5 Things I’ll Do Differently at My Next Silent Retreat

I decided to pull the plug after reading about the concept of silent retreats in an article in last month’s issue of the Seattle Met. The Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Castle Rock, WA hosts silent retreats lasting as little as 2 days and as many as 27 days. Intriguing, I thought.

I had already been contemplating the idea of taking a digital sabbatical (sometimes referred to as a digital detox) just to see what it would be like to unplug for a while. We’ve become so reliant on our devices these days. On the rare occasion that I’ve accidentally left my phone at home, I’ve experienced that sinking feeling in my stomach…the rapid heartbeat…the near panic. What if someone needs to reach me?!? What if there’s an emergency?!?

I know that’s absurd, and it certainly can’t be be healthy.

I mean, I’m fairly certain that humans can live without mobile devices. In fact, I know this because prior to having my first cellular phone in 1998, I had managed to stay alive with only a rotary dialing phone.

Another reason that the idea of a silent retreat sounded so compelling was that I personally find it hard to stop “doing” things. Reading, writing, thinking, journaling, cleaning, planning, organizing…if I think it, it’s not long before I’m doing it. In fact, outside of my yoga classes, I don’t think I’ve ever practiced being still and quiet. The mere idea of that makes me feel uncomfortable actually. And that is exactly why I decided it was something I should do!

I thought I would try it out at home first before committing the time and money to a retreat center, so yesterday I gave myself the silent treatment. My husband was out of town on business and I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to stay home and be…well, quiet. Easy enough, right? Well….

Overall, I think I achieved what I set out to, but there were some definite drawbacks to being at home.

Even if you have the house to yourself, you aren’t really in solitude at home. UPS still makes deliveries. Your to-do list projects become more noticeable. (Oh boy do I need to repaint my baseboards!) Plus, if you have pets, they could care less about your personal journey to enlightenment. They just want to go outside…and then come back inside…and then go back outside.

Likewise, chores don’t go away. Nope, in fact they stare at you and make you feel guilty for not doing them. It becomes so easy to fall into usual routines. Dusting and vacuuming just sort of happen. I made coffee in the morning like any other day. Before long, I found myself talking to my dogs and singing in the shower. Home is comfortable that way. A resort would have provided new and unfamiliar things to explore – at home, it was just too easy to take a nap.

With my husband away, I needed to be accessible in case he had problems while traveling and needed to reach me. That meant my phone stayed on. And it also meant that I fell prey to quickly checking my emails a few times (as if the quickness of it meant that it didn’t really happen).

Am I glad I did it? Yes. Did I learn something from it? Yes. I think the biggest thing was to know that I am capable of unplugging. In the future, whether that be at a formal retreat center or a simple weekend getaway, I’m going to do things a bit differently. Here are 5 tips to help you plan your experience:

1. Have a clear purpose. Knowing what you want to accomplish through the experience is key. For me, this first round was simply to explore what it would be like. In hindsight, though, I wish that I had put a bit more structure in place. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent watching my chickens from my bedroom window. What was the point of that? Next time, I will purposely include yoga, meditation and hiking.

2. Establish clear rules. Having a clear understanding of what you will and will not do during your experience is also important. Is photography acceptable? What about other forms of art, like drawing or painting? What about journaling? I decided not to allow journaling or writing (with the exception of a single piece of paper – mostly because I cannot remember anything if I don’t write it down and I didn’t want to lose any good ideas.). The reason for that is that I have a tendency to get lost for hours reading and writing. I just didn’t want my day to be consumed by those activities. Next time, I might allot some time for that during the day.

3. Choose a location free of distractions. I’ve never had a problem unplugging from TV. In fact, there have been weeks at a time that I’ve gone without even turning it on once. I could care less. Nevertheless, home can be filled with distractions. Being in a different environment would have had advantages. A big one is that I would have only packed what I needed – the rest would have remained powerless at home.

4. Spend at least 48 hours in silence. One day just isn’t enough. It takes practice to be quiet, and just as I was starting to come down from this inner need to be “busy,” it was over. I now understand why so many retreats are multiple days long.

5. Have an emergency contact plan. Conducting a solo silent retreat is challenging because it’s hard to be completely unavailable. The benefit of a retreat center is that they can act as your emergency contact, and only disturb you in the event of an actual emergency.

The takeaway from this experience has been that personal retreats can be anything you want them to be – that’s why they’re personal. I realize now that there’s no right or wrong way to do it. It just needs to feel right for me. It’s as simple as that.

Have you ever tried a silent retreat or a digital detox? What was it like? What would you do differently?