What Happens on a Silent Retreat?


Two weekends ago I went on my first ever silent retreat and I loved it. You can read about the impact of the retreat and my first thoughts about it here Spaciousness and Striving. The weekend was organised by The Mindfulness Network and you had to have completed an 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course in order to take part.

So what did I actually do on the retreat?

It started on the Friday evening, from 6.30pm until 8.30pm. I drove across to a beautiful location called Hexgreave Hall (a potential workshop location methinks!) and after saying hello to the two tutors, Jake and Tim, pretty much became silent, even though ‘officially’ we weren’t yet. There were ten of us in the room that first evening and we were joined by another person on Saturday.

Jake and Tim outlined how the weekend would work and some of the guidelines for us – keeping the meditation room clear of clutter, reminding us of timing and so on. We went round the group saying our name and then introduced ourselves to the person next to us for a couple of minutes. That was the last time we spoke to each other until 4pm on Sunday afternoon. The introductions served to help us bond as a group – Jake explained that even though we were silent, there would still be a sense of us as a group, that this was a shared journey.

This was a mindfulness retreat, which means that apart from a few talks, the entire time was spent in mindfulness meditation sessions. So on Friday evening, we took part in a sitting meditation, a body scan and a mindful movement session. We were advised to try and not talk when we went home, avoid social media and TV, listen to some mindfulness podcasts, spend time on our own etc. I realised that this was going to be a challenge as I hadn’t pre-warned my husband so I did talk to him. But – there was no social media for the weekend, I avoided the TV, had a lovely bath and found some mindfulness talks to listen to. Both Friday and Saturday evenings I was shattered, and fell asleep early – and slept well!

Saturday morning I was the only person at home so didn’t talk at all before making my journey for day 2. Saturday ran from 9.00am until 6.00pm. On arrival, Jake gave another talk, which was followed by mindful walking, more sitting practice, mindful movement – we tended to cycle through the practices, followed by a short talk covering different aspects of mindfulness.

My first challenge came after the first walking meditation. I’d worn a beautiful green and pink shawl which attracted bugs (see the header picture). I became very bothered by them and got myself in a tizz about it. It took me a long time to calm down. Now there’s an irony to this as I lived in the tropics for 8 years and managed well enough! Once I’d calmed down I was OK. This made me reflect on how I cope with life’s ‘bug’s and how uptight I can become…accepting and calming, accepting and calming…

Another challenge is my posture when sitting. I’m not very tall, so I’ve always got problems putting my feet flat on the floor. Sitting forward on a chair solves this but it uncomfortable for a 45 minute sit. I bought a cushion with me on day 2 and rested my feet on that which seemed to work. I’ve since bought a meditation cushion (a zafu) and I’m trying out floor sitting postures…the jury is out on this for now.

There were no formal breaks – Jake told us to view the whole weekend as a ‘break’. We were encouraged to grab a tea or coffee before the walking meditation sessions, which was quite soothing. Lunch was an informal practice – eating mindfully, laying beneath a tree, enjoying a cuppa. Beautiful.

The afternoon was broken by a short session with one of the tutors as a small group where we could give our reflections on what was going on for us – a few minutes to ‘report in’ if you like. Apart from that, the afternoon sessions echoed the morning’s ones. Saturday evening was more baths, mindfulness talks and sleep. I was shattered.

Sunday morning followed much the same pattern – the day ran from 9.30am until 4.00pm. A talk by Jake, mindful movement, walking (I’d learned to leave my shawl indoors), sitting practices, more talks. A mindful lunch – I have to say I really looked forward to this!

As someone who communicates for a living, there was a huge sense of relief that I didn’t have to communicate to anyone for the weekend. And eating lunch on my own felt liberating too, almost luxurious.

It was tempting to watch others and there were times when I felt self-conscious and was I doing ‘the right thing’ – once a rule follower…! However, this lessened over the course of the weekend.

I found the whole experience marvellous and there was a sense of connection between us all in the room, despite not speaking. I’ve always liked the feeling of being part of something bigger. I didn’t feel pressured, driven by deadlines or objectives at all. I didn’t feel guilty for doing ‘nothing’ as I often do. Several important insights arose for me as well. Being free of social media and the feeling of being tied to my phone was amazing. This is something I’ve struggled with since I got back and part of my spaciousness is around letting that go and not checking my phone every ten minutes.

Next year I’d like to do a residential retreat. These are less intense it turns out – the hours are shorter, there’s longer for lunch and you have dinner early. My only hesitation is that often you share rooms. I’m not keen on this idea, but it’s not enough to put me off, so I’m going for it.

My awareness of spaciousness has stayed with me and I generally feel calmer, more grounded and centred overall. I’m getting better at just letting things be and watching how things unfold – trusting rather than striving all the time. The weekend has made me aware of how my journey into mindfulness is just beginning and that ‘the practice is the teaching’. Yep! It’s an orientation towards life and one that I want to explore more fully. I’ve also come away thinking more and more about compassion.

I hope this has helped give you an insight into what happens on a silent retreat and help you see if it’s for you – I’m happy to answer any questions 🙂

one_to_one_coachingI’m Susan Ritchie, a leadership coach, trainer and writer, helping leaders develop their presence and impact.