The Gift of Silent Retreat 

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by Jon Aaron 

The silence amidst the noise
the gem at the core
of every experience
is polished by simple attention
into shining magnificence
-Nirmala  “words do not come”

I remember my very first experience on an 8-day retreat. I had no idea what to expect. I had been meditating for a year or so and decided it was time to try a retreat. The challenges in the first few days felt insurmountable. I wanted to jump out of my skin. By the end, I never wanted to leave! Each time I was ready to give up, something was said by one of the teachers which gave such encouragement and confidence that my thoughts of leaving vanished. This was helped by the support of everyone else as we practiced together in community. It’s hard to describe what happened. Suffice to say it changed my life forever.

Retreat practice is such a unique opportunity, and these days in-person retreats are even more special. With vaccines, ease of testing and a communal commitment to keeping each other safe, we can finally consider residential retreats again. I’m looking forward to co-leading a retreat at the beautiful Shambhala Mountain Center with my colleague Janet Solyntjes. While Janet teaches often at SMC this will be my first time and I hope you can join us.  

Over the past 18 months, there have been many online offerings for retreat practice from your own home. Perhaps you have been able to benefit from that. I certainly did. While these have been so valuable within the period of pandemic quarantine and allowed many of us to deepen our ability to “retreat in the midst of life,” there is still a big difference between leaving your normal environment and literally “going” on retreat.  And while many of us have found Zoom to be surprisingly conducive to creating community, nothing quite lives up to being in the presence of others in the same space. There is something about the collective momentum and embodied container of residential retreats that make them ideal. 


“I personally consider the periodic sitting of relatively long (at least 7 – 10 days and occasionally much longer) teacher-led [silent] retreats to be an absolute necessity in the developing of one’s own meditation practice…    – Jon Kabat-Zinn


My first retreat was before the introduction of “smart phones,” countless apps, and other distractions of modern living. These days, there is much more to renounce. Beyond simply not speaking, the silence on retreat allows us to explore what it’s like to live with less input and fragmentation. We will ask you to turn off your digital device. Some will choose to relinquish it all together. Are you up for it? Many shirk at this, others jump at the opportunity. I would urge anyone to experience their nervous system freed up from the demands of our devices for an extended amount of time. There are treasures to be discovered in the silence. A kind of rest well beyond a good night’s sleep or even a “vacation.”  

The daily schedule on retreat includes pre-breakfast meditation and some movement.  The day will follow with some guidance and then alternating between sitting meditation practices and walking meditation. There will be time allotted for informal practice which, beyond the meals, will include enjoying the outdoors or practicing other forms of unguided mindful movement. That natural environment can become our teacher. There will also be daily talks offering insights on practice, and group meetings with the teachers to discuss how it’s going, with time for any questions. 

Retreat practice may seem “selfish,” in that you are taking this time “for yourself.” You might have the view that you are not contributing to the betterment of the world or being “productive.” In fact, retreat practice is radical! You are expanding your capacity to be with the continual uncertainties and challenges of the world. Your heart and mind open in ways that allow for creative response and true presence.  And as important as anything, while on retreat, you are bringing silence and stillness, a different way of being, to the world that so desperately needs it. We retreat from the world to wholeheartedly re-enter the world, with greater equanimity and ease. And don’t worry, most of us bring the world with us anyway, right there on the meditation cushion! 

Janet and I are planning a deep dive into the practice, in what will be a very supportive context. Mindfulness is so ubiquitous in our modern parlance that its fuller meaning, even within trainings for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and other Mindfulness Based Interventions, often gets lost, diminished, or commodified.  While present moment awareness is used as a partial definition along with curiosity, non-judgmental awareness, and kindness — there is still so much more to be explored in the depths of its true original context. I hope to see you there. 




Sidebar—For those wishing to be MBSR teachers 

 You may notice the Jon Kabat-Zinn quote above ends with . . .  

The whole quote is: I personally consider the periodic sitting of relatively long (at least 7 – 10 days and occasionally much longer) teacher-led [silent] retreats to be an absolute necessity in the developing of one’s own meditation practice, understanding, and effectiveness as a teacher.   This retreat will be considered a qualifying retreat by the Brown Center for Mindfulness, the UCSD Center, and by all members of the Global Mindfulness Collaborative.  Having said this, don’t consider the retreat as something to be checked off the list of requirements.  

When we teach MBSR we are helping others understand their own experience, encouraging them to turn directly toward whatever is happening. It’s not possible to do this effectively and deeply, unless we’ve sat in the cauldron of the retreat experience. 

About the Author & Retreat Co-Leader

Jon Aaron is a leading MBSR teacher, teacher trainer and mentor and dharma teacher in New York where he teaches at New York Insight and other centers.  He is a co-founder of the MBSR Teacher Collaborative of Greater New York and a founding member of the Global Mindfulness Collaborative. He has been leading retreats in the US and elsewhere for the past seven years. Recently with his partner Upayadhi, he established, an online community for meditators which started in the context of the pandemic and have been thriving ever since.

About the Retreat Co-Leader

Janet SolyntjesJanet Solyntjes, MA, is a Certified Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher and has been leading silent meditation retreats in the U.S. and internationally for over 25 years. She provides online study groups and individual mentoring to mindfulness teachers-in-training and has been on the faculty of Naropa University, the Center for Mindfulness, and the Engaged Mindfulness Institute. Janet facilitates the annual leadership retreat: Leading with Genuine Care (formerly donothing retreat) for entrepreneurs and supports business leaders and teams in the integration of mindfulness into workplace settings.


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