“But we’ve just had two years of quiet, why the hell would you want to go and punish yourself like this?” My well-meaning friend was not the only one who felt confused by my decision to book a five-day off-grid silent retreat. Other common reactions included: “Are you being paid to do it?” (I wasn’t). Or, “Which paper are you writing about it for?” (None, at the time.)
Others gave a sympathetic smile and assumed I was going through some sort of relationship crisis or nervous breakdown.
But there was no personal tragedy prompting me to sign up – I had booked my first ever silent retreat on a whim. It was a dull January day, and the combination of Christmas hangovers and a new wave of frantic socialising after Covid restrictions easing had left me feeling tired and grumpy about how loud and busy the world had once again become.
While the pandemic was awful for many reasons, I had relished the opportunity to take my socialising down a few notches and embrace the quiet. Along with up to half the population, I’m an introvert by nature, meaning I feel energised after spending time being quiet and on my own.
Like a lot of people, I am also very sociable and never one to turn down plans – which often means my weeks feel too busy to manage, but I go ahead with it all anyway, rearranging drinks, dentist appointments and dates like Tetris.
By the time 2022 rolled in, life felt demanding and unforgiving of any desire to stay in. Freedom is precious, the zeitgeist screams at us now, get out there and be grateful! An organised silent retreat, with no conversations, phone calls or Whatsapp notifications sounded positively dreamy by comparison.
Endorsed by celebrities including Oprah, Emma Watson and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, silent retreats may be in vogue but they are part of a tradition that goes back centuries, with roots in religions including Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity.
The concept is simple: participants leave their phones and voices at the door and spend a set period of time in quiet contemplation and meditation (albeit often with more home comforts and for shorter bursts of time than the Buddhist monks of Tibet). The outcome is – hopefully – some form of enlightenment, or at least a break from screens and the stress of 21st-century demands.
And it gets results: research points to all kinds of restorative and social benefits, including improved sleep quality and lowered anxiety.
Two months, one flight and two train rides later, I arrived in Kausay, an off-grid community set in a beautiful valley just outside Xativa in southern Spain. I’d had my reservations about the trip and had vetted options, checking for signs of penance. I wasn’t up for cleaning or fasting or anything suggestive of crystals, healing or spiritualism.
I’d seen the Fleabag episode where posh millennial women paid good money to scrub floors, and I’d heard the experience of a friend who went along to one that only permitted two pieces of fruit for dinner – the stuff of nightmares. I had also – being cowardly – shied away from some of the more extreme-sounding itineraries: a French retreat with 4am wake-up calls was quickly written off, as was another with eight-hour kneeling meditations.
Kausay’s five-day silent retreat didn’t insist on any of those things, thank goodness. A gentle itinerary of morning yoga and meditation was punctuated by big hearty vegetarian meals and walks through the valley. There were no crystal skulls to be seen, nor alarm clocks – every wake-up time, meditation session and meal began with the chiming of Tibetan bells that sent us obediently to the activities yurt like Pavlov’s dogs.
The Kausay community aims to live mainly off the land in as ecological a way as possible – which means limited electricity, no phone signal or wifi, an outdoor solar shower and a compost loo. I slept in a shared yurt with six other people and ate meals outside, rain or shine (and it rained… a lot).
Our meditation guide, Ellen, explained to us that there were no strict rules for the retreat, apart from keeping the silence for the allotted days. She also advised us to turn off our phones and not to read books or listen to music or any other kind of entertainment.
Silence, it turns out, is easy. What I hadn’t bargained for was all the meditation – the sitting still, the sound of my own thoughts. And what I hadn’t mentioned to anyone in the group before we started, was that I’d actually never – ever – tried meditation before. More than that, I secretly believed it was total bollocks, something drawn up by hyperactive Californians and over-anxious types who needed a term to ascribe to the process of just sitting still and having a bit of a relax. How wrong I was.
After ringing the gong of silence, Ellen talked us through our first meditation session – and the pain of sitting still for so long was almost unbearable. Giving up on cross-legged alertness, some of us chose to lie down for the next meditation session – and it wasn’t long before I woke myself up snoring.
Third time lucky – I found an upright position I could tolerate for longer periods of time. But then I began to panic. Stuck with nobody but myself for company, I worried that I’d be trapped in negative cycles of thinking. What if the thoughts I uncovered weren’t pleasant ones? What if the sun never came out and the solar shower stayed freezing? What kind of nightmare had I walked into?
That first night, I slept like a corpse for a solid 10 hours. I was convinced I’d be bored, reading in secret under the covers at night. But one day passed without the need for it, and then the next.
It’s amazing how quickly time goes when you’re staring into space all day. I found myself relaxing, passing the time observing the birds and other wonders in the valley around me in the day and gazing into the comfort of a log fire at night. I was thoroughly enjoying myself.
