Updated: Jun 20
This review is really aimed at people who are ‘Umming and Ahing’ as to whether a silent retreat is the right thing for them.
I first heard about the concept of a silent retreat about 10 years ago. I remember feeling a deep level of discomfort at the idea yet with no real reason as to why. Eight years ago, I decided to retrain as a psychotherapist, training that requires a huge amount of self-reflection and personal insight. Sitting in and moving towards discomfort is part and parcel of the work for me and my clients and I decided to challenge myself and attend a silent retreat but with no real understanding of what it would entail. I was hoping to unplug from the trials and tribulations of everyday life and reconnect with myself. This was what I found.
1. You definitely don’t have to be an expert meditator
I had ‘dabbled’ with meditation, knowing that the research shows that it is hugely beneficial for our wellbeing and that level of focus is helpful good for the work I do. The extent of it was short guided meditations on the Calm App. The retreat is based on Zazen (silent sitting) meditation. Hamid will send you some useful information how to practice and it is worth building up to at least 25 minutes at a time. I have to say this was not every day for me but the more you do the less discomfort you will feel. Buy a meditation cushion - they’re fairly inexpensive.
2. You are going to feel some physical discomfort
I had definitely not anticipated how much pain/discomfort I would be in. I am relatively fit and subtle and assumed I would be able to push through it. At first, I blamed the meditation cushion and wished I’d brought my own, then I blamed the number of sittings, then I just got cross at myself and obviously the more angry I became, the less I could meditate, the less I could meditate – the more cross I became. Firstly be aware - you are not alone, everyone is having the same issue – it’s part of the process and once you can accept it as part of what your are doing, weirdly, the pain becomes far more bearable. What was really helpful for me was at the ’Sharing’ (see later), someone spoke about following the pain (sensations in the body) rather than following the breath and this really worked. I focused on this and let go of my thoughts.
3. People will think you’re weird or you’re doing something weird.
4. The silence is liberating
I LOVED the silence. The first thing you notice is that whatever role you are used to playing in your daily life; entertainer, care-giver, people pleaser etc becomes immediately redundant. You realise that you are responsible for yourself and other people are responsible for themselves. It’s empowering for everyone. I spent the first day thinking – ‘this really is just for me’.
It was also liberating to not have my phone. Whilst the retreat does not enforce ‘No phones’ its really in your best interest to turn them off or to airplane mode. I put mine in my bag so I didn’t have to see it.
You are allowed to connect with others through eye contact, facial expression and body language but to keep this at connection rather than communication. You notice how much more people express themselves through their eyes and this creates a level of intimacy you don’t always feel when words get in the way.
5. You are not going to want to leave this place
The Monchique mountain setting is stunning. I am lucky enough to have visited some beautiful places around the world and this may not even have been the most breath-taking, but there was something about it that was transfixing. I think it was linked to the silence as you knew there would be no harsh noises to jolt you out of peacefulness and nothing would be asked of you (literally), so you could really enjoy the experience.
The noises were also incredible – birdsong, a frog chorus and insects buzzing and chirping.
The night sky is also mesmerising and there are plenty of places you can lie back and watch the stars.
Even though I love my life back in Leeds and would feel tears behind my eyes when I thought about not being immersed in this natural wonder. No need for television, computers, radio or surround sound with this on offer.
6. Separating the wheat from the chaff
I’m not sure I became a much better meditator at the end of the retreat but what I did notice throughout the meditation was that a lot of inconsequential thoughts and anxieties faded away and I was left with the things that mattered. This might have been painful feelings such as grief and loss, sadness and hurt but they certainly needed to be felt and processed and the retreat provided the space for this to occur. There was definitely a sense of letting go.
7. Other great stuff
The yoga teacher, Helen, has a voice like honey and caters for all abilities. It was incredibly relaxing and releasing and I definitely felt that my ability to meditate was better after the yoga session each day.
You fall in love with the Kin Hin walking which is 10 minutes of what initially seems like excruciatingly slow walking in between each Zazen sitting. It’s frustrating to start with as you feel you are going to fast and crowding the person in front or two slow and causing a pile up behind. You soon learn to stop worrying about your effect on others and find your own pace. I found this more meditative then the sitting meditation at times.
