What is retreat, and what is the value of silence? In the book Heart Jewel by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso it says:
On retreat we stop all forms of business and extraneous activities so as to emphasize a particular spiritual practice. There are three kinds of retreat: physical, verbal, and mental. We engage in physical retreat when, with a spiritual motivation, we isolate ourself from other people, activities, and noise, and disengage from extraneous and meaningless actions. We engage in verbal retreat when, with a spiritual motivation, we refrain from meaningless talk and periodically keep silence. We engage in mental retreat by preventing distractions and strong delusions such as attachment, anger, jealousy, and strong self-grasping from arising, and by maintaining mindfulness and conscientiousness.
I think most people think of retreat as being about getting away from external things, taking a break from distracting activities; but it’s easy to forget about mental retreat, which is the most important. We can cut ourselves off from all contact with work, for example, but if we keep worrying about the things we have left undone then work will still interfere with our retreat. In my experience, retreat is mainly a state of mind. To quote from Heart Jewel again:
If we remain in physical and verbal retreat but fail to observe mental retreat, our retreat will have little power. Such a retreat may be relaxing, but, if we do not prevent strong delusions from arising, our mind will not be at peace, even on retreat. However, keeping physical and verbal retreat will help us to keep mental retreat.
Of course, it’s useful to have some physical space, some time off from our usual commitments and responsibilities so that we have the time we need to engage in focused spiritual practice. And silence is very useful: it really helps us turn inwards and pay more attention to our mental chatter. But we should remember that these are just tools to help us keep control over our mind.
On retreat we talk about ‘boundaries.’ Setting boundaries means establishing restrictions for ourselves that will help our meditation be more successful. For example, we may set a verbal boundary of silence for part of the day, or a physical boundary of not using our phone or the internet. We also need to establish our own mental boundaries. We need to make a firm decision not to let our retreat be de-railed by delusions. For example, we can set ourselves the goal ‘I will not think about work’ or ‘during this meditation, I will not allow myself to speculate about what’s for lunch!’ Having these boundaries are what lets our concentration develop. We may moan about noises that interfere with our meditation, but let’s face it, most of the noise is in our own head. Even in a perfectly quiet environment, we will still have to deal with that mental noise. Our boundaries are like building walls around that still, quiet place inside our hearts.
This understanding of retreat is also quite encouraging if you can’t find the time to go away someplace and do lots of meditation: retreat is mainly about your mental attitude. Even if there is no opportunity for you to establish physical or verbal retreat boundaries right now, you can still have mental boundaries – walls in our mind to keep out distractions – and these will make your daily life a kind of retreat.