More than this, I was growing firmly, bizarrely attached to the silent people around me whose names I didn’t know.
Sure, this wasn’t a typical crowd I’d go to the pub with back in the real world. On the day we arrived, when we had chatted freely before the silence began, I learned that one woman had met her husband after seeing him in a vision during an ayahuasca ceremony in Peru. Another spoke enthusiastically about a form of meditation that involved jabbing herself in the belly button with a stick. I was sure that I stood out like a sore thumb – that I would be exposed as not from their world.
But as the days went on, I was fascinated to observe how easily we flowed around each other, absently making room on a bench or gathering by the fire together after dinner – we seemed to sense each others’ needs and moods without the need for words, and I felt both supported by and supportive of them all.
Recent research suggests there’s something to this theory. Far from being solitary endeavours, interviews with participants suggests retreat-going may be far more collaborative than previously imagined, as James Hodgson, research associate in sociology of relationships and personal life at the University of Manchester explains: “I have been struck by how central encounters with other people are to the experience,” he writes. “People told me about the unexpected bonds they formed, which they described as ‘profound, ‘inexplicable’, ‘mysterious’.”
Mindfulness at home
Find what works for you, whether that’s an app such as Headspace or Calm or a guided meditation. Light Watkins, author of the meditation manual Bliss More, says: “If you fit meditation into your busy day, you’ll find you’re able to do things faster while being calmer and more accurate.”
Have a good set up. Finding a comfortable space with minimal distractions is key. Lighting a candle or dimming the lights can also help to create a relaxing environment.
Start with short sessions. At first, it can be hard to stay focused for long periods. You can gradually build up your meditation lengths as you become more used to the practice.
Stay consistent. Having a regular meditative routine will mean you reap more benefits. Set a reminder on your phone.
Don’t beat yourself up. Meditation takes lots of practice. It is normal for your mind to wander; treat yourself with compassion.
There were comedic moments, too. We had been told to let go of polite habits, and not feeling the need to smile “please” or “thank you” or even make eye contact with others was an unexpected release. But one lunchtime when I started choking on a piece of bread, I wondered for a minute if anyone would break out of their insularity to save me. An anonymous hand slid a cup of water across the table towards me, and the briefest of smiles confirmed that all was ok.
On reflection, it’s easy to see how a social experiment like this could send people a bit weird. A diary entry from my third day reads: “They could be putting something in the food. We’d never know. They could tell us anything and I’d believe them – oranges are the one true god – it’s probably true.”
One afternoon Ellen asked us to spend some time in “walking meditation” – which as far as I could tell involved putting one foot in front of the other very, very slowly, while staring at the ground. I was feeling a bit restless and decided to make my own interpretation of this by pacing rapidly up and down a little slope on the site.
After six or seven of these laps I looked up to see a man to my left, arms wide like Jesus on the cross, staring blankly into space with his mouth wide open. To my left, I saw a young woman crouched down on the floor between two orange trees, facing out towards the valley and sobbing wildly across the valley. Thoughts of cults crossed my mind. What if I wasn’t here voluntarily after all?
But being faced with nobody but my own interior monologue to talk to was much less scary than I’d imagined, and to my surprise my thoughts became increasingly positive and happy – helped, I believe, by Ellen talking us through how to cope with negative emotions, and something I recognise now as mindfulness.
The result was a near-constant dreamlike feeling – I had fallen deep into pleasant daydreams about all the things and people I enjoyed in life and found important, the places I’d travel to and the things I wanted to prioritise more over work.
It reminded me of going on a really long car journey when I was little and getting lost in my thoughts to the point of feeling irritated when we’d reached our destination – a feeling I’d completely forgotten in adult life, or even since I first purchased a Sony Walkman.
Having started the week feeling (unfairly) irritated by everyone there, now I was smiling at them and sending them warm thoughts. By the final day I found myself writing sentiments that regular, speaking me would find mortifying. The final thing on my notepad before the final, silent supper: “My heart is full”. Who the hell even was I?
The silence was broken in stages on the final evening, starting with – don’t laugh – an invitation to dance and then sing to some music around the log fire, which everyone embraced whole-heartedly, self-consciousness forgotten for at least for a few more hours.
Returning to normality the next day felt jarring and I took my time to turn my phone back on. Sitting in a cafe back in the city, I took a deep breath and opened Whatsapp to find 148 new messages – not one of them urgent – and was almost surprised to find that the world hadn’t ended by me not replying to any of them.
Spending less time scrolling was one of the changes I resolved to take away from the retreat, though I can’t say I’ve been that successful. Nor have I actively taken part in any meditation since. But in the days after returning home I did feel different: more centred, more open to the world and much more creative.
The retreat acted as a reminder to prioritise the things I realised were important to me in life: eating well, exercising and spending time in nature, getting more sleep. Most importantly, it was a reminder to not force myself to be busy all the time; that it’s good to take a moment to breathe.