What I Learned On A Silent Retreat

Recently an old friend of mine suggested we get together for a silent retreat to catch up, rest, and spend time in silence and meditation. We usually struggle to find a time that works with both of our schedules, but we finally managed to make it happen. We picked a retreat center about halfway for both of us and made the reservation.


I’d never been to this location before and had no idea what to expect. What were the accommodations like? Was there heat in the rooms? What would the food be like? Who would be there? Would we be expected to participate? What would we be participating in exactly? It was all pretty vague, and I don’t particularly like vague.

All I knew is it was a good location, the suggested donation was more than reasonable, and I’d get to catch up with an old friend.

For me, if there are too many unknowns, too many variables, if I don’t know what possible ego threats to prepare for, I’m generally not too interested.

So I overprepared.

I brought about ten books to make sure I had choices, the books like talismans of spiritual wisdom, like credentials. I brought a journal in case I got reflective. I brought a guitar in case there was time for music in the evenings. I brought sweaters in case there was no heat. I swung by the store for a gallon of water and late night snacks. I brought a computer in case I had time to fill in that Life Plan I’ve been meaning to get around to.

When I slid into the driver’s seat at the store next to several heavy bags and a full back seat for a two day getaway, I took a breath. Then it was as if a quiet voice whispered, “impress no one, just receive.”

But I wanted to share some books I’d been reading, some of my writing, some of the songs I’d been working on. Wanted to be seen somehow.

“Impress no one. Just receive.”

When we arrived at the center, the office was already closed, there was only an envelope with my name on it for the room key. There were two or three other retreatants, who smiled warmly in passing, but said nothing.

We had arrived during grand silence. The rooms were comfortably furnished, with towels laid out, several books on the desk, a clean bathroom, and a recently installed heating system.

The kitchen was open at any time, thought retreatants were asked to eat in silence. We had access to recently cooked meals, a cereal bar, a bread box, a health bar, a fridge full of milk substitutes, bowls and bowls full of fruit picked fresh right there at the retreat center.

In short, all my needs were covered, and there wasn’t enough interaction to even try and impress anyone. Most interaction with strangers was in complete silence.

The monks maintained a daily schedule and we were invited to participate in that rhythm where we wished. The sessions consisted of some exercises, one or two songs, and 30 minutes of meditation or contemplative practice.

No sermon, no thought of the day, no teachers, no students, no ego-enmeshment or subtle power dynamics, just an ever present daily rhythm, to align with as desired.

We hiked the trails in the afternoons, caught up on our life situations, exchanged questions, some book recommendations, and explored the grounds. At night we’d sit in the library flipping through the book collection, some Thomas Merton, some Hafiz and Kabir, seeing what we could discover rather than what we could bring. We leaned back and listened to old lectures on old boom boxes.

With no one to impress, we just received.

So what had I been I anxious about? Where did that come from?

The self we usually think of is really just a story we tell ourselves, based on our clinging to our ideas of past and future, the elements we’ve clung to unconsciously for identity and definition. But it always wants praise or status or protection. Always there is distorting desire.

In no self, true self, or non-dual awareness, call it Kingdom, there isn’t any self anyway, there’s just alignment with truth-as-it-unfolds. But most of us have to go through a process of dying to the idea of the self first to get there. It’s that death, that threat of annihilation that ultimately underlies even the mildest of anxieties. The self as we’ve constructed it may not be able to survive, or stay in control. Eventually, of course, it won’t, one way or another.

Eckhart Tolle writes “the secret of life is to die before you die.” Christ says “whoever wants to save his life will lose it.” It’s dying to those things we cling to for a false sense of protection that lets us move into freedom.

Silent spaces are a great way to open up that insight.

Like on the retreat, the feast is already prepared. There isn’t much to do but relax, impress no one, and just receive.

Question: What are your sacred spaces where this kind of awareness opens up for you, even briefly? Share in the Comments section below! Share your answer on Facebook or Twitter

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