Shhhhh...Meditators of all levels are drawn to silent retreats for
spiritual awakening, and peace of mind
By Martha Schindler
Maybe it's a reaction against our hectic, media-driven new century,
or perhaps it's just the logical progression of a yoga and
meditation practice. Whatever the reason, silent retreats are
catching on, for beginning and experienced yogis alike.
"We've seen a real surge in interest among people from all walks of
life, in people who already have a spiritual practice as well as
people who have never tried to meditate," says Ron Fearnow, a
manager at Southern Dharma Retreat Center in Hot Springs, North
Carolina. "We're all searching for ways to bring peace into our
lives, and the simple act of being quiet is a wonderful way to do
Retreats like Southern Dharma offer meditation programs built around
silence, ranging in length from several days to a few months. Most
include yoga and moving meditation, while others are composed
entirely of quiet contemplation. They are offered in traditions
ranging from Buddhism and Hinduism to Judaism and Christianity, as
well as nonsectarian formats.
"There's a tremendous movement among people from all religions and
all schools of thought to seek spiritual growth," says Fr. James
Conner, who directs the meditation retreats at The Abbey of
Gethsemani, a Benedictine monastery in Trappist, Kentucky. "And
they're finding that meditation is a wonderful way to further that
Ironically, the most intimidating factor about silent retreats for
the novice meditator is the constant quietness. "People who meditate
for 20 to 30 minutes in the morning are often worried about having
to do it for days on end," says Fearnow. "Or they may practice yoga
regularly, but they always do it in a classroom full of people, or
they practice in the living room with the stereo on. So the aspect
of being quiet seems very strange."
The good news is that no two retreats are designed the same. Some
are intensive, long-term programs, while others last just two or
three days and include periods of informal talking, lectures, group
discussions, and one-on-one instruction—plus the opportunity for
activities like tennis or hiking.
How do you know if you're ready for prolonged quiet time? "Take it
slowly," says Fearnow. "Find a program and a facility that feels
comfortable to you and then sign up for just a few days. You'll be
amazed at how quickly you can adjust and how much more powerful your
practice can become."
That said, here are 10 silent retreats that offer a variety of
programs and settings for all levels of meditators.
The Abbey of Gethsemani
This center is a Roman Catholic monastery founded in 1848 on the
principles of hospitality laid down by St. Benedict, which call on
believers to welcome each guest as a representative of Christ. Thus,
meditators are invited to join the monks in their daily program of
prayer, sacraments, and silent reflection, which begins with vigils
at 3:15 a.m. and ends with a communal service and blessing at 8 p.m.
If you'd like to meditate, but relish your shut-eye, you can sleep
in until Mass begins at 6:15 a.m.
The Abbey is located on 2,000 acres of heavily wooded land about 40
miles from Louisville, in a section of Kentucky known as "knob
country" because of its many small hills. "Silence is a big part of
the experience here," says Fr. James Conner, the center's director,
and meditators are encouraged to walk through the surrounding fields
and woods when they're not participating in formal services.
Retreats are held throughout the week (Monday through Friday) and
over weekends, although meditators can also arrange for longer
stays. The first and third weeks of every month are reserved for
women-only retreats. Guests stay in private rooms, each with a
private bath, and meals are included in the program. Rates are based
on a voluntary donation system; a typical offering would be $25 to
$40 a day. (502) 549-4133; www.monks.org.
Insight Meditation Society
A Buddhist retreat center housed in an early 1900s mansion, IMS is
an hour and a half west of Boston. It was the first Dharma center in
the West and has been hosting meditation retreats since 1975. IMS
offers approximately 20 retreats a year, most from seven to 10 days.
There's also a three-month-long program available for advanced
meditators. The retreats are all silent, except for daily talks and
instructor interviews, and include both walking and sitting
meditation. Accommodations are dormitory-style and cost $38 a day,
including meals. (978) 355-4378; www.dharma.org/ims.
Palolo Zen Center, Honolulu Diamond Sangha
This Zen Buddhist center offers six silent meditation retreats—which
they call sesshins—every year, ranging from three to eight days.
Visitors can also attend a one-day retreat called zazenkai or sign
up for several months of intensive Zen study. The center sits on 13
acres in a quiet valley, just 15 minutes from Honolulu's bustling
Waikiki Beach. Here, your day begins at 4 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m.
You'll spend the time in seated meditation and mindful work
practice; silence is observed throughout. Rooms are shared
(dormitory-style accommodations) and meals are vegetarian;
short-stay rates are $35 a day. (808) 735-1347; www.ciolek.com/WWVLPages/ZenPages/DiamondSangha.html.
Karme-Choling Buddhist Meditation Center
One of the Shambhala International meditation centers, Karme-Choling
is a rambling 540-acre facility with a dormitory and large
meditation hall, plus seven cabins tucked into the woods and a
separate guest house in the nearby town of Barnet. It's located
between White River Junction and Burlington, in the Green Mountains
of northern Vermont.
