Silent Retreats: The Importance of Journeying Within
About a year ago, Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, observed 10 days of silence over the Christmas season. Known as Vipassana, it’s an ancient meditation technique that prohibits all forms of communication, not just the verbal sort. The strict Buddhist tradition also forbids physical contact, exercise, eye contact, reading, writing, music, Internet use, copulation, drugs and (surprisingly) religious worship. This year, Dorsey is doing it again, venturing to Pyin Oo Lwin, a charming hill town in Myanmar, to learn the art of stillness.
The allure of such mindful practices is that the participant will walk away happier and healthier, with more self-awareness and self-control. In fact, research has suggested that silence can help regenerate brain cells and boost your blood circulation more effectively than listening to soft, tranquil music.
However, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Full-on silent retreats aren’t all about creating an oasis of calm. They are more likely to create massive waves of internal chaos, the sort that pushes you to your limits. In Vipassana, one of the practices is to sit for a whole hour without moving. It sounds simple enough, but if you’re battling pins and needles on your feet, feeling an itch on your neck, or watching an ant crawl over your hand, you’ll be hard-pressed to keep still.
Worse, these sensations amplify themselves when you’re not physically allowed to distract yourself. When all you have is your mind, it’s easy to lose it. A million thoughts zip through your head, while you fixate on the smallest annoyances. It almost feels like your brain is on auto-pilot. Yet, the only way through this process is to refocus. Discipline is the name of the game here. Don’t think about that spot on your body that’s causing you pain. Concentrate on a different body part, and know that pain is not permanent. Whoever breaks through these mental barriers emerge a temporary victor until the next day’s challenges.
Most travel to escape, but in these silent retreats, you travel to confront. You fly out of your comfort zone to a foreign part of the world, whether it’s the rural countryside of Bali or the quiet valleys of Auckland, only to make the larger journey within yourself. Every fear you harbour and try to hide comes to the surface, and the phrase, the idle mind is the devil’s workshop, turns into reality. You also come to realise that meditation is not the same as having an idle mind. It looks similar from the outside, but silent meditation is, in fact, a passive fight against an idle mind. In meditation, you learn to gain control.
It’s in our nature to react instinctively, to distort reality with our minds out of self-preservation. It was a necessity in the past when we were cave people trying not to die. These days, however, it’s become a weakness that’s damaging our quality of life. When we witness a stranger cutting the line at a restaurant, we feel the anger arise from the pit of our stomach, threatening to manifest itself in a screaming match. The prospect of walking into a job interview with a panel of intimidating executives tosses us into a spiral of stress and anxiety, because of our propensity to overthink.
The goal of a silent retreat is to learn to detach yourself from pain, and to stop reacting. During a meditation session, not being able to communicate or move forces your brain to go into overdrive, which in turn forces you to take the mental wheel, training your mind to do what you want it to do. Here, gruelling is an understatement. Silent retreats are no walk in the park—not what you’d expect from a programme that in itself sounds like a relaxing vacation from the havoc of your personal and professional life. Unlike an actual holiday, you’re not meant to sit back and let the environment work its magic. No, this is genuine hard work.
If you’re looking for less intense options, The Ranch Malibu offers programmes that only require guests to be silent during certain parts of the day. The more indulgent L’Auberge de Sedona combines silent meditation with a spa treatment, while other resorts organise silent meals and hikes. There’s much to gain from these experiences, for instance, engaging in internal reflection and thus reaching epiphanies about yourself and the world around you.
With Vipassana silent retreats, the greatest objective is attaining mastery over mind, a skill that allows you to maintain a steady level of cool-headedness in physically and psychologically agonising situations. While an experience like this can give you a fresh start (like it did for Dorsey), more importantly, it equips you with the strength and clarity you need to deal with the ups and downs of life that you can ultimately never escape from.