Photo: Shreyas Yoga Retreat
Remember when we didn't always need to be plugged into Spotify, watch YouTube, or shoot off an e-mail while on the go? Didn't think so. But as we find out, more people are going on silent retreats where they can leave their busy lives at the door and tune in to some quality peace and quiet.
Life is busy. We get it.
The age of the smartphone – which keeps you tethered to people 24/7 – means constant bombardment by colleagues, meetings, e-mails and a social life all screaming for your attention. It’s just so… noisy. And when life is always noisy, it’s easy to forget how to be comfortable in your own company.
Small wonder, then, that there’s a boom in an industry catering to the beleaguered. Enter the silent retreat – where people fork over good money to disconnect at centres that compel you to surrender your phone, immerse yourself in nature, and spend a few hours a day simply staying silent. Supermodel Gisele Bundchen’s done it. So has actress Emma Watson. Both said it was so they could learn to be more at home with themselves.
What’s the big deal about silence? Why does it matter? We asked Dhamma Bhumi Vipassana Meditation Centre’s Goh Hwai An, who says constant chatter means the mind is never calm enough to first identify negative influences in your life, then set about finding solutions to get rid of them.
And it seems more people are cottoning on to the idea of switching off and looking inwards.
The volunteer-run Dhamma Bhumi Vipassana has more than 170 meditation centres worldwide. Its sign-ups – which include Singaporeans – have spiked in the last three to four years. No matter that its programmes require participants to stay silent for up to 17 hours a day.
Over at Shreyas Yoga Retreat in Bangalore – which encourages silence for four days during the eight-day programme – bookings have increased by 30 per cent over the past year.
The pursuit of serenity
Photo: Bali Silent Retreat
Managing editor Alicia Tan, 35, swears by the benefits of quiet time. In 2015, she went on a yoga and meditation retreat at Gili Air, an island off Bali, which involved 36 straight hours of silence midway through the programme.
“I had just lost my grandmother and felt really overwhelmed by everything happening in my personal life, as well as at work. I wanted to get away on my own and be able to switch off. It was the first time in two years that I had gone on a holiday and actually turned off my phone and not checked e-mails.”
Going in, she had not expected anything more than time and space to re-evaluate her life and what her next steps would be. But she got a lot more than that – especially when participants were encouraged to stay silent.
During that time, the focus was on mindfulness – being present in the moment with your thoughts and absolutely no distractions. Silent periods meant books and music weren’t allowed. Participants could write on paper to communicate with staff , but were discouraged from using this method to communicate with others.
Alicia says everyone took silence so seriously that even when there was a huge cockroach in the room, nobody made a sound. “There were lots of wild gestures to one of the guys though, to get him to get rid of the cockroach,” she says.
Funny incidents aside, the silence took some getting used to. “I was so used to being busy and moving at a fast pace that slowing down and just being in the moment was daunting,” says Alicia.
But the philosophy stuck with her long after the retreat. Alicia returned to Singapore recharged, with a more positive attitude towards life and its curveballs. On getting back, she downloaded an app called Headspace, which would help her meditate whenever she needed some perspective. “Whenever I feel overwhelmed at work, I just take 10 minutes, head outside, put on my earphones and get in the zone. The silence helps me deal with my anxiety. I’m such a reactive person, and often find myself going from zero to mad. The more I have control over my emotions, the more I am able to breathe, calm down and collect myself.”
Similarly, civil servant Chua Si Min says that post-silent retreat, she’s become more zen, preferring to focuson problem-solving rather than just dwelling on her emotions as she used to. She’s careful to point out, though, that a silent retreat is not a quick fix to problems. But the insights she gleaned helped her better manage negativity in her life.
Photo: Shreyas Yoga Retreat
The 24-year-old says she was intrigued after hearing an acquaintance speak positively of the silent retreat, claiming to have emerged from the experience feeling better than before. So, last October, she signed up for one with the objective of improving herself. “I knew it would be challenging and wanted to give myself that mental stimulation – to put myself through something and see what came out of it. I also knew that I would derive a huge sense of accomplishment upon completing the course – which I did.”
