Secular or religious, silent retreats are about learning mindfulness, building mental strength and courage and mitigating issues, whether through tackling them face on (which is Thienarrom’s method) or rising above the situation (as practiced by Burgs and Tessa Watt, a seasoned London-based mindfulness teacher, consultant and author of titles including Introducing Mindfulness: A Practical Guide and Mindful London).
“It’s about being awake and aware of your own emotions and thoughts, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t positive psychology: being human has a lot of difficult challenges. We need to get around those difficult paths rather than pushing them away, and we do that with courage and patience.”
Depending on the course, Watt’s sessions begin with meditations that learn about and empower the body through working with the awareness of our breathing, mind control and heightening our senses. Then, she’ll shift the spotlight to the physical manifestations (ie aches and pains).
“Normally, we get caught up in the problem, our mind goes round and round. Here, we try to let go of that narrative and pay more attention to how it feels in the body and the mind. We explore possibilities where it doesn’t and shouldn’t have the same control over you,” she says. “In meditation, we’re not working with thinking: instead, we’re solving problems in a mode of conceptualising, of sensing and being. We try to let go of the storyline or drama and focus on the present on how that feels.”
Likewise, Thienarrom starts her sessions with a thorough self-realisation of our physical and mental capacities but moves onto building enough courage and strength to fight the problems instead. Her key, however, is to always visualise the struggles as coloured shapes and be sure to pair the mental act of pushing them out of your body with physical gestures.
“It’s easier to tackle your problems when you’re facing an actual object and are actually removing it from your mental picture. We will really feel removed and more grounded as we learn how to slow down,” says Thienarrom, though she highlights the importance of private consultations to help individuals better recognise and move on from their issues over the length of the retreat.
“It’s hard to be silent if you have unfinished business on your hands, and it would take some time to organise or dissect the information, which is why people who haven’t trained their minds well and are low in energy will see all of this information surfacing in their heads once they start practising to be silent,” she says. “So to overcome it, we need to identify the subjective against the objective parts of their problems, that’s where private consultations come in.”
Silence Nirvana? Myth or truth?
Though rare, many accounts of past-retreat goers allude to a “silence nirvana” that is “orgasmic” and “akin to the effects of taking ecstasy” on the eighth or ninth day, after the mind has calmed down from the initial raucous.
Thienarrom says though this mental bliss is no myth and “feels like your soul has risen above the body”, it should never be the end-goal to silent retreats because “silence nirvanas” vary between people and their state of minds, especially when tested in such a short timeframe.
“The retreat aims to provide experience. Silence nirvana is a good feeling, but it doesn’t mean everyone will be able to attain this experience all the time. The people who do may get addicted to it and try to reach this state all the time, and this is definitely the wrong concept. Rather, we should understand the state, train the mind and become more mindful in our daily lives.”
Watt agrees, adding that it’s imperative to go into any retreat with an open mind: “The experiences are very personal, and it’s different for each retreat. At the end of the day, it really can be quite ordinary; there are no fireworks most of the time. So don’t go in with expectations because it really is about the perspective of mindfulness; it’s about being more pleasant and more genuine to who you are.”
So if there is no eureka movement to look forward to, what’s the motivation to get past the first few lock-lipped days?
For Burgs, it’s all about faith.“Once the visitors arrive and are able to enter into the process, they very quickly begin to see the benefits as their minds begin to settle, and they start to find some peace and concentration.”
Similarly, Watt suggests to hang tight and hope for better days. “Look at it from a detox point of view: maybe bad emotions will come up for you, things in the past, challenges that you want to forget, but you just have to trust that that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen, to get it out of the system.”
With all the media attention, attendance is far from the therapists’ fears; rather, it’s helping retreat-goers sustain the same mindfulness after they return to their daily hustle and bustle of long working hours, crowded subway rides and hard-to-please bosses, all in environments where complete silence is close to impossible.
Aside from keeping up with meditation, Watt advises her clients to replicate one crucial element from each retreat; in her instance, it was the love of nature. “When we’re back at home and we’re spending several hours a day sending emails and doing things we don’t often feel like doing, it’s hard to be mindful. In my last retreat, I was reminded how much I enjoyed connecting with nature; so now, the first thing I do in the morning after I get up is get on the bicycle and ride to the park with ponds and greenery. I could connect with that freshness before my day turns in a very different direction.”
But Burgs has an even more effective fix: reducing our exposure to electromagnetic frequencies. “Get a headset for your mobile phone and turn off your Wi-Fi at night when you go to sleep, so your body can get some proper rest.”
In a society where the definition of ‘efficiency’ is reinvented every day, mindfulness is a constant challenge, one that may best be remedied with 10 days of complete mum; but for those who are not yet ready to take the plunge, perhaps a trip to quiet Finland will do for now.