Silent meditation retreat: What it is, how much it costs, and why do it

Did you know you can take a meditation retreat for free? And that being silent is not the difficult part of a silent retreat?

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Drawing of a open window, trees and sun

“When you’re a kid, you lay in the grass and watch the clouds going over, and you literally don’t have a thought in your mind. It’s purely meditation. And we lose that.”

–Dick Van Dyke

What does one do on a silent meditation retreat?

All three silent meditation retreats I attended were 10-day, residential courses taught using recordings by S.N. Goenka so those are the ones I’ll describe here. Two were in California and one in Thailand but they are held all over the world. I was thrilled when the opportunity arose, as I usually am about nearly anything. And, as is also usually the case, as the day approached, panic set in.

Sure, there’s the chance of lickety-split enlightenment, but what if I’m hungry? They don’t serve dinner. What if my family is right and I won’t be able to stop jabbering? What if I fart into the dead silence of the meditation hall or become so enlightened that I’ll renounce all worldly possessions and the people I love? Or if I’ll get brainwashed into joining a cult?

We (Markus the hubby, Kyle the friend, and I) arrived at the center at noon, filled out some paperwork, handed over our phones, books, writing materials, and valuables for safe-keeping, got a booklet of rules, and unpacked in our clean and simple rooms. Everyone was kind and helpful, the whole place oozed tranquility.

There was a strict separation of genders. Male and female living quarters are apart and a wall or drapes divide the cafeteria into male and female areas.

After a buffet-style lunch, we lined up by the meditation hall, and, as we walked in one by one, the manager (a volunteer whose job it was to look after our well-being and smooth running of the course) gave each of us a number indicating a specific cushion on the floor. These 2 square feet of foam witnessed tears, laughter, surprising insights, rage, lust, paranoia, and pure bliss. We loved them and hated them with equal intensity. Walking into the meditation hall for the first time also indicated the start of the silence.

From the next morning on, we got up at 4 am, meditated, ate breakfast, rested, meditated again, ate lunch, walked, meditated, meditated some more, listened to lectures by Goenka, meditated, and went to sleep at 10.

The daily schedule tells you which meditations require your presence in the meditation hall and which you can do in your room. The very first one, from 4:30 to 6:30 am can be done in your room so I bet many people (myself included at first) used that time to sleep. But then, one morning I felt like going to the hall right after the morning bell and loved it. Less than half the people attended and the meditation ended with a lovely recorded chant.

The technique taught in Goenka’s retreats is called Vipassana. For the first three days, we concentrated on the sensation the breath conjures up in and around the nose. It sounds much more tedious than it is. Free from electronics, any kind of stimulus, or entertainment, in a safe place where you’re taken care of, the mind wakes up and surprises you with curious thoughts, abandoned memories, and mind-boggling ideas.

After the three days, they taught us to concentrate on the body and get to know the workings of the mind. You’ll see first-hand how your thoughts form, how they affect your body, and how that, in turn, affects your behavior. Equanimity was the word du jour, having a tranquil, aware presence of mind. It won’t solve all your life’s problems but it might help you keep your cool when they arise.

The Silence

The silent meditation retreats I went to were by no means absolutely silent. Goenka’s recordings gave meditation instructions a few times a day. In the evening we sat in the hall watching video-recorded lectures. There are two live teachers present, apparently meditating on your success.

After the last sitting of the day, they answer questions the meditators may have. Twice throughout the retreat, they summon you by name and ask about your meditation experience. They also answer questions in private sessions you can sign up for daily. Other than that, everyone stays quiet and the camp is truly still. You’re not supposed to have any social interactions with the other meditators. No eye contact, no acknowledging each other’s presence. This is hard at first, you’ll feel rude, but after a while it becomes refreshing. No fake smiles, no small talk, no judgments or opinions.

That being said, Day 10 is positively uproarious. The silence is broken after the morning meditation. Nine days of stored conversations, questions, laughter, eye-opening experiences, pride of accomplishment and quiet friendships come gushing out. You feel a part of a tribe, people get you, they have the same experiences as you’ve just had and are happy to share.

It takes a certain kind of person to go through this voluntarily. It’s difficult. It’s painful. It’s eye-opening. You also realize that the opinions you have made about your silent co-meditators are mostly wrong. The reality, once again, shows you that your mind lives in a fantasy world.

Not talking is not at all difficult. You’ll realize how much energy talking uses, how many thoughts and emotions it stirs, and how tranquil your head is when you shut up for a bit. The hard part is dealing with the aching body, and the restless mind and integrating your insights into real life afterward.

If you want to read my article on how to prepare for a meditation retreat to get the most out of it, click here: 17 Steps to make meditation retreat easier

The Cost

The retreats I attended were all donation-based. I arrived, meditated, ate delicious and plentiful vegetarian food, slept in a lovely room, and got lovingly taken care of. The organizers only hoped that I get enough value out of my time there that at the end of the course, I’ll contribute either money or time. Everything you eat is cooked by volunteers, they also wash your bedding and clean your room between the courses. They also do gardening, maintenance, and whatever else is needed to make the meditation center ready and inviting for the new group of adventurous souls. There’s often a waiting list to join even as a volunteer.

There’s no pressure, no check-out line, no shaming. They gently encourage you to contribute whatever you can so other people can have the chance to attend. And trust me, you will want the whole world to experience what you just did. People that are able to, donate generously, but nobody is turned away for the lack of funds.

Should you do it?

“It’s very common to feel that you haven’t quite connected with the practice of meditation until you’ve sat your first retreat. That was certainly the case for me. I’ve practiced for a year, sitting more or less every day, and it wasn’t until I sat my first 10-day retreat that I understood how incessant my distraction was. I really have been doing little more than thinking with my eyes closed over the course of that previous year. I still remember the clarity of that first epiphany on retreat.”

Sam Harris

It’s your decision to make, but I’d say check out the meditation center’s website, read the rules, requirements, and reviews, and write to them if you have any questions. If it seems like a good fit, go for it. You can see the Vipassana by Goenka website by clicking here. They have centers all over the world. If you decide to go, keep in mind that you’ll want to quit many times during the course. Everyone I know wanted to quit. I wanted to quit. We’re all glad we didn’t. It’s not easy, it’s not a vacation, but nevertheless, you’ll feel refreshed in body and in mind. You will look and feel younger (they jokingly call it a “vipassana facelift”). The real challenge starts after the retreat – keeping the knowledge alive, the insights fresh, and using them in your life.

So there you have it. You will be able to stay quiet even if you’re usually chatty. You will burp and fart in the meditation hall, everyone does. You’re not likely to reach an everlasting Nirvana but you’ll have a newfound awareness of how your body and mind work and gain a bit of control over your reactions. You’re not going to be converted to a different religion and you won’t give up your car and home and join a cult. There will suddenly be more energy and space in your head and life.

Do you have any thoughts or questions? Leave them below.

If you want to read my article on how to prepare for a meditation retreat, click here: 17 Steps to make meditation retreat easier

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