Back in 1996, I attended my first silent retreat. It was a Buddhist retreat led by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. I was new to meditation, and completely unfamiliar with Buddhism, so I had no idea what to expect.
A friend of mine in Miami, where I lived at the time, told me about it with great enthusiasm. He said the retreat was going to be held in Key West, someplace I had never visited before.
I had never heard of Thich Nhat Hanh, but I figured that if I wanted to learn about meditation, then training with a Zen master was an excellent opportunity. It was a life-changing experience.
Now, I lead yearly silent retreats in North Carolina to help other people transform their lives like I did at my first silent retreat. In fact, we just had our retreat last month.
There are many misconceptions about silent retreats. Here I am going to share with you what a silent retreat is, and how it can improve your mental health.
What Is a Silent Retreat?
The term “silent retreat” is more of a general term to describe a certain type of retreat. The reason is that since different teachers and organizations provide the retreats, their formats can vary significantly. Some are religious, and some are not.
Basically, a silent retreat is an event where you go and spend some time away from your daily life and personal responsibilities, and engage in a combination of meditation and learning. And of course, it also involves some degree of silence throughout the retreat. That is, you refrain from speaking.
The purpose of the silence is two-fold. First, the silence allows your mind to settle down, so you can begin to see the world with greater clarity. Second, it helps you focus your attention on your inner world, which is why you’re there. We often use conversation and other activities to distract ourselves from ourselves.
Why Attend a Silent Retreat?
The whole purpose of the silent retreat is to facilitate personal transformation. Many of us want to work on ourselves in order to grow mentally and emotionally, but it’s hard to do that kind of work in our daily lives when we’re constantly being distracted by our activities, responsibilities, and other people.
Your whole time at a silent retreat is spent relaxing, and getting to know yourself on a deeper level. You can leave all your responsibilities behind, including cooking and cleaning. You can enjoy true rest and relaxation, something we don’t always do on a regular vacation with a busy itinerary.
Silent retreats are usually held in some remote location with beautiful scenery, so you can be closer to nature. There is something quite relaxing about being surrounded by nature. I think it takes our mind away from our busy lives, and helps us put things into a different perspective.
Our retreat took place in the scenic countryside of Central North Carolina. There was a lake, trails, and deer roaming freely. Participants went for leisurely walks around the lake, and some even went canoeing. Others caught up on their sleep.
How a Silent Retreat Improves Your Mental Health
There are various ways a silent retreat can improve your mental health, some directly and others indirectly. Here are the 10 most common ways.
1. Overcome Stress and Anxiety
One of the benefits of meditation most often touted is that it helps you overcome stress and anxiety. Many of us have extremely busy lives. We have demanding jobs, families to care for, financial commitments, and other activities. These can lead to us stressing over how to keep everything under control.
When you’re at a silent retreat, you get a break from all of your responsibilities, and have an opportunity to let your mind settle down. This alone, will ease stress and anxiety.
You see, we don’t just have too much going on in our lives, we also have too much going on in our mind, and this is what contributes to the feeling of being overwhelmed.
2. Gain Greater Clarity
It generally takes about 24 hours of silence for your mind to quiet down. Once your mind settles down, you’ll naturally begin to see things with much greater clarity.
Have you ever noticed how sometimes going for a short walk helps you clear your mind? At a silent retreat, that effect is much greater.
Imagine the impact this would have on your life. You’ll be able to understand yourself much better, as well as the world around you. This will lead to better decisions that can have long-term implications on the direction of your life. Several participants at our retreat mentioned that they gained new perspectives on their lives, and continued doing so after the retreat was over.
Probably the greatest benefit of having greater clarity is that the world will make much more sense. Confusion will begin to disappear, and as a result, you’ll be able to pursue your life goals without hesitation.
3. Develop Mental Discipline
There is an old Buddhist story about a man riding a horse, which is used to illustrate what a racing mind does to us. One day, the man was riding his horse quickly down the road and with great determination. A bystander shouted to him, “Where are you going?” The man on the horse replied, “I don’t know. Ask the horse!” Our racing mind does the same thing to us: It takes us for a ride, and we don’t know where it’s going.
Most people don’t have much mental discipline, nor do they think it’s possible to control their mind. They let their racing mind rule their lives. When your mind settles down, it will no longer be racing out of control. Then you’ll gain greater ability to focus your attention, and therefore, have more control of your mind. In addition, your memory, abstract thinking, and creativity will improve.
4. Gain Greater Control of Your Emotions
All of our emotions are triggered by our thoughts, either conscious or unconscious. So if our mind is flooded with thoughts, then it is also flooded with emotions.
When your mind calms down at a silent retreat, you will naturally experience fewer emotions. In addition, with the increasing clarity, you’ll be able to heal the wounds from your past, which fester in your subconscious mind.
