I signed up for a week-long silent retreat about a year ago and have been pretty nervous about it ever since. Beginning in March of this year, I decided to practice silence at least one day per month leading up to the retreat. The retreat starts tomorrow and, so far, I have practiced a total of – you guessed it – one day, that first day in March. Even then, I wasn’t totally silent because I talked to my cats when they talked to me. I also talked to myself if I was trying to work something out because I didn’t cut myself off from technology. I never realized I talked to myself so much during the day.
The retreat is Silent Awakenings through The Chopra Center. I am a certified Perfect Health: Ayurvedic Lifestyle Instructor through The Chopra Center, so it was natural to sign up with an organization with which I was familiar. A certified instructor retreat was scheduled in the days right before the silent retreat, so I’ve been here at Asilomar on the Monterey Bay Peninsula for a few days. It is amazing that 24 hours before my total silence (and no technology) retreat begins, I am amazingly calm. I’m not worried about it, and I don’t really know why. I’m a chatter box so I can’t imagine this will be easy. My husband will attest to the fact that I’m chatty, usually while he wants to watch one of his favorite TV shows.
I am intrigued with the idea of being silent. I remember when our daughters were younger and being in the car with them was so, so very loud. Whenever I had the opportunity to drive alone, I would turn off the radio and simply drive in silence because I felt like I never had the opportunity to enjoy it. I wonder what an entire week of silence will be like?
I think what I have been most nervous about is that, during the lecture portion of the experience, we will be asked to look deep into ourselves for meaning, goals, purpose, pain (I don’t know, whatever…), and I won’t be able to find anything; I’ll fail at being silent because I won’t get anything deep out of it. I won’t have a life altering experience. I’ll just be…quiet.
My youngest daughter said, “You’re paying money to do this, right? I just don’t get it.” (She also said, “Send a carrier pigeon or send up smoke signals if you need us to come bust you out since you can’t use technology.” I can feel the love.) One of my yoga students told me to “Enjoy your ordeal.”
Truly, I’m not sure what to expect. I’m silent during meditation, but that’s only 20 minutes or so at a time. I know what the benefits of meditation are, but want to understand the benefits of longer term silence as well. Of course I did a little research into the benefits of silence.
MedicalDaily.com discusses five distinct benefits of silence.
Improves Memory – Silence, solitude, and nature can cause brain growth in the hippocampus, leading to better memory. A 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found adults who walked for 40 minutes three times a week for a year had brain growth in the hippocampus — an area of the brain associated with spatial memory. Immersing ourselves in nature helps the brain to focus and have better memory consolidation.
Stimulates Brain Growth – Sitting in silence could also boost grain growth by creating new brain cells. A 2013 study published in the journal Brain Structure and Function found at least two hours of silence could create new cells in the hippocampus region. The hippocampus is linked to our ability to learn, remember things, and even our emotions, leading to a less reactive nature.
Relieves Stress – Our lifestyles, with constant noise and technological connectivity, can have a pronounced physical effect on the brain, which can lead to elevated levels of stress hormones. This happens when sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear, which then causes the body to react to these signals. The amygdala — associated with memory formation and emotion — is activated, and this leads to the release of stress hormones.
A 2006 study in Heart found silence can release tension in the brain and body in just two minutes. Researchers found it was more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. This was based on changes in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.
This means that my 20 minutes of mediation – or event just two to five minutes of meditation – per day can have a positive impact on your brain and your overall health. (Moral of the Story – You don’t have to be bat-shit crazy as some people think I am by doing a full week of silence.)
Improves Sleep & Reduces Depression – Spending a few minutes a day in silence can lead to a reduction in insomnia, or simply improved sleep. A 2015 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found older adults who had trouble sleeping experienced less insomnia, fatigue, and depression after doing mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on our breathing and then bringing our mind’s attention to the present without thinking about the past or the future. It helps to break the train of everyday thoughts to provoke a relaxation response. This is a double whammy of benefits!! (Two exclamation points for two benefits.)
Heightens Sensitivity – There are retreats that promote the power of silence by refraining from reading, writing, or eye contact, called vipassana. One hundred scientists went on a retreat for research and found shutting off speech heightens awareness in other areas. They practiced the technique of vipassana meditation, which promotes overall wellbeing. This begins with breathing, which is then transferred to sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, intentions, and emotions.
The retreat I am on is a “sort of” vipassana, as I view it. I’ve had friends who have participated in vipassana retreats and they sound pretty intense. You sit in meditation at least nine hours per day; you don’t eat after noon; you don’t make eye contact with anyone else; and more. It sounds seriously intense and way (emphasis on way, way waaaaaayyyyyy) more intense than what I was looking for. While my retreat hasn’t started yet, I understand that there is no talking and no technology. No one has mentioned no eye contact or being escorted to the bathroom to make sure you come right back. I know that we receive three meals a day. We have a minimum of two yoga and two meditation sessions per day, and we have sessions with Deepak Chopra and other presenters each day. I believe that we are able to write questions down for Deepak to answer, so there is still some form of communication. I’m thinking of it as “Vipassana-Light.”
Here’s the thing…everyone I know who has experienced vipasana has said it was transformational, amazing, and they’d do it again. Some, I know, have already done it multiple times. And, no these aren’t just hippy yoga friends. These are people who may be accountants, judges, people you’d encounter in regular life.
I am going to keep a journal during my week and will share it with you. I’m interested to see what comes up. I hope you are too.
About the Author
Rochelle Barcellona is an animal-loving, family-and-friends-embracing, yoga-nidra-meditation-and-ayurveda-teaching, happy red-headed yogi who owns Nourish Mind Body & Spirit in Northern California. You may learn more about Rochelle here. Rochelle may be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and 916-353-5200.