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What Really Happens on a Silent Retreat

A lot of people say they struggle with silence—I was definitely one of them. Not speaking for an hour would have been much for me, but to go without speaking for three days, was just unthinkable. How would I ask for my morning cup of tea? What if I need to share something? What if someone needed me? All these worries seemed unmanageable. Until they were not. 

For the last four years, silent meditation retreats have been my solace—the annual gift I give myself to allow the beauty of silence to heal heartbreaks, job losses, and the more recent loss of close family members. What many words cannot do in healing pain of such depth, meaningful silence can

If done under the right guidance of an expert meditation teacher, a silent retreat can be the most effortless, enriching, calming, soul-satisfying experience. It leaves you with a clear mind, emotional stability, a genuine smile from within, and a fresh new perspective that is free of clutter and negativity. 

Falling in Love with Silence

Typically, I would have described myself as a restless fidgety person. But now I know better. Agreeing with such labels such as ‘I cannot meditate’ or ‘I am not spiritual’ can all be  obstructions to a deeper experience of silence that I deserve. We will come to that later. 

About four years ago, I had worked myself into exhaustion, and effectively ruined my relationships thanks to the stress and anger that was fomenting inside me. I had heard by word of mouth that a silent retreat was an incredible experience for many, so I took a leap and booked one at the Art of Living.

As I said before, I was petrified of not being able to speak for three days. But I was also encouraged by another requirement in the program—I did not have any obligation to smile, say hello, or acknowledge anyone for the duration of the retreat. I was also in it for the scrumptious, vegetarian meals I’d heard so much about!

And what I loved the most about this program was that it had very few rules, and the ones it did have more facilitative guidelines, meant to enrich my experience rather than limit it.  

Making Friends with Silence

Silence is not alien to us. At the peak of every emotion is silence. When you are seething in anger, absolutely devastated by an event,  or stunned by a thing of beauty—you are in silence, even if for only a few seconds. Silence is the best way of coming closer to our real self, not the identities we have been saddled with (or saddled ourselves with!). We only need to familiarize ourselves with the depth of a silence that is joyous and pregnant with consciousness. For this, we need to do one thing—bring this monkey mind to the present moment and put our worries, desires, and ambitions aside for a few days. Easier said than done, right?

But that is where the many thoughtfully designed techniques, guided meditations, and morning yoga sessions help. You learn to gradually settle the mind into the moment by inviting it into the bliss of silence and not through forceful affirmations that seldom work. Once there, you can dive deep into this magnificent space of silence within and without. 

“Prayer is asking God for something and meditation is listening to God.”
—Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Art of Living Founder 

To make sure your environment supports you in this journey of silence, The Art of Living Retreat Center is set on the lap of the Blue Ridge Mountains, away from the bustle of city towns, and instead filling you up with spectacular views of nature in its pristine beauty and food so delicious that it deserves a separate blog to itself. 

(Scuba) Diving Into Silence

As the course progressed, the processes were so engaging and being taught with so much care that before I knew it, I was in love with the silence (With sporadic bursts of thoughts and worries, of course!). The silence was no more just about lack of words, but it started to become me or I became it—a state of existence I had never explored before. The only experience that has ever come close to this was scuba diving, where I was met with absolute silence and just life floating around me. Yet, the silent retreat grew deeper with each round of meditation. 

Coming Into My Own

As I traversed this journey through silence, things that I did not need for my material or spiritual growth started to fall away—the unnecessary grudges I held, the painful memories of the past, the agonizing wait for people to realize their mistakes, the many worries of what people thought of my weight, speech, race, etc.

Once I returned home and got back to the rigor of daily routine, my co-workers noticed the difference in the way I looked (even in my skin!), and how calm I was, how I wasn’t flipping out as often as I used. These may have been small observations, but they gave me enough confidence to trust the incredible power of a 3-day silence retreat. 

Art of Living Founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says something absolutely beautiful in this context,  “Deep inside you is a fountain of bliss, a fountain of joy. Deep inside your center core is truth, light, love, there is no guilt there, there is no fear there. Negativity is only on the periphery. With a little spark of love and silence, it falls away and the core shines through.”

On a silent retreat, these words become your lived experience. 

For the first time in my life, I felt a lightness in my being, in my steps, in my heart, as though some weight I had been carrying around for ages had been lifted off. I was able to actually hear sounds in nature—the birds chirping, the rustle of the leaves. I felt like I would be taken care of and that I was going to be okay. I began to feel connected again to everyone and everything around me. 

Another unexpected benefit out of the retreat was my meditation and yoga practices became deeper after returning from the retreat. The deeper the meditations, the more joy, clarity, and life energy I would have all day. I started looking forward to my daily meditation practices now. 

Bonus: Friends for Life

As all the participants meditated in groups, we became many bodies one mind—and the gorgeous meditation hall filled with silence. We became friends and though I am not a people-person, somehow the uplifting friendships I made on these retreats have stayed with me. The depth of these connections runs much deeper, perhaps owing to shared silences.   

The Science Speaks

Apart from the witness of experience itself, now there is also ample body of mind-body research to back benefits of silence retreats such as increased creativity, better focus, mental clarity, improved memory, and brain function, calm mind, and health benefits like lower blood pressure, improvement in biochemical markers of stress like lower cortisol and blood lactate levels and increase in serotonin and dopamine release and improved immunity.

The Blessing Process

But I haven’t yet shared the one thing that most touched me. At the end of the retreat, we underwent a powerful process where we blessed everyone—our friends, family, and every person on this planet. It is said that the blessings and positive vibrations that result from such group meditations, reach several layers of existence bodily and beyond, touching souls no longer with us in this plain. And you are free to dismiss it, but it was then that I felt those family members I had lost to the COVID pandemic were blessing us down here with all the warmth and affection they could muster.

If nothing else, this world needs more love, more kindness, and blessings. And speaking for myself, I am a kinder and calmer person thanks to silent meditation retreat.    

The Silent Retreat

Whether you are just beginning your meditation journey, or hoping to go deeper into the practice, these few days make the rest of your year more alive, productive, and full of energy.