When asked not to speak, most of us experience this as an admonishment. So why are more of us increasingly drawn to retreats where silence is practiced? What exactly is silence, and why is it good for us?
Silence can be challenging for some people at the beginning of their first retreat. Because it is a new and unfamiliar experience, retreat silence can be confusing. This is especially true when a person’s primary associations with silence are uncomfortable—for example, when his or her only experience of social silence is interpersonal discomfort, loneliness, or exclusion. The silence of a retreat is different - it helps to shift this kind of thinking towards seeing the opportunity for silence and the release from the obligation to speak or to be anything for anyone else just for a short time.
For most people, the silence of a retreat creates a space in which you can see yourself more clearly. Rather than being actively distracted by work, relationships, the internet, music, or various external events you are freed from the expectations to present for others in any certain way. So the silence of retreat is a rare and precious opportunity to notice overlooked feelings and other signals from the mind and body. A sustained period of silence gives you a chance to observe the subtle, important motivations and values behind how you live.
Until Covid hit in 2020, most retreats happened in a remote location - away from the day to day distractions of home, work and family. Today, you are invited to explore silence in your native environment - at home. This is a distinct challenge, especially if you live with other people. It is helpful to let the people you live with know that you'll be practicing silence for the day. Share with them the reasons this is important to you and gently invite them to support you by not inviting conversation even when you may be in the common space during lunch or a period of walking meditation. This is an opportunity to observe the subtle, but constant ways we have expectations of ourselves and others, and to let them be just for a short time.