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First Person

I Tried It: Silent retreat

Finding your 'quiet place' isn't always a peaceful endeavor.

By Glenn McDonald

I was standing on a cold Carolina beach in November, feeling about five shallow breaths away from a full-tilt panic attack. It was 48 hours into my first silent retreat.

I’d agreed to attend on a whim, at the invitation of an old friend. What would it be like, I wondered, to spend four days without any input or output at all — to turn off the constantly gushing faucets of information and distraction?

Turns out, it’s a tricky maneuver.

The retreat was held at a Christian compound, but the gathering wasn’t religious at all. Since I am decidedly Not Religious, this was reassuring. The shoreline property is a commercial outfit, ultimately, and rents out various buildings for business retreats and university seminars.

 “I don’t do yoga, and I don’t particularly want to do yoga. But I want to want to do yoga.”

My fellow aspirants included an agnostic philosophy professor from a local university, a lapsed Buddhist plumber, a burly ex-con with a Santa Claus beard, and a retired CIA agent. The thread connecting this loose collection of acquaintances was an interest in meditation and quiet counterculture principles. Our general vibe was articulated by the professor: “I don’t do yoga, and I don’t particularly want to do yoga. But I want to want to do yoga.”

The rules were simple: No TVs. No computers. No phones. No iPods or headphones or gadgets. No music. No books. And of course, no talking.

Otherwise, the retreat was unstructured. We had optional group meditation sessions and the retreat center provided meals and a big house on the beach. The plumber, who already had a daily meditation practice, spent hours sitting in cross-legged lotus position. The CIA retiree spent his time on the porch, looking out at the water. I mostly wandered the grounds, down the beach, and through trails cut into the surrounding salt marsh.

Those first 48 hours were deeply uncomfortable. My brain was spinning like a broken flywheel, toggling between immediate concerns and perennial anxieties. Absent my usual distractions of technology and media, I was up in my head to a dangerous degree. It didn’t help matters that we were sharing the retreat space with several other (non-silent) groups. This made for some awkward moments at the cafeteria. It was all too weird, and I retreated to the frigid beach.

Then, standing on the shore and looking out at the horizon, something happened. I entered a kind of fugue state. My consciousness retreated a couple of clicks in time and space, like a camera shuttering back in reverse zoom. My anxiety drained away. I could feel it physically, rushing out and down, through my feet and into the cold sand. Looking at the moon, I shifted into a kind of detached, witnessing consciousness — the closest thing I’ve ever had to an out-of-body experience: I stood there for an hour.

I had arrived at a place that I could never find in the clamor of everyday life, and it really did require two days of silence. It took two more days for me to clear a path, back and forth in my mind, to that place where the silence can settle. 

I can’t get there all the time. But it’s a regular destination now. For lack of a better term, it’s my quiet place. I’ve since gone on several more silent retreats and have even established a casual meditation practice at home. One interesting side effect: I’ve noticed a gradual and significant decline in my media consumption. I sleep a lot better, too. This cultivation of silence has done what therapists, doctors, and all manner of drugs, prescription and otherwise, were never able to do: I finally got my brain to quiet down.

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


Illustration by Dom McKenzie

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