3 Things a Silent Retreat Teaches You That You Can’t Learn Anywhere Else

The unexpected benefits of taking a silent meditation retreat

I recently completed a 10-day silent meditation retreat, this was my sixth (the others were seven days in length), and people often ask me why I’ve made retreats part of my meditation practice. For me, it’s all about practicing being in the moment, right here, right now. Not focusing on the future or worrying about the past. There is a quote I love that I once heard Jon Kabat-Zinn say: “If you want fear get a future and if you want to be depressed get a past.” It’s helped me to become a more compassionate leader and to be fully present and aware when working with the team at my company, with customers, and in the community.

I attended my first 7-day silent retreat in November 2014. By then, I was nine years into a daily meditation practice, I had taken one day-long silent retreat, and read about the positive effects taking an extended silent retreat can have on the brain. After researching different retreats, I found one at the Shambhala Mountain Center in the mountains outside of Fort Collins, Colorado that fit my schedule. Of course, by the time the retreat rolled around it seemed as though it was the worst possible time for me to leave my business for seven days, completely unplugged. Our company was experiencing challenges that demanded my full attention — or at least that was the story I had in my head.

In reality, taking the time to go on the retreat was the best thing I could do for myself and my business. It gave me the space and clarity to make the best decisions for the health and longevity of the company, as well as for my personal well-being, which ultimately improved the lives of those around me. I had no expectations going into the retreat, but I came out of the experience with new depths of clarity and the ability to be more present. It was impactful enough that I decided to make a 7 or 10-day silent retreat a biannual occurrence. It’s my way of ensuring that I’m in the right state of mind so I can be a better person to those around me — whether it’s my team members, my family, or any human being I encounter throughout the day.

Studies have shown that silent meditation retreats hold extraordinary benefits for a diversity of people. I’ve heard it firsthand from the wonderful people with whom I’ve shared retreat experiences — business leaders, artists, young people, older people, doctors, nurses . . . people from all walks of life. While each individual walks away with unique lessons to apply to their lives, nearly all participants echo these key sentiments. Here are three things you’ll learn at an extended silent retreat that you can’t learn anywhere else.

1. Improve Your Focus on the Present Moment

A silent retreat is a unique time for participants, myself included. It’s a time to turn all distractions off — there is no talking, reading, writing, or eye contact. My experience (and I’ve learned I am not alone) is that I cultivate greater awareness. I start to notice the little things. I come back to being fully aware; in the moment, right here, right now. Do you ever find your mind wandering to think about the past or the future while speaking to another person? Or just have all kinds of unrelated thoughts distract you from the conversation at hand? I do, but it now occurs much less than it used to. I credit the retreat experience for helping me enhance my daily practice.

The retreat experience has also given me perspective on life and the confidence to make decisions with vulnerability and authenticity. I’m better able to let go of fear, put my ego aside, and do things that are scary — more often than not, these are the things that bring me greater success. Does failure still occur? Of course! But I’ve learned to reframe the experience and shift the story going on in my head. Instead of labeling an experience a failure, I focus on the new wisdom I’ve gained by going there.

2. Clear Your Mind

The structure of silent retreats has allowed for my mind to deepen in a way that it hasn’t been able to elsewhere. A few days in, a clarity of mind begins to take place — it’s as if my mind is recovering from running a marathon and starting to feel strong again. After a retreat, I’ve been able to approach business and personal challenges that have been occupying my mind with greater clarity.

The clarity of mind I cultivate at a retreat most certainly translates into my daily life, allowing me to be more aware of thoughts as they arise and allowing for greater presence. A favorite quote of mine comes from Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” If you already have a daily meditation practice, you probably recognize what Frankl is describing. When you commit to an extended retreat, the results are multiplied.

3. Keep Perspective

I have the stories of my life playing in my head constantly: the events of the past day, week, and month keep my mind busy. I rely on my daily practice and biannual retreats for the time to quiet my mind and practice coming back to the present moment — right here, right now, one body, one breath. The stillness of a retreat (no talking, no phones, no distractions!) allows for me to begin noticing and hearing things differently. I even start to see the physical environment around me in a more detailed and vivid way.

Ultimately, this results in helping me to be less reactive and more positive. For example, I returned from my last retreat feeling a different energy within myself, and I exuded it out to those around me. I felt an even stronger love, kindness, and compassion for others. Time and time again, my practice brings that perspective back to me.

What if these were my last breaths during this lifetime? Would I be happy with the way it was ending? Was I caught up in a story about something that happened at work, the slow line at the grocery store, or an offhand comment one of my kids made? My practice gives me the perspective to understand that these things don’t really matter in the long run. In fact, I learned that the perspective I gain from my practice is actually a cognitive change in my brain — research has linked meditation to changes in the gray matter in regions of the brain involved in perspective-taking, emotional regulation, and memory.

Our minds are busy, and it’s more urgent than ever that we intentionally find ways to focus our attention by taking time away from all the doing in our lives. If you’re interested in learning more about what it’s like to attend a silent meditation retreat, let me know! Drop me a note with any questions you may have or obstacles you’re facing in making the commitment. I’d love to help out however I can.

Check out the donothing™ book and silent leadership retreat to learn more about what it’s like to start a daily meditation practice and attend a silent retreat.