For nine days at the Dhamma Bhumi Vipassana Meditation Centre in Johor Bahru, verbal communication with others was not allowed. Neither were books, music or even writing material. It was only on the 10th and final day of the retreat that participants were allowed to speak, to ease them back into their regular lives.
Meditation largely filled Si Min’s days; instructions for each session were delivered via audio-visual equipment in a communal hall. The only time participants were allowed to talk was for one and a half hours a day, and only to the teacher. Without any other interaction, Si Min admits that passing the time could be excruciating. “Sometimes I would lie in bed observing patterns on the ceiling, or just watch the spiders crawling,” she recalled. On top of that, having to sit up straight while meditating for an hour at a time was physically strenuous. She didn’t give up. “I went in viewing it as a commitment and not merely as something I would just try.”
She admits that halfway through the programme, things got tough. “Left alone with just my thoughts, I started reflecting on whether I had made the right decisions in the past, and worried about how they would affect my future. I felt stuck, wanting badly to act on my thoughts and do something productive about them,” she says.
Then came the breakthrough. “The meditating took practice, but eventually, I realised that it’s all in the past, and I have to start to see things as they are in the present.”
Silence is golden… really
Photo: Kamalaya Koh Samui
Most of those who seek out silent retreats want relief from work, family or financial stress. Some might be driven there by disruptive life changes like divorce or death, while others – like Si Min – simply want to challenge themselves.
“Silent retreats can be intimidating, especially for city dwellers who are so used to being engaged and distracted by digital devices. Yet, people are yearning for an opportunity to detox and reboot cluttered minds, in the hopes of emerging with more clarity and focus,” says Matet Lester, a health and wellness specialist from travel agency Flight Centre Singapore. For financial consultant Elaine Koay, clarity is what she got from her experience of silence at a retreat in Phuket. The 25-year-old came away with a fresh perspective on the importance of accepting outcomes and not dwelling on the what-ifs in her life. The five-day break from social media was also refreshing, she added, allowing her to focus on enjoying the moment rather than be caught up in other people’s lives, or the places where she couldn’t be.
Finding silence is easier than you think
Photo: Bali Silent Retreat
Even in Singapore, people are seeking out pockets of silence. For example, Hush Teabar, which provides silent tea experiences, has seen a pickup in demand. Participants put away their phones for a while to be guided through a four-step tea-drinking and reflection ritual. Sign language and gestures are used, and not a single word is exchanged.
Since Hush Teabar began its programmes in late 2014, it’s had more than 1,800 sign-ups. Its founder Anthea Ong sees this as testament to the urgent and growing need for mental and emotional wellness. “Often, participants share that they’ve not felt this good or relaxed for a long time. Some shared that they saw, in their silence, a way to address a tricky situation at work or in life, and some have even teared up because they finally grieved for a loved one they’ve lost,” she says.
Anthea adds that people aren’t comfortable with silence after being exposed to an artillery of what she calls “weapons of mass distractions”. “Pockets of silence are practical ways to deal with stress. The ability to pause, take deep breaths, and see with clarity instead of anxiety does help us to respond with calmness and wisdom, instead of reacting with fear or anger in an impulsive way.”
For strategy and operations director Carla Henry, 39, whose job involves talking to people for most of the day, being disconnected for two hours – both from people and her mobile phone – was sweet relief. “I was going through a tough time, and the silence gave me a moment to pause, reflect, and have an impromptu cry. I hadn’t really made time to think about everything up to that point.”
For Lei Hsien Hsien, 44, vice president at a medical technology company, a period of enforced silence lets her take her foot off the accelerator for a little while. “I don’t think many of us have the ability to be silent for very long, unless someone is guiding us [through it], and it’s a valuable opportunity to let myself breathe, think, and just be."
This story was originally published in the May 2017 issue of Her World magazine.