Our world is so noisy. Just stop and listen, what can you hear right now? Traffic, people chatting, music, your computer’s fan running. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just turn it all off? How would it feel to dial down the volume on your day and just sit in blessed silence for a moment or two? Sounds good, right?
What if you extended that silence to a few minutes, and then a few hours, or even a few days. What if you also banned yourself from speech, what could you achieve in those moments of silence? Would you find the peace and quiet restorative or would you find it frustrating to be silenced?
The Power of Silence
Ronda Ansted a Maryland based career consultant and creator of My Career Design Studio has participated in two separate 10-day silent retreats, as well as a handful of other shorter practices in the Vipassana tradition. She described her first experience as extremely difficult.
“The retreat included no writing/journaling, touching, or looking people in the eyes.”
What is Vipassana?
This tradition may sound extreme but it is actually one of the most ancient meditative practices in the world.
Vipassana is taught over the course of 10 days and participants are required to stay for the entire duration and follow a code of conduct which requires abstention from killing any being, stealing, all sexual activity, telling lies, and all intoxicants. Returning students are also encouraged not to eat after midday and to sleep on the floor.
During the entire 10 days, attendees must participate in “noble silence” which means silence of the body, speech, and mind. The sexes are separated and no-one is allowed to touch any other person during the duration of the retreat. Vipassana is offered for free on a donation basis.
Ansted found silent retreats to be very beneficial but only after she had adjusted to the strict program.
“The first 3 days were horrible, and my mind kept up a constant chatter. Then slowing, it started to quiet down and I felt like I broke a barrier. Before I could barely meditate for 20 minutes at a time and then 2 hours became no problem at all,” she says.
Ansted says she initially found it hard to give up control and felt that many of the rules were unnecessary or punitive but over time she submitted and began to find peace within her practice.
“It forced me to learn to focus, to be patient, and to realize that much of my unhappiness was due to wanting life to be different than what it was. As I accepted reality without wanting to change it, so much of my internal struggle just melted away,” she says.
By day five she began to forget about her aching legs from sitting and meditating for hours a day and started to notice her surroundings outside of herself.
“I suddenly noticed how bright and colorful the world was! I still remember seeing a red flower and just realizing that I had overlooked its beauty for over 5 days and what a shame that was. I felt light and calm and at peace, not in a mind-altered way but simply happy to be there.”
Ansted describes Vipassana as a “boot camp for meditation” and says it’s probably not right for everyone, especially if the idea of ten days of silence makes you feel uncomfortable.
Ellie Shoja, a spiritual and meditation instructor from California, has sat and served at Vipassana retreats several times. She explains the practicalities of a silent retreat and how people quickly adjust to life without speech.
“You do not communicate. The purpose of this noble silence is to allow students to go inward. As the days go by, a natural flow begins to take shape. Doors get opened and shut, common areas get cleaned, food gets served and consumed, without anyone needing to speak with anyone else. It is quite a spectacular thing that happens. After a few days, it feels as though you are there by yourself, even though 200 more people are sharing the experience with you,” she says.
She states that the strict routine and schedule helps participants to fall into a rhythm which aids and supports their meditation goals.
Shoja explains how developing new habits can help us to achieve clarity of mind and purpose. “Long periods of meditation forces us to break old thought patterns and build new neural pathways. We build the discipline of waking up early, eating healthy, sitting in meditation without fidgeting, and quieting the mind. This makes it much easier to form new thought patterns in our daily lives,” she says.
Routines and repetitive habits are essential if we want to achieve more in our daily lives, in fact, research from the Canadian Veterinary Journal, discussed achieving balance in a very challenging career, stated that “Habits, in fact, are key to wellness.”
If a 10 day silent retreat feels too challenging for you, you can adopt some of the same routines and habits towards mindfulness and wellness in more manageable ways.
Try practicing small silent periods during the day and then increase the amount of time you sit in quiet contemplation each day. Or aim to implement other achievable daily habits, like going to bed and waking at the same time each day or committing to journaling before bed.
Start small and build upon your success each day and sometimes just take a moment to enjoy the silence.