Silent retreats: A modern haven from the deafening bustle of daily life

Faced with the stress and distractions of a world that constantly overwhelms us with noise (literal and otherwise), these types of environments have become the latest holy grail of well-being

Silent Retreats
Silent retreats are a new way to find peace of mind.Agencia Getty

After years of chasing the dream, the new gold standard of well-being is silence. That this is an increasingly noisy world is a fact: composer and noise pollution activist R. Murray Schafer discovered that, in order to be able to hear them over the racket of the city, the intensity of the 1912 fire sirens was 96 decibels (measured at a distance of approximately 11 feet), while in 1974 it already reached 114 decibels at the same distance. In 2019, journalist Bianca Bosker conducted a similar experiment: today’s fire trucks need 123 decibels to be heard from 10 feet away.

To this sound – let’s call it physical – another noise is added, perhaps even more annoying and harder to silence: the sounds of (dis)information. In 2011, Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, stated that until 2003 humanity had produced an amount of information equivalent to 5 exabytes, the same quantity that was generated every two days at the time. That same year, a study published in the journal Science estimated the amount of information generated by humanity up to the year 2007 at 295 exabytes: in 2011 it was already 600 exabytes. And by 2025, an estimated 463 exabytes of information will be created every day around the world. If you want to try to understand all these numbers, one exabyte is equivalent to 20 times all the books written until 2013.

It is not surprising that silencing all these stimuli has become a recurring fantasy for everyone, regardless of age: on TikTok, the social network for young people and teenagers par excellence, the hashtag #silentretreat has reached close to 420,000 views. Understandable: a study carried out at Duke University showed that two hours of silence per day stimulate the development of new cells in the hippocampus, the region of the brain related to memory formation and much of our emotions. We want others to shut up, we want to shut up ourselves and we want others to force us to do it. Hence, more and more people are interested in attending silent retreats.

Stopping your mind is possible

Maite Méndez, founder of Mandalablue Yoga – a center in Tarifa, southern Spain, which due to the increase in demand is currently organizing two long silent retreats and one one-day retreat monthly – tells EL PAÍS that the people who attend are those who have too much: “Too much work, too many things on their minds, too much noise, too much anxiety, too much stress, too many daily activities... they feel the urgent need to stop and wish that someone would force them to stop. In these retreats, people are looked after well: they do not need to think about what to eat, when to sleep or what to do. Everything is taken care of, which produces a sense of calm and relaxation. In addition, they enjoy a lot of time to themselves, to do nothing, to take notes and empty their minds, sleep or contemplate.”

One participant explains that, before going there, he felt so anxious that he had to ask his wife “to look up retreats for me. I wanted to learn to quiet the mind. I decided to attend this particular one because, as a beginner, I wanted something easier than the tougher practices (such as fasting and many hours of meditation) that they do in others. I would come back without a doubt. The feeling of being in a space where I can give everything to myself, without speaking and without a phone, is very liberating. I cannot praise it enough.”

Carola García Díaz, teacher and teacher trainer of mindfulness-based stress reduction, in addition to being the coordinator of Retiromindfulness.com and Mindfulnessvivendi.com, has been organizing this type of activities since 2012. Before attending one, she clarifies, “it is important, although not essential, to first know something about meditation. It helps to know what practices are going to be done during the day: sitting meditation, walking, moving, as well as having some experience in a mindfulness course. However, we invite people to come with the uncertainty of what is going to happen and we explain to them, especially those who come for the first time, that not knowing is an important part of the practice and that it is okay for them to come with doubts. Our practice consists precisely in welcoming what happens moment by moment, and how that can help us live more fully. Silence is an enormous help to be able to do this exploration with time and in a safe space of respect and inclusion.”

In his seven years of retreats, the psychologist specializing in neuropsychology and Buddhist meditation instructor Xevi Molas has only seen one participant drop out, due to anxiety. “The greatest benefit is becoming aware that we have more power over the mind than we thought, and acquiring tremendous mental calm,” he explains. Being immersed in a whirlwind of activities, we are not aware of the speed at which our mind works, but when we are there, we discover something that we did not know but that we yearned for.

“And yes, stopping our mind is possible,” he continues. “What is most striking during the retreats is that many of us sit very far apart to avoid even eye contact. Once silence takes over your mind, you don’t want to lose it. Thanks to these days of meditation and silence, I discovered a new way of relating to myself, to others and to life in general. I discovered that life is much easier than it seems, but our minds are so complex that we tend to overcomplicate things. Personally, what is most difficult for me is facing the last day, when you know that you have to return to monotony. You go from being in a calm, controlled environment, to an environment full of stimuli, where anxiety and depression are the quintessential disorders and where we have almost no control over anything.”

