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The Silence of Silent Retreats

by Gil Fronsdal

Silence is a prominent feature of most insight meditation retreats.  While on retreat, participants are silent for extended periods of time, often far longer than they have ever been in any other situation.  Once the retreat begins, retreatants agree to limit their talking solely to necessary speech, such as speaking to a teacher during an interview, or asking a question during work meditation. In addition, they have only a few occasions to hear anyone else speak. The result is a pervasive silence that serves as a foundation for the meditation practice and creates a palpable and nourishing atmosphere of stillness.

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.

Most people, however, come to cherish the silence of retreat.  Even those who were intimidated by it in the beginning often find such peace in the silence that they are reluctant to give it up at the end.  As people become aware of its richness, they come to look forward to silence rather than fear it.

Retreat silence has many benefits. Because social conversation keeps the mind active, periods of not talking help the mind rest.  Silence settles the many emotions that are activated by talking, listening, and even in the anticipation of talking.  As our mental and emotional lives calm down, our bodies relax.

Silence allows for a heightened sense of intimacy with the world.  In sustained silence our senses become more acute, and both the inner and outer world can appear to us with greater clarity.  For example, we may begin to notice the birdsong we previously failed to hear, or we may tune in to our quieter thoughts, which normally get drowned out.

The primary reason for silence on meditation retreats is to support our meditation practice.  Silence helps keep our focus on cultivating mindfulness and concentration. Continuity of mindfulness is much easier when we don’t talk.  The complex interplay of emotions and attitudes involved in most social interactions tend to keep the mind too active and scattered to allow for deep concentration.  And this internal activity often lingers. The mental momentum from a conversation is seldom finished when we stop talking.  It can take a while for the thinking mind to quiet down after a conversation ends.

For most people, the silence of a retreat creates a space in which they can see themselves more clearly.  Rather than being actively distracted by work, relationships, the internet, music, or various external events, they have an opportunity to notice overlooked feelings and concerns.  The sustained periods of silence give people a chance to observe the subtle, important motivations and values behind how they live.

Retreats are also a great place to discover what Buddhism calls “noble silence.”  This is a beautiful state of mind that comes when discursive thinking has stopped.  Discursive thinking refers to thought that proceeds like an inner discourse in our own minds.  It may be imagining conversations with others, remembering past conversations, or talking to ourselves.  It may involve abstract, analytical thinking about what is happening in the present moment.  As discursive thinking quiets down, the mind becomes more peaceful.  As agitation decreases, desire and aversion lessen. When this inner stilling is accompanied by confidence, purity, and equanimity then the mind is said to experience the fullness of “noble silence.”

Because insight meditation retreats are group retreats, practitioners spend a lot of time in silence alongside others.  As they relax into the collective stillness, participants often discover that being together with others in silence allows for a rich sense of connection that is more satisfying than if they had spent the same time engaged in conversation.  Rather than knowing others through the stories of who they are, what they do, and what they have done, the silence highlights our shared humanity and a direct feeling of empathy and rapport.   A wonderful lesson to take away from a retreat is how the quiet ways of being with others can allow for a deep sense of connection.

As people discover the great value of retreat silence, they can explore the uses of silence in daily life. Learning to be comfortable with silence expands what is possible in our relationships—both with others and ourselves.  Spending time in silence can enrich both.  In particular, it can be a great support in helping us discover greater spiritual freedom wherever we are. And with freedom we can experience stillness and peace even in the midst of speech.