Top 10 Preparations for a Silent Retreat

So you’re going on a silent retreat, how do you even prepare?  I wish someone prepped me for what may arise on one of these retreats.  The unexpected will always arise, but you can do some things in advance.  Below are the Top 10 Preparations for a Silent Retreat.

  1. Logistics

Let people know ahead of time that you will be on a silent retreat for x number of days.  Make the arrangements well in advance.  Warn your co-workers, family members, and friends that you will be unavailable.  Have this on your out of office email account and post it on social media.  We live in a world where people expect instant responses. But you will not have to comply.  This is freeing and refreshing, although it may feel a bit scary if you have never done this before.  If necessary, give one emergency contact person the name and phone number of your retreat center if a true life or death emergency arises.  

2. Start with a Weekly Digital Detox

For silent retreats, not only will you be not speaking, you will not be going online at all.  This doesn’t seem like a big deal initially, but you would be surprised how often you look at your phone per day.  A study noted that Americans look at their phones 344 times per day .  Depending on how long your silent retreat is, this is many days without technology you will experience.  At my first silent retreat, I really struggled with it.  But after I returned from that same retreat, I have been doing a weekly digital detox.  I do not go on social media, emails, or search engines for a 24 hour period each week.   This gets your mind in the mental habit that it does not need technology to be entertained and distracted.

Meditation Preparation

  3. Attend a 1 Day Silent Retreat

At local Buddhist or Meditation centers you may find a 1 day silent retreat.  Sample this, see how this experience is for you.  It’s almost as if you are prepping for a marathon.  Baby steps.  Of course this makes the list of the top 10 preparations for a silent retreat.

Years ago at a 1 week Level 1 Yin Yoga training I had with Sarah Powers, we had to hold silence for 24 hours.  This proved to be difficult with newly made friends, particularly because it was someone’s birthday and we wanted to celebrate them.  We pantomimed our joy to her, without saying a word.  I am sure it was a birthday for her to remember.  I got a taste for what 24 hours in silence looked like, and I thought I could proceed further.

Booking a Silent Retreat

4. Explore the Type of Silent Retreat you are Attending

Read the fine print of the location, instructors, and style of meditation you are attending.  The first silent retreat I ever attended was very strict.  There was no reading or writing allowed.  The subsequent retreats I attended allowed reading and writing, which was very important to me as a writer.  I wasn’t working on a book or project, but I wanted to get down on paper all I was experiencing.  There are reasons for both, but note which type you are attending.  

5. Help is Available if Needed

Not 100% of silent retreats are silent.  There are meditation instructors that will lead various sessions or dharma talks/lectures during the week/weekend.  The participants are meant to be silent 95% of the time, but space is made available for processing.  This is done in group or 1:1, dependent on the type of retreat you are attending.  If you are really struggling, someone is available to assist on unpacking what is arising. 

Emotional State

6. Welcome All Emotions that Arise 

There will be an array of emotions that come up during a silent retreat.  Joy, comfort, restlessness, sadness, and anger to name a few.  Part of the experience of being in a silent retreat is how to be with those emotions, without numbing or distracting oneself.  There’s nowhere to hide.  Can you really allow yourself to sit with it, feel it, and allow yourself to ride the waves of emotions that will present itself?  

            At my first silent retreat, I felt the need to run and do a cartwheel.  I‘ve never enjoyed running, but my body needed it. I ran during one of our breaks.  In my group processing session, I told the Buddhist nun about the urge to do a cartwheel .  She gave me the “permission” to do a cartwheel, and so I did.  Basically I was a child waiting for recess. Just because it is silent, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun.

The Inner Critic

7. Be Prepared for your Inner Dialogue

In a silent retreat, you will have many conversations.  But the only participant is yourself.  You may replay your “favorite hits” that regurgitate in your brain which may include planning one’s life out, regrets, or negative self-talk.  Nobody is going to stop you.  

In addition, internally you will create new stories of friendships, romances, and irritations for things that never occurred with the people around you.  But at silent retreats, eye contact is optional. This is part of letting go of societal niceties and expectations we have to live up to in the real world.  Therefore, some people may never look at you in the eye, while others may always give you a smile.  Our minds are so creative, they will make up stories of other participants.  It’s only until after the retreat is over, and you can actually talk to others you find out how far off you were with who they really are.  All of this is a normal part of the journey.   

Just Believe

8. Know You Can Do This

The next on the top 10 preparations for a silent retreat is believe in yourself. For some people doing a several day to week long silent retreat seems unimaginable.  One can compare it to doing a marathon.  Training is involved. We believe super human strength is required to partake in such a thing.  When you describe this plan to those in your social circle, people may automatically think you are crazy and question why you are doing it.  It may create doubt and you begin questioning why you are doing it.  But know others have done this in the past, and you can too.  All is possible.  Perhaps, you will even attend an additional silent retreat in the future. 

9. Your Only Expectation at the retreat is to Be Present.

On a silent retreat there is minimal that is expected of you. Be present to the moment. An intinerary of potential activities offered during the time you are there will be provided. This can include walking meditation, seated meditations, space to do self led yoga, or even other movement workshops like chi gong.  But generally all is optional.  No activities are mandated.  You are on retreat. There is no exam you must “pass” to get to the next level.  Social expectations are even lifted.  You do not have to express the social greetings to others in the room or even look people in the eyes.  Be present and get curious of all that is arising. 

What to Bring on a Silent Retreat

10. Bring an Intention for the retreat but Be willing to let it go.

As you confirm with the retreat center your attendance, create an intention for this retreat.  What do you want to get out of it?  Why are you doing it now at this time of your life?  Is it a reset?  A way to clear your head?  Something you wanted to try?  A form of detox?  Is it a form of healing?  How do you want to feel after?  

Once you have set your intention, surrender that intention.  The retreat will be what it will be.  We must let go of our control, as it is unknown what will emerge for you on this retreat.  Your experience may not live up to it’s expectations, or surpass it.  Let it be what it’s meant to be.

What to Expect on a Silent Retreat

We explored my 10 preparations for a silent retreat, and hopefully offered a glimpse of what to expect. All I would have found helpful when going to my first retreat.  Even with this list, there will still be surprises that will spring forth at your retreat.  Hopefully this experience will not be just a one and done event, it will be a process you will return to when your soul needs rejuvenation and renewal. 

“We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.”-Mother Teresa

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