Being open to the experience

Dr. Santiago Segovia Vázquez, professor of psychobiology and one of the heads of the Elea Psychoeducational Institute (whose mindfulness-based services include silent retreats) in Madrid, Spain, has been organizing this type of activities for ten years. He points out that “in order to have a good experience, it is important to know that the schedule and rules of the house of spirituality where it is held must be respected. It is also essential to be clear that you must respect the rule of external silence and cultivate inner silence; this will allow for the necessary atmosphere of tranquility for the different mindfulness practices and the connection with yourself. We know it’s hard otherwise. Finally, it must be taken into account that meditation practice will be carried out for many hours of the day, which for inexperienced practitioners is a great challenge. Our mind tends to be constantly active, jumping from one thought to another. Being silent requires slowing down that mental activity and allowing ourselves to simply be present in the moment. And this can be especially challenging in a modern world filled with constant distractions and external stimuli. Some people are uncomfortable with silence.”

“Wanting to give up is part of what happens in a retreat of this kind,” warns Carola García. “It is easy for thoughts like ‘I don’t like it’ and ‘when will this end?’ to come up, although the opposite is also true; and we do talk about it in the time allowed for it, because wanting things to be different is the origin of our discomfort, or at least an important part, and the point is to learn to make friends with it, not to reject it, and to see what happens when we make room for it in our experience. To loosen up the level of demand and perfectionism and learn to be with things as they are. From there, spaces for well-being, creativity and connection open up. It is not about ‘enduring’ or ‘tolerating,’ but about exploring and inquiring from direct experience, especially of the body, and seeing how this can help us and be a tool to feel free and at peace. Curiously, what is most difficult is keeping oneself company for several days without distractions, but at the same time, learning to sustain this is a strength for daily life,” explains the expert.

Blanca, 64, has been attending this type of retreat for more than 15 years, many of them organized by Mindfulness Vivendi, in Madrid. “The first time I went with a friend, and I remember not talking at meal times, something so common. It was hard, strange. Everything went slowly and it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I was used to vacations being full of activity and novelty, and I had many moments of not knowing what I was doing there, feeling the unease of apparently doing nothing, just being there without solving anything; but leaving was also hard, getting back to normal, the cars, the bustle, the rush. It took me a while to land and take off.

“What I discovered with these experiences was a certain naturalness: silence allowed me to be more aware of what I felt, how I felt and what was around me. I didn’t have to do anything, just be able to be with that moment of my life. I realized that it was a way of taking care of myself. I started making peace with some of my demons, and even without speaking, or speaking little, I had a strong sense of community and harmony. It’s a health cure – and it also removes wrinkles; when I returned to Madrid, the supermarket cashier asked me if I had had a facelift. I also felt more relaxed and cheerful. I handle difficulties better, as well as the fact that things are not as I would like them to be. Over time, I think that I am more patient and understanding; perhaps, above all, with myself. I also feel more energy and determination to do what I have to do.”

Silvana, 38, has attended several of Elea’s retreats. “I have returned, and will certainly continue to do so. Before going to my first, breaking with the daily turmoil seemed to me something difficult to achieve on a weekend. We are not used to pausing and taking a look at ourselves. But the atmosphere that you feel from the beginning makes you, little by little, develop a level of serenity and composure that leads, almost without you noticing it, to enjoying the silence and the calm that is generated in the group. You can enjoy the silence. Serenity is essential to start building a life of well-being, regardless of the circumstances that we have to live. Through calm, emotional regulation and compassion we can find a way where we can better relate to ourselves and those around us. And all this with simple guidelines to follow that entail perseverance, but little daily dedication.”

“A mirror to many internal realities”

It is not the same for everyone. Psychologist Alba Valle, from the Loca Sabiduría online mindfulness training and courses center, warns that “before going to a silent retreat, the person should take into account that reality may not match their expectations. Someone may think that after a few days of silence the mind stays like silk, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Silence is like a light switch. What happens when you turn on a light in a dark room? You see what is there. We become clearly aware of our mental habits, our worries and our real emotional state. I say ‘real’ because frequently, in daily life, superfluous routine experiences cover the state we are in and, suddenly, when we stop, things come to us that we were not aware of, such as an unexpected feeling of emptiness and frustration.

“A meditation retreat acts as a mirror to many internal realities. For this reason, for many people it is a liberation. Afterwards, they become aware of things that they want to change in their life; for example, they might decide to end a relationship. And others will not feel anything in particular, they simply were aware, at peace. All of this is fine and no specific experience is sought, since what is really being done in a retreat is training to be more level-headed in life. It’s interesting to note that the effect of the retreat, as the teachers explain, is seen over the days and weeks.”

Among the benefits people notice in the medium and long term, Maite Méndez, founder of Mandalablue Yoga, points out that attendees will experience a greater sensation of “responsibility, self-management and liberation, which for practical purposes translates into a deep sensation of lightness on a physical level, as well as a mental and emotional relaxation. Many participants tell us about the great openness of heart they feel after the retreat and the ability to concentrate they get, because they have freed themselves from a lot of mental noise. With that, tasks that used to take hours, after the retreat take them a few minutes. The benefit is truly incredible in how we are in life, with ourselves and with others.”

Dr. Segovia Vázquez adds that “when you internalize the lessons learned, you can focus on the present moment and accept emotions and thoughts without judging them, which allows you to better manage stress and anxiety, among other things. The practice of meditation and its teaching facilitate what is known as ‘informal practice,’ that is, observing the day to day with that level-headed perspective.”

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