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Silent retreats

Published This article is more than 2 years old.
  • Quartz Obsession — Silent retreats — Card 1

    Actor Jared Leto tweeted last week that he had emerged from a 12-day “silent meditation in the desert” to find a “very different world… We had no idea what was happening outside the facility,” he wrote. Today’s world, as you and Jared Leto may have noticed, is full of garbage and noise—audible, visual, mental—driving many to adopt newfangled wellness regimens ranging from practicing yoga with goats to Instagramming 16 ounces of celery juice per day.

    But sitting in silence, also known as insight or vipassana meditation, has been hot for at least a couple of millennia. Many say this is the no-frills form of meditation the Buddha taught. Today, retreats designed for visitors to sit, walk, eat, and work in silence for days on end are attracting not only celebrities, but Silicon Valley acolytes and other “performance optimizers” who aim to “defrag [their] hard-drive” or “hack the deepest layer of the mind and reprogram it.” As travel journalist Jodi Ettenberg wrote in 2016: “I am not the most woo woo of humans, and the idea of a giant drum circle of positive thinkers made me want to run away screaming… Vipassana seemed to be about equanimity, discipline and hard work–right up my alley.” Let’s get quiet.

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    16,000: Words the average person speaks in a day

    0: Words an average person should speak in a day at a silent retreat

    14.2% (pdf): Share of US adults who said they had meditated in the last 12 months in 2017, compared to 4.1% in 2012

    70%: Share of men asked, for a study, to sit silently for 20 minutes alone with their thoughts who elected to shock themselves instead

    25%: Share of women who did the same thing

    >50%: Share of participants in the study who cheated by talking to one another or looking at their phones

    $310-1,750: Price, on a sliding scale, for a seven-day silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts; a limited number of 18-26 year-olds can go for as low as $20

    117: Times Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey claims to have been bitten by mosquitoes in 10 minutes during a silent meditation in a cave in Mandalay, Myanmar

    12,600: Likes of Dorsey’s Twitter thread about his 10-day Myanmar vipassana retreat

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    Programs and accommodations at silent retreats range from luxuriously laid-back to strictly ascetic, but the common denominator is, of course, quiet. Some spas simply mandate silent hours, or offer silent meditation sessions or hikes. But that won’t get you the bragging rights that come with a hardcore insight or vipassana retreat. For that, you’ll have to hand over your cell phone, and keep it mum throughout meditation (like for 11 hours per day), chores, and meals—often for a 10-day period. Also, you’re not supposed to read. If you must speak, you can do it during office hours with a teacher. When you return to society, you might bring back gifts such as self-discipline, peace of mind, detachment from desire, or just a newfound appreciation for your own bed.

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    Unable to import block of type SHORTCODE_CAPTION. Sorry! Delete me or seek out the truth.

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    “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”

    Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1670

    “Imagine sitting on a concrete floor cross-legged for an hour without moving. Pain arises in the legs in about 30-45 minutes. One’s natural reaction is to change posture to avoid the pain. What if, instead of moving, one observed the pain and decided to remain still through it?”

    Jack Dorsey, Twitter, 2018

    “Instead of going to the next sitting, I think I’ll take a bath.”

    Oprah Winfrey, O Magazine

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    If you can’t get away, you can dip your toe into the silence with a small-scale silencing at home. Tricycle: The Buddhist Review is in the middle of Meditation Month, challenging its readers to practice the art once a day, and has a how-to from mindfulness teacher Chris McKenna that’s a guide for a several-hour “mini-self-retreat.” It’s also an introduction to what the uninitiated can expect when first attempting a silent retreat, mentally and physically. The first goal? Keep going until “until the tired haze has completed itself.”

    Oh, and if you fall asleep, don’t be surprised. “What’s happening in many cases is that we’re confusing chronic exhaustion with sloth and torpor (thinamiddha)…. [W]e’re also adding an additional layer of unskillful, contracted effort over an already exhausted and dysregulated nervous system. In reality, most people sleep through the first few sessions of a retreat because they are chronically overtired,” McKenna writes.

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    The Tremeloes were part of the British Invasion of pop music in the 1960s—Decca Records in London picked them over the Beatles in a 1962 audition. “Silence is Golden” was one of their many hits.

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    Many people find that the second they attempt to sit still and quiet their thoughts, the “monkey mind”—a restless, chattering creature desperate to swing from this banana craving to that backache to another idea for a Tweet—takes over. Monkey mind might feel like a modern phenomenon, but the concept dates back to Japanese and Chinese Buddhist teachings over 1,500 years old, where the monkey represented human consciousness. Silent retreats represent one opportunity to tame this wild beast.

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    ~6th century BC: Siddhartha Gautama is born, meditates under a bodhi tree, achieves enlightenment, and becomes the Buddha.

    1885: The British Imperial army conquers the Buddhist kingdom of Burma, sparking a movement among Burmese monks-turned-“superstar preachers” who protect and popularize Buddhist practices, including meditation. Among them is Ledi Sayadaw, who helps make vipassana meditation more accessible by de-emphasizing long periods of intensive meditation in the so-called cave.

    1868–1955: Another superstar teacher, Mingun Sayadaw, begins to hold group meditation for lay people.

    1948: U Nu, an active member of anti-colonial nationalist Buddhist organizations, becomes the first prime minister of independent Myanmar.

    1964: The New York Times notes that U Thant, the Burmese secretary general of the United Nations, has a daily 5-10 minute morning practice: “He sits, quite alone, and meditates.”

    1976: Satya Narayan Goenka, a Burmese-Indian industrialist-turned-secular meditation teacher, opens the doors of his first vipassana meditation center in Maharashtra, India for a 10-day course for the public.

    1976: The Insight Meditation Society, a retreat center founded by American Buddhists Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield, opens its doors in Barre, Massachusetts.

    1981: Goenka opens vipassana meditation centers in Shelburne, Massachusetts and New South Wales, Australia. By the time of his death in 2013, he had established more than 100 such centers worldwide.

    2000: Goenka addresses audiences at the United Nations Millennium World Peace Summit and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

    2018: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey posts a Twitter thread about his 10-day vipassana meditation retreat in Myanmar; shares the data from his Apple Watch and Oura Ring sleep tracker; fails to mention the persecution of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims, with the backing of the country’s Buddhist nationalists.

    2019: Filmmaker Todd Strauss-Schulson strikes a deal with Miramax to make a rom-com, Silent Retreat, “a silent comedy about meditation.”

    2019: Actor Emma Watson cites a silent meditation retreat as one step to her “self-partnered” status.

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    You might try Brian Eno’s 1985 hour-long ambient masterpiece Thursday Afternoon.

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    If you feel the coronavirus has condemned you to an unexpected silent retreat at home, consider Jane Brox’s appreciation of “a silence magnified by the dark,” during a winter spent at a beach, off-season: “I felt small within it. The silence itself felt like a presence, even during storms and high winds. I couldn’t concentrate on much other than my aloneness in that vastness.” In the New Yorker, Brox placed herself in the tradition of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Benedict of Nursia, Thomas Merton, and perhaps, now, you.

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