I’ve had a few conversations recently about my experience with silence. It has become an integral part of my life over this last decade and seems like it will continue to be. Many people are uncertain of how to even begin trying to experience silence. So, I’ve just written a very brief guide aimed at helping people make their first steps into this world. I hope that someone out there will find it helpful.
Your First Time in Silence
An Introduction to Your First Time in Silence
The thought of spending an extended time in silence can be daunting for most people. In our society we spend our entire lives avoiding those empty, awkward moments when there is nothing filling the air. We find comfort in always having some sort of noise or activity to keep us distracted. Although we have all been raised in this world of activity and sound, many people have heard about the incredible benefits of silence and want to dip their toes in the water. If this is you, then this very short little guide may be of help. The brief instructions are designed to assist you in finding your feet in the world of silence, so you can begin the incredible journey which starts in that silent place.
When considering your first time in silence, you should begin with something manageable. If it is too long, it may be overwhelming, yet if it is too short, you may not have enough time to overcome the initial barriers and begin enjoying its benefits. It seems like it takes most people a few days before they settle in and begin to experience the benefits of the silence, though everyone is a bit different. I would encourage you to begin with two or even three days if you can. I would not recommend much more than this to start with. Some people prefer to begin with a couple hours here and there and slowly work up to a few days. I think that would work as well, but you should aim to eventually spend a couple of full days in silence to really begin experiencing what it offers.
While you can pursue silence anywhere, even in the middle of a big busy city, I recommend that you choose somewhere that will facilitate your first experience, somewhere away from home, away from work, away from family responsibilities, away from your friends, your phone, and the demands of life. I even recommend getting away from your books and music. You should try to find somewhere that you won’t be distracted by noise or activity. Ideally, somewhere that is out in the natural world. While I do a lot of remote backpacking, I find that when camping my mind is busy trying to plan where I’ll get water, what I’ll try and cook for dinner, what I’ll do about the incoming storm, etc. My recommendation is that for your first time that you go somewhere that specializes in silent retreats. They normally are built in secluded natural settings with walking trails and beautiful places to sit. Most of them have single rooms, provide meals, and encourage all visitors to respect each other’s silence.
As a side note, I would highly encourage you to go on your own. If you feel you must go with someone else, make an agreement that you won't talk or interact with each other during this time. The reason for this is because that relationship will distract you from the inner journey you need to make.
One of the benefits of choosing a Jesuit retreat center or a Benedictine retreat center is that they almost always have people on staff that are trained to assist those who are on this type of retreat. They will likely call this person a “spiritual director”, which at the beginning is really just someone to help you clarify your questions and help you move into the silence in a healthy way, even if you are not of that religious persuasion. Having an experience guide to meet with once or twice a day can be very valuable and save you from some of the more common challenges people experience during the early experience of silence.
They are usually very respectful of where you are in your own journey and if you prefer not to talk about spiritual things or are from a different religious background, they will still be happy to help you make the most of your time. I highly recommend that you take advantage of meeting with them, especially when you are first getting into silence, as all that comes to the surface during those initial hours and days can be disorienting and perhaps even overwhelming. The guide will help you process what you are experiencing.
What to Expect
The transition from a normal life to silence is often quite challenging. Even those of us who enjoy quiet may find an extended time of silence difficult. In many ways, the first hours or days of silence might make you feel like you are an addict going through withdrawal. At first, we may not be able to be still. We may feel a sense of panic and disorientation. Everything inside of us wants to return to a busy life and a busy mind. Yet as we recognize the source of those feelings and let them go, we slowly begin to unwind and find peace. This can take a while, so be patient with yourself.
It is from this point that the journey really begins. You don’t really control this journey, but rather go along for the ride. It may lead you into addressing wounds, thoughts, or attitudes that lie under the surface. It may lead to a reorientation of your perceptions and relationships. It may lead to an encounter with God, or it may lead to a deep sense of internal peace. It could also simply lead to a few days of relaxation with no obvious forward progress. How this time will play out is simply something to be discovered as you open your heart and release your control.
- Be gracious with yourself. Your first time experiencing extended silence can be uncomfortable especially at the beginning. You’ve grown up in a society that fears silence and constantly fills it. Give yourself time to adjust.
- Relax and simply pay attention to the world around you. Don’t get to work trying to solve problems. Simply enjoy where you are. Are the birds singing? Then listen. Is a spider making a web or clouds floating by? Just watch. Take the time to notice and enjoy the world you live in. You have nowhere else to be. It’s doing you so much good just to pay attention to the world around you.
- Resist the temptation to fill the silence. As you feel uncomfortable it is very tempting to write letters, make lists, read, listen to music, exercise, etc. Resist anything that takes you away from being fully present here.
- Be fully here. Forget about what is happening at work, at home, or anything outside of where you are right now. Let this be your full world for the length of your retreat.
- Let go of all fear and worry. If there was any emergency with family or work, they would contact you via the retreat center. Friends, family, and colleagues will handle things while you are away as their gift to you. Your gift to them will be making the most of this time away.
- Let go of your expectations. Know that simply spending time in silence has real value and will benefit you, even if you don’t come away with your life and the world’s problems figured out. At the very least, your stress levels will drop and your creativity will grow as you create this open space.
- Pay attention to what is happening inside you. Don’t force anything, but as you notice things bubbling up inside you, pay attention.
- As feelings, concerns, joys, and questions arise in you, ask questions to understand what lies beneath. Don’t judge or suppress those feelings, simply seek to understand. Gently probe beneath the surface. For instance, if you feel uncomfortable, ask yourself why you feel that way. When you hear an answer ask another question of it. Try to understand the foundational question or concern. It often lies hidden beneath the surface under many layers. This can take time, but you have nothing else to do, so over the course of the day keep coming back to it.
- Record some of what you are experiencing in a journal. It will help you to hold on to what you are learning, and it can also be a helpful tool in processing some of the above. However, don’t let journaling distract you from the actual experiencing.
- Resist any feeling of accusation or blame, as well as any heaviness or despair.
- Don’t push or force anything. Let things progress at their own gentle pace.
- Sit somewhere beautiful, go for a long slow walk, stand, kneel, find a swing, or whatever will help you relax and be present.
- Give yourself breaks from inner processing. Encountering your inner self is sometimes scary, exciting, or exhilarating, but it is also emotionally exhausting. You need to have down time to just rest and enjoy where you are.
- Repeat the steps and let yourself become at peace with this silence. Slowly you will find yourself becoming more comfortable with this silence and you will probably discover an ongoing internal conversation taking place. Let it happen at its own speed. You are on the road to a new world.
There is also a deeply spiritual component to silence if you are open to it. For thousands of years people have gone to places of silence to connect with God, places where they can let go of all the distractions that keep us from hearing the whisper. If you are wanting to travel this road, simply start by paying attention to that internal dialogue. Don’t force anything or try to imagine hearing anything. Simply follow the guidance above to reach that place of peace and awareness of what’s happening inside you. Be content not to hear anything, and simply pay attention. You may discover that at some point that the internal dialogue moves beyond your own voice and begins speaking things you have never known and never thought. The voice of God is always one of love, never accusation or condemnation. Immediately reject and refuse to listen to any voice that comes to condemn. God’s voice may very well point out uncomfortable things within us, but always with the aim of bringing healing and wholeness. As you hear this other voice, respond to it, interact with it, but know that it is like a butterfly that doesn’t settle for long. Don’t try to control it, let it come, and let it go. As you follow it, it will lead you on a journey into everything you’ve always somehow known at the core of your being and into a new world and way of being. Open your hands and your heart. Let it be what it is. You are beginning the great journey of the mystics.