What Actually Happens on a Silent Retreat?

Aug 27, 2019
What Actually Happens on a Silent Retreat?
What’s the longest you’ve gone without speaking? A few hours maybe, a whole day at a stretch? But 10 days? It’s unlikely. For most people, the idea of enforced silence probably sounds like torture even just for a few hours, let alone for an entire holiday. Yet, proponents of this kind of break insist that engaging in silent meditation for extended periods of time is transformative, encouraging healing, stress relief and self-growth.

If you’re already a convert to the idea of spending your holidays working on your wellness, then a silent retreat could – theoretically – be a logical next step. And with apps such as Calm and Headspace introducing a new audience to the wonders of sitting still and breathing deep, the demand for them is set to grow even bigger. So how does a silent retreat work? And what are the options?

Like most things wellness, there are various options available. For the most part, silent retreats follow the same structure as other meditation-based retreats, incorporating periods of meditation (obviously), lectures based on the Dharma – the life philosophy that underpins Buddhism and Hinduism – and yoga sessions. The only difference is that it’s all done without saying a word; in many instances, even the actual meditations won’t be led with verbal cues, giving you the chance to focus more intently on your own practice.

While some retreats do allow chat between participants in specific ‘chat zones’ or between certain hours, meals are eaten in silence and even eye contact is often discouraged. If you’re the kind of soul that’s happy to just hide away with a good book, it’s worth noting that even reading and writing materials are banned at some centres. Don’t be expecting to be able to have a sneaky chat with someone from the outside world either, as a crucial part of a silent retreat is the fact that it’s a digital-free zone.

For the ever-connected city-slicker, this will likely require a significant lifestyle change, even if it’s only temporary – so what are the benefits of a silent retreat? At this stage, the evidence for their effectiveness on mental health is mostly anecdotal, with conversation often based around participants having the opportunity to switch off from the demands of the modern world. It’s worth noting that most silent retreat providers do stipulate that participants should be in a good state of mental health before they begin, particularly if undertaking longer stays, as the intensity of the experience can induce feelings of anxiety.

On a physiological basis, however, the argument is more compelling, with studies repeatedly confirming the positive impact of silence on the body, linking it to both regeneration of brain cells, as well as the prevention of cognitive decline. Studies on mice, for example, have indicated that just two hours of silence per day can lead to the development of new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning, memory and emotion (1).

All in all, it's fair to say that this probably isn't the kind of thing that everyone considers a holiday - but there's a first time for everything, right? 
  1. Kirste, Imke & Nicola, Zeina & Kronenberg, Golo & Walker, Tara & Liu, Robert & Kempermann, Gerd. (2013). Is silence golden? Effects of auditory stimuli and their absence on adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Brain structure & function.

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