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The Buzz On Silent Retreats


We're almost two weeks into the new year. We're thinking about the resolutions that many people may have made, and you often hear people talking about getting their finances in order or eating better or getting in shape, but we also notice that many people are telling us that they are resolving to unplug more from the stress of our fast-paced lives. Some people are saying that they're going to spend more time in silence, so why don't we give it a try? Here it is. Let's go.

OK, that's enough. But some people are saying that they want to spend days and even months in silence. We wanted to know more about this, particularly the phenomenon of silent retreats, so we've called on Father Jeremy Harrington. He is with the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land. He is located in Washington, D.C. and it houses an RV-sized hermitage.

Also with us is Sharon Salzberg of Insight Meditation Society. That's in central Massachusetts and that is believed to be one of the oldest Buddhist meditation centers in this country.

Welcome to you both and Happy New Year to you both.



MARTIN: So, Father Jeremy, tell us a little bit about the hermitage. When did this appear on your property? What made you guys put it there?

HARRINGTON: It appeared in the fall. We were motivated because it's an urban setting and to make it convenient for people and people are seeking solitude. We call our monastery an oasis of peace and people come there to have a place where people could get away, to unplug and to pray. At home, they have so many distractions and duties and cell phones and there's nothing in the hermitage. If somebody brings a cell phone, they can have it, but there's no Internet, no...

MARTIN: You're not confiscating them at the door?


MARTIN: Saying hand it over.


MARTIN: You know, we actually reached out to people in this area who had experienced the hermitage and we found one person. Here's Delores Bushong and she heard about it through a local paper and she's a recently retired teacher and she told us why she wanted to make a visit. Here it is.

DELORES BUSHONG: Since I had just retired, I knew that my life was going to be very changed from having worked for 43 years and I wanted the time to kind of reflect on what that might mean and I was really trying to be much more direct. And, for myself to be more comfortable saying, what do I want to do in terms of relating to other people? What kinds of things do I feel like I need to make amends for, perhaps? But being in a contained environment that was not my own allowed me to focus in a way that is just not possible for me to do in my own environment.

MARTIN: Do Delores' reflections comport with a lot of what you're hearing from people? There's something about being in a contained space that is not your own, as she put it, that...


MARTIN: ...leads to some reflection.

HARRINGTON: Sure. I think that's - almost everyone says that and most people come away saying that they received more than they had anticipated. But even if you ask why we came, it's our Franciscan tradition. St. Francis, you know, found Jesus, found God in people and in the lepers he nursed and in nature, but he also needed to get away and he took times to go to hermitages, to go to mountaintops, to go to caves.

We, as Franciscans, are also supposed to have that contemplative dimension of our life, that we don't have time to pray, to enter in a closer union with God and to enter into ourselves, so I think people - many people of different religions and different times in their lives feel that need.

MARTIN: Sharon, would you please talk a little bit more, if you would, about the importance of silence?

SALZBERG: Well, people come to the Insight Meditation Society, I think, largely because it's a training in meditative skills and so people come, really, to either learn some methods of meditation or to get kind of renewed in them. And we found that the best container for that is silence because it creates an atmosphere, not only that is so much more intensive, but it's actually so liberating. It's like we can leave behind so much of what we feel we need to present to others about ourselves and that kind of social dynamic and it just frees us up to explore very fully the different domains within.

MARTIN: Your center does quite a few group silent retreats.


MARTIN: And I have to say, when I first heard that, that just sounded counterintuitive to me.


MARTIN: May I ask, how does that work?

SALZBERG: Well, almost all of our retreats are held in silence. There is teacher contact and the silence is the element most people feel most anxious about. They come and they say, I don't know if I can be silent. I don't know. My partner thinks I can't be silent. And we miss so much. We're so awfully busy, generally speaking. We're so distracted and distractible and we're running all over the place, and we're so responsible for so many things that just to stop is kind of a revolutionary act and it brings many beautiful results.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that, Sharon. What do you see changes in people over the course of the retreats, particularly the longer ones? Ten days is a long time, I think, for many people in this culture to be silent.

SALZBERG: It is a long time for many people in this culture, and yet it's a very beautiful experience. I think, certainly, get more focused and a different sense of priorities. Maybe we get back in touch with what we actually care about the most, the kinds of things that could be hidden from us. It's really an amazing experience.

MARTIN: Father Jeremy, what about people who don't - the circumstances of their lives just don't permit them to go someplace. Is there some way that they could incorporate this meditative experience, the silent experience, without leaving their customary responsibilities? Is there any way they could do it?

HARRINGTON: Well, I think we do it in various ways. Some people talking about - they're swimming laps and it gives them - or jogging, and it gives them silence. Just to turn off everything - in a car driving to work, having no radio or anything on to experience some silence. So, if you're seeking it, I think you can find it, but you have to have that desire to unplug, to turn off everything so you are silent.

MARTIN: Except for NPR.



MARTIN: Sharon, what about you? What can they do to seek what it is that people are seeking with you? Is there something you would recommend?

SALZBERG: It's really a sense of priorities. It's realizing, wow, maybe I don't need to multitask right now. Maybe I can actually pay full attention to what I'm doing and not add all this stimulation or maybe I can take a moment and just breathe. There are these exercises we encourage, like if you hear your phone ring, don't pick it up on the first ring. Just breathe three times, you know, and then pick it up. Something like that. And there are so many ways in which we can break the kind of crazy momentum of our day and return to ourselves.

MARTIN: Sharon Salzberg is one of the founders of Insight Meditation Society. She was kind enough to join us from central Massachusetts. Father Jeremy Harrington is with the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land that houses a hermitage retreat right here in the Washington, D.C. area and he was kind enough to join us in our NPR studios in Washington.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

HARRINGTON: It's good to be here.

SALZBERG: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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