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How a silent retreat changed my life forever


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I don’t often evangelize, especially when it comes to spiritual or wellness practices. This is due to the fact that despite being a person who writes about these things, Los Angeles’ trend-based culture around them sometimes makes me cringe. Not to digress but imagine, if you will, telling an intelligent woman about your period pain and having to subsequently sit through her monologue on the miraculous healing powers of a vaginal steam. This is my everyday life.

Today, however, circumstances require that I make an exception. Given that I promised my editor I’d write about the five days I spent at a silent mindfulness meditation retreat, and that the experience was actually—no hyperbole, I swear!—life-changing, I sort of have no choice but to preach. Here’s what went down.

I entered into the retreat—hosted by The DEN Meditation at a private residence in Ojai, California—with dragging feet. I was busy, stressed, and I have crazy stranger danger. So, the idea of not only being with 15 people I didn’t know for five days, but also sharing a room with one of them, made me feel like running for the scorched (from the recent Thomas Fire) hills.

Additionally, I didn’t realize until the last minute that they’d be taking away my technology. As a workaholic, being cut off from my computer makes my brain feel the same way it would if I were in close proximity to a starving mountain lion. (Incidentally, that’s what literally happened, as wildfires sent a cougar down to our property in search of food. I just didn’t know he’d been spotted on site until after we broke silence. Phew!)

My entire life—as a single freelancer who works from home—is basically one long silent retreat (with Netflix).

Oh, and finally, I should mention that I don’t really meditate, so there was that, too. I mean, I’ll join the occasional group practice because that’s what LA people do for fun, but I don’t meditate on my own even though I know it will help my anxiety because I’m a science-based wellness writer who’s read all of the research (more on that in a bit).

Anyhow, I did think I’d nail the whole no-talking thing given that my entire life—as a single freelancer who works from home—is basically one long silent retreat (with Netflix). And in fact, things got off to a good start in that sense. Upon arrival, we were allotted a couple of hours’ worth of conversation before silence commenced. I spent the duration of it silently wondering if “social anxiety” was a good band name while others around me made friends.

Then, Heather Prete, the retreat’s leader, arrived, and actual silence commenced. So, too, did all of the aforementioned life-changing stuff.

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To get the logistics out of the way, here’s what our daily schedule looked like: vegan/gluten-free breakfast at 9 a.m.; non-guided meditation at 10:30 a.m.; dharma (read: Buddhist/mindfulness) talk with Heather at 11:30 a.m. (to be clear, she could talk, we could not); vegan/gluten-free lunch at 1 p.m.; gentle yoga at 3 p.m.; non-guided meditation at 4 p.m.; dharma talk with Heather at 5 p.m.; vegan/gluten-free dinner at 6 p.m.; dharma talk and guided meditation from 8–10 p.m.; and then bed.

We were discouraged from making eye contact with one another and even from smiling. Reading was okay so long as the material was practice-based, and writing was acceptable as long as it did not devolve into a form of entertainment. Sounds tortuous, right?

Wrong. I would more so describe the experience as cathartic. For starters, Prete basically re-parented me within the course of five days, and I’m pretty serious about that even if it sounds like I’m not. Her myriad healing words—three to four-hours worth of them per day for five days—are now etched into my brain, and whenever I think about her I, gulp, instinctively put my hand on my heart.

The most important thing you need to know about mindfulness practices is that they center around drawing your focus away from the past, which can be depressing, and the future, which can be anxiety-provoking, and into the present moment.

Super woo-woo, right? Prete, however, is a mindfulness facilitator with credentials from UCLA, not someone’s well-meaning aunt who did a 2-for-1 yoga-and-meditation certification course at the Y one summer. Though she’s practiced extensively under Buddhist teachers such as famed Zen Master Tich Naht Hanh, and Buddhism absolutely informs her teachings, she is also a science-based practitioner who frequently works with trauma survivors and those in recovery. Her tutelage, then, offered a mix of heart-based concepts (Buddhism) and research-based evidence (er, science) on the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation in dealing with everything from anxiety to PTSD to physical pain, and beyond.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, the most important thing you need to know about mindfulness practices is that they center around drawing your focus away from the past, which can be depressing, and the future, which can be anxiety-provoking, and into the present moment, where everything is generally a-okay. (You’re alive and such.) They also tend to involve the practice of self-compassion, which in turn leads to greater compassion for all beings, which in turn just makes life better for everyone involved, especially you. I don’t really have the word count here to expand on these concepts, but for me, they were transformative. It’s as if I now have a different lens on life. (And I can’t believe I just said something so trite!)

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However, the mindfulness practices and dharma talks weren’t the only part of the experience that moved me. Though many cried throughout the retreat, I didn’t shed a tear until the last day, when we broke silence. Looking around the circle at the 15 strangers who were now, even though we had barely spoken to each other, anything but, made me feel all the feelings. I hadn’t felt such a strong sense of community since… I don’t know when. Maybe, ever.

Without words, we showed care and concern for each other. We washed each other’s dishes. We built fires. We shared blankets. We made tea. It all sounds very banal, but it was inexplicably deep. I still miss them, even though, in total, we spoke to each other for all of one hour.

Finally, let’s talk about the digital detox portion of the program. Honestly, at the end of five days, I could have thrown my phone into the ocean and never thought about it again. From deep within the retreat, my enslavement to technology—and specifically, my tiny iPhone—seemed bizarre. Why did I give it the power to disrupt my peace or destroy my focus at any given moment? It, along with Netflix and, honestly, the internet, suddenly felt like a huge waste of my life’s most precious resource: time. What’s more, connecting superficially with hundreds of people on Instagram suddenly seemed far less powerful than connecting with a few people, deeply, in the real world.

Connecting superficially with hundreds of people on Instagram suddenly seemed far less powerful than connecting with a few people, deeply, in the real world.

Truth be told, however, I’ve since slipped back into many of my old habits regarding technology, and though I try to meditate each morning, my laptop’s siren song usually disrupts my practice before it’s really even begun. I don’t think five days, as powerful as they were, offer sufficient time to build a sustainable practice from scratch; however, the healing I did, the shit I worked out, that has stuck. I feel about a thousand pounds lighter, and I do feel like I now have the tools to tackle some of the more pervasive “issues” (read: stories my brain tells me that create problems IRL) in my life. I plan to keep practicing, with Heather, with other teachers, and on my own as much as possible.

So now, evangelization alert: I truly believe that every single type of person could benefit from some aspect of this type of experience, whether it be detoxing from your happiness-busting technological addictions, forcing yourself to spend some time in your own head, while simultaneously teaching yourself that it doesn’t have to be so scary in there, learning how to heal past trauma, or simply feeling the support of what’s essentially an old-school community (which is a critical component of happiness, btw).

If your interest is piqued, know that you can generally find silent retreats that cater to all income levels: My best friend just participated in a version through Against The Stream, which was priced on a sliding scale. Heather and The DEN, meanwhile, are planning another silent experience in May (details TBD), and Spirit Rock hosts silent retreats frequently which cater to larger groups and feature multiple teachers per retreat session.

Oh, and one last note of incentive for all of you singles out there. Something exists called “Vipassana (silent retreat) romance,” wherein you think you’ve fallen in love with a fellow practitioner despite the silence. This happened to me, and while I may never see my guy again, I do know two people who are now married after meeting in this way. Talk about life-changing!

I’m not the only one obsessed with mindfulness. Find out why one self-help guru says it’s the sole secret to success. Plus, here are 5 (more) cheap ways to go on a meditation retreat.

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