Another way a silent retreat can help you gain control over your emotions is by developing greater self-awareness. When your mind is more peaceful, there are much fewer unnecessary thoughts in your mind that hinder your ability to monitor yourself.
5. Gain Greater Control of Your Body
Self-awareness also extends to our body. When we are more aware of our body, we are more conscious of the subtle queues our body is sending us. This will lead to better decisions regarding our nutrition, physical activity, and medical care.
As a result of making better choices for our body, we will feel better physically. This is especially important as we get older. As we age, our body begins to wear down, leading to various physical ailments that cause a great deal of pain and suffering.
With better physical health, we will feel better emotionally. We will feel more confident and energetic. And we’ll avoid emotional problems, such as depression and loneliness, which often come with an aging body.
6. Heal the Wounds from Your Past
Most of us have issues from our past that we haven’t fully resolved. They can range from unpleasant situations to traumatic events. Whichever the case, they’re always festering in our mind, whether we’re conscious of them or not. If they’re in our subconscious mind, then they continuously manifest themselves in our attitudes, and therefore, our actions.
Silent retreats are great for healing the wounds from your past. As you develop greater clarity through a calming mind, you’ll be able to see past issues from a different perspective. In addition, your calming emotions will help you look at them with greater objectivity.
The silent retreat is also a supportive environment where it is safe to deal with unresolved issues. Since the other participants at the retreat are also dealing with their own issues, you develop a bond with them that aids the healing process.
7. Improve Your Relationships
As your mind and emotions calm down, and you heal the wounds from your past, you will behave much differently in your relationships, especially with loved ones. You will be less likely to react to provocation from others. You will also speak and behave with more love, compassion, and gentleness.
As your behavior improves, so will your relationships. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the behavior of other people in your life will improve, but at least you’ll be less likely to engage in behaviors that provoked them.
There is one thing to keep in mind. As you become less likely to react to provocation from others, this can be unsettling to them because they are used to pushing your buttons. This forces them to either ramp up their efforts, or change their behavior.
8. Get in Touch with Reality
Many of us are not fully in touch with reality. We are either living in the past, or in the future, neither of which are reality. The past is already gone, and the future has not yet arrived. To be fully in touch with reality means to live deeply in the present moment. This is where all of reality is taking place.
When we’re in touch with the present moment, we make decisions based on what is truly happening, not on unrealistic thinking. This will lead to better outcomes, and less worrying about how things will turn out, because with a calm mind and emotions, we’ll be better able to accept the outcomes.
9. Speed up Your Personal Development
A silent retreat can accelerate your personal development in just about every way physically, mentally, and emotionally. The work that you do at a retreat basically enables you to perform at an optimal level by eliminating the barriers that are holding you back. Such barriers include stress, unresolved issues, and a racing mind.
The reason a silent retreat speeds up your development is that you’re focusing all of your attention on your personal needs the entire time you are there. You are essentially doing several years’ worth of work in just a matter of days.
I would even argue that the results you achieve at a silent retreat can’t be replicated in any other setting. You see, at a silent retreat, your mind reaches a level of calm that takes a continuous combination of silence and meditation to achieve. It is like driving on a highway, compared to the stop-and-go of a street with traffic lights.
I should point out that optimal physical performance still requires exercise and good nutrition. You can’t develop a good looking and healthy physique by just meditating. However, the silent retreat will help you be more effective in your pursuit of your health goals.
10. Gain Greater Peace and Happiness
Overall, a silent retreat will help you realize greater peace and happiness. You will overcome stress, heal the wounds from your past, and gain greater insights about yourself and your connection to the rest of the world. At our retreats, participants become so peaceful that they begin speaking much more softly without even realizing it.
Imagine how liberating it would be to no longer have any unresolved issues from your past. There is a great comfort that comes from healing and accepting things that have troubled you for so many years. You also stop accumulating more baggage.
It is also very comforting to understand yourself, others, and the world on a much deeper level. Some of the greatest mysteries of the world are often revealed to you when you’re able to see the world with greater clarity and objectivity. The result is a much happier and fulfilling life.
I have always been intrigued by the potential of a human being. I’ve always wondered what I could accomplish if I developed my mind, body, and emotions to their fullest capabilities.
I’ve been on a path of personal development since I was 23 years old. After attending my first retreat with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, I realized that a silent retreat was the best tool I had to help me reach my greatest potential.
A silent retreat is a life-changing experience. It’s hard to put into words the impact it will have on your life. You will learn things about yourself that will amaze you, and you’ll develop the inner strength to stay in control of yourself, and pursue your life goals without hesitation.
To truly understand what I’m talking about, you will just have to try it. You won’t be disappointed.
More to Calm Your Mind
Featured photo credit: Thomas Kelley via unsplash.com