The center offers retreats ranging from two-day in-house programs to
month-long residencies, which focus on the "three gates" of
Shambhala theory: Vajradhatu, based on Tibetan Buddhism; Shambhala,
which follows a nondenominational "human warrior" model; and Nalanda,
which combines various Japanese arts with Buddhist teachings on
subjects such as psychology, health, and relationships. A typical
in-house retreat includes daily individual meditation instruction,
group practice, and a short work period; it costs $30 a day, plus
between $10 and $50 a night for room and board. Guests are
encouraged to complete an introductory meditation course at a
Shambhala Center before signing up for a retreat. (802) 633-2384;
Mount Madonna Center
Situated on a 355-acre tract above Monterey Bay in the Santa Cruz
mountains, Mount Madonna hosts 40 programs a year, including
retreats in yoga and meditation, Buddhist thought, and other paths
to spirituality. In addition to their formal activities,
participants can swim in a nearby lake; play tennis, volleyball, and
basketball; and hike. Silence is part of many of the programs,
although they allow for some discourse. The facility can accommodate
up to 500 people (in private rooms and on surrounding campsites),
but programs vary dramatically in size, from about five participants
to maximum capacity. A typical weekend retreat costs about $150,
plus $58 per person per day for double-occupancy and vegetarian
meals. (408) 847-0406; www.mountmadonna.org.
Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health
Here you'll find combined yoga and meditation programs and retreats
geared to almost any level, with dormitory-style accommodations and
a large cafeteria that serves bountiful vegetarian meals. Kripalu is
also a center of education, offering courses in Buddhist thought,
metta meditation, and several schools of yoga.
Programs are built around yoga and meditation classes, group
workshops, and various guided activities; you can also find plenty
of hiking and biking in the surrounding Berkshire Hills of western
Massachusetts. "Retreat and Renewal" programs—loosely structured,
three- to five-day courses that include meditation as well as yoga,
music, and dance—cost between $77 and $196 per night, depending on
the type of room you choose. (Some have private baths; others use a
shared one down the hall.) Midweek discounts are available. Meals
are silent and guests are asked to observe silence in the evening
and early morning. (800) 741-7353; www.kripalu.org.
Southern Dharma Retreat Center
Hot Springs, North Carolina
Tucked into a secluded valley in western North Carolina (Asheville
is about an hour away), this 24-acre center is insulated by another
140 acres of privately held land. Open from April through January,
the center hosts meditative and contemplative retreats in vipassana
meditation, Soto Zen, Sufi, Judaic and several other spiritual
traditions. Retreats are small (the maximum number of participants
is 25), and all include some yoga. Retreats run from three to eight
days, and guests are silent for a majority of the time.
Accommodations range from dormitory-style rooms with private baths
to campsites, weather permitting. The typical cost is $55 a night,
including vegan meals. (828) 622-7112; www.main.nc.us/SDRC/.
Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Residential retreats at this 400-acre facility in Marin County,
about an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge, range from three
nights to three months and are geared to beginning as well as
experienced practitioners of vipassana, or Buddhist insight
meditation. Except for daily Dharma talks and one-on-one interviews
with instructors, silence reigns. Participants begin their day at 5
a.m., spend it in alternating periods of sitting and walking
meditation, then turn in around 10 p.m. Meals are vegetarian and
fees vary (some are established on a sliding scale). A typical
three-day meditation retreat costs $160. (415) 488-0164;
Tassajara Zen Mountain Center
Carmel Valley, California
Part of the San Francisco Zen Center, Tassajara was established in
1966 as the first residential Zen center in the United States. The
facilities were once a hot springs resort and include a pool,
bathhouse, and dormitory accommodations, as well as unique stone and
pine rooms, yurts, redwood cabins, and traditional Japanese tatami
cabins. Double-occupancy rates range from $70 to $150 per night;
retreat fees are an additional $100 to $125. The retreats, which
typically include silent meditation as well as group discussions and
instructor consultations, are conducted May through August. The
center is closed to the public during the rest of the year and used
for formal Buddhist monastic training. (415) 863-3136; www.sfzc.com.
Vallecitos Mountain Refuge
Taos, New Mexico
This is an "invitation-only" center set up to serve people who work
in the public-interest and nonprofit sectors. In order to attend,
you must demonstrate you've been working in that capacity for at
least five years and plan to continue. Aptly named, this Zen center
is situated on 135 acres surrounded by the Carson National Forest
and operates without telephone, electricity, or television. Its
programs are aimed at helping people accomplish goals of social
change and environmental renewal through personal centering and
spiritual growth. Activities include treks into the forest, silent
meditation, and talking circles—anything to help relieve the
"burnout" common in public service jobs. Meditators of all levels
are welcome. (505) 751-9613; www.vallecitos.org.
List your retreat.
Martha Schindler is a freelancer writer based in Cambridge,