The benefits of attending a silent retreat
It’s what the celebrities are doing, and it’s catching.
The 34-year-old Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen recently took a three-day vow of silence to get in touch with her inner self. She announced it on Instagram with a picture of herself and her fellow model Kiara Kabukuru. Their hands are pressed together in prayer above the caption: “Here we go … 3 days in silence. #goinginward.”
In the United States, more people are turning to silent retreats for rejuvenation and even healing.
Juliana Berger, a New York-based web developer, attended a five-day silent retreat with her husband.
Berger has attended a number of silent retreats over the past decade. Her husband, Jonathan Mann, a 32-year-old songwriter, had never been.
Like so many people these days, the couple wanted a break from the stress of daily life.
“I thought the stillness would help me connect with my baby,” says Berger, who was nearly eight-months pregnant at the time.
Silent meditation transcends most religious traditions and can be traced back thousands of years.
Today’s retreats last from a day to several weeks and take place at monasteries, colleges, spas, hotels and even hospitals.
“It’s not really a vacation,” cautions Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and a professor of psychology at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. “It’s a very unusual experience, which can certainly be beneficial, but it’s difficult in some respects because it’s a time when you are alone with your thoughts. And you can hear your thoughts very clearly.”
Berger and Mann both experienced what they describe as a transformation during their stay earlier this year at the Buddhist-influenced Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.
The retreat isn’t completely silent. There are teachers, lectures, small group sessions and some necessary words exchanged while cooking the vegetarian meals – but none to each other.
Mann says he’s never been good at being still and found a 45-minute meditation on the second day physically painful and emotionally frustrating. Afterwards, he went to his room and wept in what he describes as “the most violent emotional reaction” he’s ever had.
“The meltdown helped a lot,” he says, explaining he decided to stop trying so hard. He started moving about during the meditation periods and allowed his mind to wander.
As a result, he relaxed and “some moments of clarity came”, he says. He realised how much anxiety he carries.
Other retreat philosophies give participants more time to themselves. The four-day retreats offered to students and faculty by Fordham University in New York City have some scheduled prayer and a brief daily meeting with a spiritual director, but the rest of the time is for personal reflection.
Gibney has facilitated the Jesuit school’s retreats for the past 12 years and, after working with hundreds of participants, has some advice.
“Be open,” Gibney says. “Expect to be surprised.”