and everything is seemingly possible.
The second stage of our retreat begins. The mind gets busy again. How do I have this peace and be in my daily world? Before we know it, we are out of our inner silence and very busy with lots of new questions. This is an important time to come back to our retreat and go further within. We want to be with the gifts of our retreat. Our daily world will be still there when we are done. Now that we have found our inner stillness, we want to take advantage of the peace and quiet, the nature, the support to go deeper in our own temple, the sanctuary of the heart.
Finally, we are in the third stage of our retreat. Instead of wondering how we are going to handle all the quiet, we are wondering how we lived so long without this joy in the silence? We just want to be.There is so much inside our inner sanctuary. Here is an abundance of peace we never imagined, a reservoir of lightness, gentleness, trust, a vast nothingness that is also mysteriously everything. Seemingly everything that is good is present. There is so much to receive; we don’t want to leave the silence of our retreat.
Before we know it, we are returning to our daily life. We are in gratitude for the new home we have found within ourselves. Our meditation practice is our daily reminder. When the noise of the world gets overwhelming again, we know we can return to our silent retreat. A new horizon has opened inside of us. In the silence is our connection to our heart and even more our connection to eternity. Eternity puts everything else in life in another perspective. We live more beautifully and more simply in this world as we are aware of something much greater.