Douglas Todd: Silent retreats are not for everyone. But they could be for you

Opinion: Multi-day silent retreats can offer restoration and insight. But they can also be an ordeal and may not be for those who are grieving a loss or dealing with post-traumatic stress

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Ten-day silent retreats are big these days, especially for young searchers.

Hundreds of multi-day silent retreats are offered each year in Canada, most of them linked with Buddhist practices. Others are loosely rooted in Western monasticism.

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Multi-day silent retreats can be a blessing, offering restoration and insight. As the joke goes, “They’re the perfect party for introverts.”

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But they can also be an ordeal.

Whether someone can benefit from a lengthy silent retreat always comes down to the individual. But the literature strongly suggests they are not necessarily best for the unprepared or desperate. Or for people with psychiatric conditions.

And some multi-day retreats are more severe than others — which makes it disappointing to hear about the many people who give the tougher silent retreats a try, and come to the conclusion they somehow personally failed. And will never do it again.

I have taken part in many silent retreats, mostly of eight days each.

When I tell friends and family about them, there is intrigue, but also often a quiet sense of horror.

A lot of people get anxious at the idea of not talking. Of eating meals without words. Of adopting “modest gaze,” that is, limited eye contact. Of “fasting” from idle chatter, whether over the weather, family, sports or fun things to do.

To many it sounds excruciating. And it can, indeed, be sometimes irritating to be left alone with oneself for an extended period of time. For the most part, however, I find the eight-day “crucible of silence” to be both comforting and liberating. In the sense of safety provided by the simple daily rituals, brief sessions with a spiritual companion and unspoken but powerful group connection, I’m able to explore sometimes difficult thoughts and feelings.

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Compared to many silent retreats out there, the kinds I attend are not severe. There is no pressure to sit in meditation for eight to 12 hours a day, a prospect I find overwhelming. We might enter into contemplation for just an hour a day. And that’s interspersed with reflecting on sacred poetry, some chanting, brief sessions with a spiritual companion, moments with a journal and lots of time soaking up nature. A fresh sense of aliveness emerges.

Some multi-day silent retreats are severe and others not. (Photo: Naramata centre in B.C.’s Okanagan, with labyrinth for contemplative walking.) sun

The non-sectarian, spiritually eclectic retreats I attend, which are the kind offered at places like B.C.’s Naramata Centre, Bethlehem Centre and Rivendell, are designed to help participants avoid distractions and develop a sense of the sacred. There is structure, but no rigidity of body, mind or ideology.

I know many people who have tried one of the more “popular” 10-day silent retreats in B.C. They are offered by two large Vipassana Centres, one near Duncan and the other near Merritt, which belong to a network of more than 300 Vipassana centres around the planet, founded by the late Myanmar-raised teacher S.N. (Satya Narayana) Goenka.

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Judging by the fact the West Coast Vipassana centres can accommodate about 60 guests at a time, and each offers a couple of dozen silent retreats annually, it seems tens of thousands of people have ventured into their 10-day retreats.

However, I use the word “popular” only in the sense that the Vipassana retreats attract by far the most attendees. They tend not to be popular in the sense of easy or, on the surface, enjoyable.

B.C.’s Vipassana centres’ protocol is based on what is purported to be the 2,500-year-old instructions of Buddha. Their website says the approach is the “universal remedy to universal ills.”

Unlike most silent retreats, basic meals and accommodation are ostensibly free, although donations and acts of service are welcome.

I was unable to reach a Vipassana Centre teacher for an interview, so I did not learn how many of those who sign up drop out in the early days of the retreats. But I have been told many find Goenka’s approach highly demanding, including sitting in the same meditation pose for hours upon hours, without being allowed to shift about.

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A writer for The Guardian once described how, without meditation experience, she dived into a Vipassana retreat to heal her insomnia, chronic back pain and panic attacks.

No matter if her body was throbbing, or her hands and legs fell asleep in the meditation pose, she said her teachers’ “blanket command was of non-reaction.” Don’t move. On the third day of her retreat a wave of people left. But the author persevered and believes she emerged calmer and better able to handle her “catastrophic thinking.” She still, however, had insomnia and other challenges.

In another helpful article in Tricycle, a Buddhism magazine, a meditation teacher cautions that retreats are not all about “silence and beautiful landscapes.”

Many participants can end up anxious, lonely and ruminating. While silent retreats help people to focus on internal moods and awareness of the natural world, the author says they can also “activate buried trauma” and may not be beneficial to those grieving a significant loss.

Vancouver clinical psychologist Mark Lau, who takes part in and leads silent mindfulness meditation retreats at Cortes Island’s Hollyhock Centre and elsewhere, says, “It’s a rich experience, but it’s not always pleasant.”

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The school of practice Lau works within, which is associated with Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, is less rigorous than Goenka-designed silent retreats, but still invites participants to spend eight to 10 hours a day in sitting or walking meditation, with non-coercive guidance.

“It gets physically uncomfortable, no matter what,” Lau says. “But it’s an opportunity to sit with some stuff you don’t normally sit with. You get insights. At the end of the day it’s the most restful experience I have ever had.”

As a teacher of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, Lau has been with patients and others who find some silent retreats too much. And he doesn’t necessarily recommend them as a way to deal with post-traumatic stress.

Still, Lau says he comes away from extended silent retreats in an “altered state that lasts a little while after re-entering. It’s hard to maintain, but even after it’s over I feel very restful, with a new level of stillness.”

Long silent retreats are not for everyone, but they could be for many. As Lau says, “It really comes down to the people who accept the invitation.”

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