I had an interesting conversation with a self-described “meditation teacher” recently who teaches at a well-known retreat center in California. She regularly leads 10-day and month-long silent retreats. Though I’m a life-long meditator, the benefits to the individual and society of long-duration silent retreats eludes me.
More and more people are proudly wearing the hairshirt of grueling silent retreats over extended periods, which are held in the company of other sufferers. But I haven’t met one that can offer a satisfactory reason as to why they endure them. They’re reduced to a cryptic, superior-sounding admonition, “you should try it.” No thanks.
It makes no sense to me to spend 10 days or more in silent inactivity around others doing the same, only to return to one’s busy life participating in a sick culture, where most economic, social and political activity is meaningless and wasteful, if not destructive.
Having backpacked in wilderness alone as a young man, I understand the urge to completely unplug from society and the daily routine. But a silent retreat in the company of a few dozen other people seems to me very strange.
It’s fair to ask, does this spiritual craze contribute to the noise, busyness and disorder that characterize this culture, by accentuating social adaptation rather than inward integration?
Why do people put themselves through the excruciating experience of 10-day or month-long silent retreats? Everyone I’ve ever talked to about these events says the first few days are agonizing.
The rules are that you are not to engage with any other person in verbal or non-verbal communication, “nor are you permitted to read a book, write in your journal, exercise (beyond slow walking), or listen to music.” Even nods and smiles are discouraged. One is imprisoned in one’s own world while being around a dozen or more other people also imprisoned in their own worlds.
After a few days of forced and enforced silence, during which tremendous mental and emotional turmoil ensues, many retreatants have a “breakthrough” of stillness and peace.
Yes, the mind and heart can be tormented into temporary silence and stability, but it’s unnecessary, and essentially harmful to the individual and society.
The closest I come to understanding why anyone would put himself or herself through this spiritual shock therapy is the turmoil I usually experienced the first night in the wilderness alone.
Not only were there the primal fears of being alone in nature to face. But the mind and emotions would throw forth hurts, wounds and unaddressed things from childhood and adolescence, before experiencing catharsis and stillness.
Therefore a compassionate view of silent social retreats is that they are an attempt to replicate a solitary wilderness trip—while remaining indoors and being surrounded by people. Given these contradictions, is it any wonder the trend hasn’t been beneficial for the individual or the culture?
There’s a long tradition, especially in the West, of penitents and ascetics mortifying the flesh and coercing the mind. The roots go back to misguided medieval notions of devout Christians replicating the scourge and crucifixion of Jesus.
Silent retreats are almost always in the Buddhist tradition however, a dominant theme of which is denial of the senses, along with a complete break from one’s daily habits. As such, they are an equally misguided attempt to quiet and awaken the mind.
Long-duration silent retreats are therefore a form of Buddhist practice (often Vipassana) grafted onto Christian penitence, intended to purge the mind, punish the heart, and climb the ladder of enlightenment.
You can find silly lists of “10 reasons to attend a 10-day silent retreat,” but the upshot is that you have to be neurotic enough to put yourself through one. Then, having endured a tortuous initiation into illumination, you’ll be member of a special club.
Though the retreats are often held in beautiful places, communing with nature is secondary, a side-benefit of this form of spiritual shock therapy. As far as going beyond thought/time and experiencing the numinous, don’t even mention it.
Clearly, the very fact that people go on long-duration enforced silence retreats with others means that they are seeking adaptation, not integration.
Integration occurs within one, alone but not cut off from others. It’s a completely different animal than adapting to a sick society, which enduring long-duration silent retreats enables people to do.
Integration carries with it the intent and action to create a new culture, even as one is bringing about a new human being within oneself by integrating right observation and communion with nature with one’s daily work and life.
Rather than 10-day or one-month, or even weekend silent retreats, isn’t it much healthier and wiser to simply turn off the cell for half hour a day, and sit quietly in one’s own backyard?
What matters is not the time one devotes to meditating, but the meditating one devotes to ending time.