What is a silent retreat?


“We went down into the silent garden. Dawn is the time when nothing breathes, the hour of silence. Everything is transfixed, only the light moves.” ― Leonora Carrington

What on earth is a silent retreat? Is this something related to soldiers fighting? A war? A conflict? This is a question I got asked recently.

No, it is a mindfulness activity that you attend. The definition of a mindfulness silent retreat is:

“…where you take time out from your normal daily activities; to spend time reflecting and in silent contemplation; at a peaceful and quiet place; with like minded people.”

The silent retreat is a unique event that you may never have experienced before. Let me explain by sharing my experiences of the most recent silent retreat I attended last Sunday.

  • Technology – one of the main purposes of a retreat is to enable you to reconnect with your thoughts and also yourself. Technology such as mobile phones, TV’s radios, etc, does not help but causes constant distractions. It is recommended that you turn off and ignore all technology for the day. Even reading a book or a newspaper during a break are discouraged.
  • The retreat was held in a small village hall near to the river Thames. The hall itself is peaceful and is very old, with beams holding the roof up and a traditional tiled roof.
  • As this was a one-day retreat held on a Sunday, the event took place from 10am and ended at 4pm.
  • The whole day is spent in silence. Complete and total silence. No talking or acknowledgment of others – even eye contact. Even during the breaks, the idea is to avoid as much as possible even looking at other people or acknowledging them as they might hold open a door for you or switch on a kettle for tea / coffee, etc. This is probably the most difficult element of the whole day for people to deal with. However, after about 30 minutes, you become so focused on the present moment, that the awkwardness disappears.
  • The guided practices are led by a qualified mindfulness practitioner, who is the only person that talks during the whole day
  • During the breaks, you can walk about; leave the hall; even make tea and coffee in the kitchen area. However, whatever you have to do, it has to be in silence.
  • There are a series of guided practices in the morning, with a silent break of 30 minutes during the middle of the morning.
  • Lunch is taken for an hour. You could stay or go for a walk down to the river .Again the expectation is that it is in silence.
  • There are further practices in the afternoon – with a further silent break of 30 minutes.
  • Finally, the retreat finishes with “breaking the silence” at around 3:30, with a small group discussions on the day; your observations and how the retreat felt.


Finally, let me share some of my observations:

  • More alert – I felt more alert both during the event and also afterward. I felt as if the “lights” of the day had been turned up bright enabling me to see more clearly.
  • More present, observant and focused – After the first two practices that happened in the morning, during the break, I went outside for a breath of fresh air. It had been raining earlier in the morning and whilst the rain had stopped, the water was still coming off the tiled roof, down the drain pipes and out onto the courtyard. There were a number of leaks in the guttering and I noticed a leak dripping onto a leaf. The sound of the splash of the water was very intense. I continued to experience this type of focused observation during lunchtime and also during the afternoon break.
  • Notice the small things – Other people shared their experiences of feeling more present and focused, often focusing on small things. For example: the water drips; the falling leaves form the trees; the colour of the fallen leaves or even the movement of the ivy on the courtyard wall.
  • Finally, breaking the silence and returning to busy world – At the end of the day when we got together in small groups (2 to 3 people in each group) we shared our experiences of the day, taking it in turns to talk. We all had similar observations to those I have described above. Getting in the car to drive home, I turned the radio off and just enjoyed the drive itself. When I got home, I forgot to turn my mobile back from “airplane mode” to normal for the rest of the evening; only turning it back to “normal” on the Monday morning.

What are some of the longer term effects of the day itself?

I have continued to feel grounded and alert this week. Despite the level of pressure at work going on around me, I have generally been more focused; calmer and collected and I have felt more centred. Despite some really intense discussions, I have been able to be more observant of the situation and people’s actions; something that I know has come about as a direct result of the retreat. I have felt more able to deal with the speed of the day, strangely enough doing more “stuff” but feeling at the same time as if I was working more slowly. 

Taking time out to do any activity; be it exercise; a walk; a sport; or even time with friends and family is always precious. To take time out to spend it in silence may seem weird to some, but hopefully what I have described might give you an insight to want to try it. After all, what have you got to gain? Six hours of quiet contemplation…….

Many thanks to IanH for posing the question, I hope I helped to answer it. I leave you with the following quote:

“Listen to your being. It is continuously giving you hints; it is a still, small voice. It does not shout at you, that is true. And if you are a little silent you will start feeling your way. Be the person you are. Never try to be another, and you will become mature. Maturity is accepting the responsibility of being oneself, whatsoever the cost. Risking all to be oneself, that’s what maturity is all about.”



Silent Retreat Definition: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retreat_(spiritual)

A Pebble Meditation on a silent retreat

“We become so absorbed in our flaws and faults that we forget that it is better to be a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” ― Forrest Curran,

When is see that there is a silent retreat being offered I try to attend. Recently, a silent retreat day was planned at a small village on the banks of the river Thames at Hurley. It is a beautiful little English village, with the main pub going back to the early 1300’s. The main street going down to the river is lined with mansions and large houses.

Now, before I lose you entirely, you are going to have asked yourself, what on earth is a silent retreat? It is an opportunity for you to spend some time, normally a day, without the trappings of the modern world. No TV. No radio. No mobile phones. No books, magazines or even newspapers. In fact. Nothing, but you and a group of other like minded people spending time in silent contemplation. There is a facilitator who leads the day, but mostly, it is in silence. Total. Absolute. Silence.

Have you ever spent time with other people in silence? It can be a very disconcerting thing. One of the pieces of advice is to not look at other people; not to acknowledge them; or indicate a gratitude if for instance, someone holds the door open for you. I know you are thinking, “how weird”, but trust me, when you have experienced a retreat day, you do get a completely different perspective on life.

There are breaks during the day and a lunchtime break as well, but for the whole time, you are supposed to not speak at all. The facilitator leads mindfulness practices, both spoken and silent. At the end of the day, you come together and share your experiences of the day before you leave.

Halfway through the morning, we took a break and since it was a sunny day, most of the group went outside in the garden of the hall we were in. One of the observations we all shared at the end of the day was how intense we felt. How focused. Someone talked about looking at the bark of a tree. Another commented on how beautiful a butterfly was. I sat against a wall and observed a fallen fig from a fig tree. The colours. The texture. How it felt. Mindfulness helps you to focus, in the present moment, and the practices of the morning had certainly helped.

During the afternoon, the facilitator shared a practice I had never experienced before; “The Pebble Practice”. Some people sat in chairs, some, including me, lay on the floor.  The practice involves the facilitator describing placing a pebble in a well, and you observing, as the pebble slowly descends. Not at what you would consider to be a fast speed, but slowly, observing the pebble turn in the water, noticing its colours and textures. Then you are asked to imagine the pebble pausing and observing your feelings and emotions at that point. You do this three times and each time observe how you feel and your emotions. After the practice, we were asked to write down what each of us had felt. It was lovely to see that nearly everyone wrote similar words. Words such as “peace”. “Trust” and “Love”.

The day concluded with small group discussions on what we had experienced during the day; how we were feeling and the effects of the various practices. I would throughly recommend that you experience a silent retreat day, both to help deepen your experience of mindfulness, but to also to help you feel more connected and in the present moment.

If you have experienced a silent retreat day, do share your experiences.  

I leave you with the following quote:

“There are moments in life, when the heart is so full of emotion

that if by chance it be shaken, or into its depths like a pebble

Drops some careless word, it overflows, and its secret,

Spilled on the ground like water, can never be gathered together.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow