Silent Retreats: How to Choose?

Silence is time away from time, where we discover the treasure of one's own company. This is the heart and essence of a silent retreat.
03/08/2013 12:25 pm ET Updated May 08, 2013

There has been much publicity lately about silent retreats and the popularity in unplugging from all the devices that keep us tethered to the world. Last week was National Day of Unplugging. In February, ABC news published a piece called, "Silent Retreats Becoming Huge Travel Trend." Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported, "Overloaded travelers are turning down the volume with silent retreats." Many people, however, are hesitant to simply unplug, asking what do they do with themselves without cell phones, iPads, and Twitter attached to every thought and whim. Suddenly turning everything off can seem more like hitting a wall of silence than a rewarding silent retreat!

Potential retreat participants read about the beauty of silence but wonder, "How exactly does one get from a daily life of going nonstop and texting, to gently breathing in one's heart and simple peace?" The more difficult it is to imagine going on a silent retreat, may be a sign of how important and life-enhancing the experience will be! It's funny how we can worry about spending time relaxing in silence as if it will be a harrowing adventure, fighting off the tigers and wild creatures of our busy minds. Our resistance to taking retreat away from our personal story may be a message how great a gift may be waiting for us.

A silent retreat is much more than turning off machines and keeping quiet. A silent retreat is stepping back from the details and entanglements of worldly life. It is about finding space away from our attachments, struggles, and desires. Do we remember who we are when we are not tied to obligations and commitments? Do we know ourselves when we are separate from our titles at home and work? Do we recognize ourselves when we are not busy pushing against difficulties and seeking comforts?

If a silent retreat was only disconnecting, the withdrawal could be quite difficult. But more important than unplugging is going into the peace and quiet. Retreat is having private time to nurture our self with walks in nature or simply taking a long nap. Absorbing the presence of our retreat is heaven for our nerves. The retreat reminds us of the presence of life. When we are present, living in the moment, the moment lives brightly in us. A silent retreat is similar to taking a vacation but is much more. It is a healing experience. The moments of feeling naked without all our devices, family, and friends around us are transformed as we spend time nurturing and feeling everything in our retreat, the nature, and most of all the presence of the heart in silence.

Here is where the retreat program is important. Life has enough challenges. Surviving a silent retreat is not really a milestone everyone needs to accomplish. There is no reason to go on a retreat to find new stress. When we search "silent retreats," there are questions that can help us make a good choice. Does the retreat program just switch the busy program of my normal life for a retreat program that keeps me occupied? Is there time to simply be? Does the retreat program leave me left alone with all my mental activity? Is there a meditation given that supports me to find something other than my busy mind? Is this a retreat where I can find the gentleness and vastness in my heart? Are the expectations of what I should be doing and thinking (or non-thinking, as the case maybe) what I am looking for? Is there time with the retreat leader for guidance and support? Are the accommodations and meals nourishing or compromising for how I enjoy my free time? Can I schedule enough time for the retreat? I don't want to have to hurry to be in retreat, try to find some peace, and then rush back into my life.

There are large growth centers that offer workshops in silence and smaller silent retreat centers where the everyday commitment to silence offers a sacredness which is the fruit of their devotion. There are religious communities in silence and simple country inns offering the pure experience of nature. Regardless of what we choose, silence is an invitation to discover a lightness of being found in solitude. It is time just to be, alone, without the noise of the world in our ears. Silence is time away from time, where we discover the treasure of one's own company. This is the heart and essence of a silent retreat. Given the opportunity to slow down the adrenaline of our personality is to find understanding and trust. There is an inner space of generosity. Out of silence comes giving words that brighten our world.

Four back road retreat centers I recommend: Christ in the Desert near Albuquerque, New Mexico, Vajra Vidya Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado and our own Silent Stay Retreat Home & Hermitage near Napa, California and Assisi, Italy.

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