The food was wonderfully wholesome and tasty. There was always more than enough and it was surprising how hungry I was at meal times given how less active I was than the usual. Breakfast is substantial (porridge, fruit, bread, cheese, condiments), the main meal is at lunchtime and a lighter meal at night (normally soups and salads). Fruit available throughout the day and biscuit/cake at tea-time. There will be filter coffee at breakfast- don’t fret.
My accommodation was great. My room mate and I ended up with an apartment to ourselves with amazing views. We always had hot water for showers but I understand some people did not always get hot showers so it may be a bit hit and miss.
Hamid’s talks are stimulating and thought provoking. It was interesting what a cross over there is between Buddhism and psychotherapeutic practice.
8. Your day will be full and you can’t wait to get to bed
You will be getting up at 5.30am. It’s not as bad as you think and you get to see the sun rise over the mountains. There is a Zazen sitting at 6am, followed by breakfast, yoga, Zazen sitting, yoga, lunch and a rest, silent hike, Zazen sitting, afternoon tea, talk on aspects of Buddhism where Hamid breaks the silence only, Dinner, Zazen sitting and then bed at 10pm if you can pull yourself away from the stars. There are quick breaks in between activities for showers, comfort breaks, exploring etc. Unlike some strict retreats you can read but relevant reading is encouraged (Buddhism/mediation) and you can journal.
9. The ‘Sharing’ is a lesson in humility and awe
On Day 6 we broke the silence to share our experience before going back into silence for another 24 hours. I think everyone would agree that the ‘sharing’ was a profound experience. What struck me straight away was the level of trust and intimacy between a group of people who had not even spoken to each other. The shared experience of the week was enough to create that bond.
It was a privilege to hear each individuals’ experience and the level of vulnerability was inspiring and humbling. It was also a great leveller as you realise that everyone experiences emotional pain and everyone is trying to do the best they can. You come away feeling much less alone and that is an amazing gift in itself.
10. You will want to return
Part way through the retreat I was not sure this was the case – I had struggled so much with the pain of sitting. By the end, I was sure this would not be my only retreat and I also could not imagine choosing a different one. Hamid is an exceptional leader and teacher, the setting is hypnotic and the experience transformative in small and nuanced ways that keep surfacing.
Logistics and useful information
Book the retreat & transport. Get yourself to Faro train station - taxi ride or bus from airport (or straight there if you’re driving) and then you will meet other retreaters and share taxis to Karuna (retreat centre). These are organised by Hamid. You are allowed to talk to each other! The silence will start at the end of the evening meditation sitting on the day you arrive.
Bring a torch and an alarm clock and spare batteries. That way you can put your phone in your bag and forget about it all week. I did get it out to take some photos but made sure it was on airplane mode from the beginning so could not see the notifications notching up.
You will need warm clothing as guess what – it’s cold at 5.30am. I wish I had brought some thick socks and maybe a warmer jumper.
Bring a water bottle. There are fresh springs on the retreat to fill it up with throughout the day.
Only take yourself (minus shoes) into the meditation room. There are shelves outside for shoes, torches, water bottles etc outside the meditation centre.
You can go to the toilet during each Kin Hin walking session so don’t worry you don’t need the bladder of an Ox.
I loved the food and there was plenty but if you are someone who gets very hungry between meals , or needs a sugar fix or has definite requests e.g. English tea – bring it with you.
It’s fine to share a room with someone you don’t know. I imagine Hamid must have a repeat conversation with people who want to stay by themselves (like me). Get over yourself – it’s actually part of the experience and if you are somewhere on the outskirts of the centre (because you wanted to be on your own) you may wish you had someone with you.
If you have a problem you can write a note and leave it in the kitchen and Hamid or Ana (retreat centre manager) will help you with it.
There is an emergency number you can give to family members should there be a crisis at home.
The silence is broken part way through the last day and there is a closing ceremony – it’s a shame to miss it so it is worth staying one more night in Portugal if flight times do not fit with it.