I Spent Four Days In Absolute Silence and So Should You
Every year I use my birthday as a chance to reflect. The past few years have been warped by the pandemic: On my 30th birthday the world shut down, and three years on, I needed a moment to process how much has changed. Things have been going on dog time. My life, likely just like yours, has shifted in ways we wouldn’t have been able to predict. So as the past winter transitioned to spring and my personal calendar turned, it felt like the perfect time to take a pause. Claire Thomson-Jonville, the editorial director of iD France, reached out about this silent retreat she was planning outside of Paris—she wanted me to come and give my feedback. I jumped at the chance for a reset…and it also wasn’t bad that we would be staying at a castle in the French countryside. I love Paris—I would not be who I am without that city. The boy who sat front row in sweats at Paris fashion shows, slightly oblivious to it all. Nike projects that had me up early while my youth had me out later. Visiting Virgl in his office followed by late night DJ sets. So to France we went, where I decided to shut up for 4 days and just be receptive to what came to me, and learn to embrace the power of doing nothing.
Of course, the act of doing “nothing”—not talking, not working, not using your phone—is actually very much doing something. I call this strategic laziness: It’s the power of stopping, purposefully.
I wish everyone—including you—would have a chance to embrace this—the power that comes from deliberately pulling back and refraining. You’ll be amazed how this will galvanize your development. And while a spectacular location didn’t hurt, anyone could benefit from doing this when and wherever they have the chance. A silent retreat might just be what you’re looking for to channel your energy into a clear path forward.
This isn’t something I just came up with, of course: Structured silence has emerged as a spiritual practice over thousands of years. From the ancient Indian mediation practices known as vipassana or in many Christian traditions, such as the cistercians monks—to take just two examples—many religions have touched upon the concept of going deeper into silence for long periods of time. This practice was valued as a means of contemplation—to fully know oneself (“vipassana” loosely translates as “insight”), or even to bring oneself closer to God or achieve enlightenment.
But the resurgence of these retreats in a more secular way is not (just) the continued commodification of ancient wellness practices. It is the simple fact that, especially if you live in bustling cities, things are too loud. Our “primitive” selves are yearning for quiet even as we bask in the benefits that modern living provides. Noise is not just an annoyance but an actual health hazard. Many of us, at least subconsciously, realize this—but might not consciously understand how bad of a problem the din is. So a silent retreat of course is an ascetic practice I used to grow closer with myself…but also I just wanted a respite from one of the drawbacks to living in New York City.
The retreat I did was a bit of a “choose your own adventure” setup. The only real rules were the commitment to silence, being respectful of others' space, not using your phone, and reading books that were grounded in some sort of personal development or spiritual practice. There was twice-daily yoga, group meditation sessions, juices and soups, and a few other group rituals. But, for me, if I was to be silent, I wanted to be alone. So I chose to be a bit of a recluse, spending most of my time in my room or roaming barefoot—the castle grounds as we were near a forest.
I also wanted to fast, even if that was not a prescribed part of this experience—I did that for a little more than three days. I have experience with fasting and I enjoy how it fully provided the awareness to the absence of not just noise but also food as I performed my own meditations and reflections. I also slept. A lot. I gave in to the innate knowledge of the body, to direct what I wanted and fully replenish. Since we had no phones and the only clocks were downstairs in the community rooms it was an interesting practice to not be directed by time but instead by actually how one felt. Personally, it was a mix of liberation and confusion.
I’m not one who struggles with silence. I embrace it. I love the quiet. The inability to talk was relatively light work. Between 36 and 48 hours in, though, the fasting became difficult. I’m a big guy! The minutes and hours seemed to drag by a bit. Only so much meditation, reading, and walking can take your mind off hunger. From there, mindless chatter in my mind started to pick up as I began to question the purpose of everything for a few hours. Luckily, I seemed to cross over to the other side and my body likely went into using fat as its primary fuel source which shut up my reckless internal chatter a bit. The hunger pangs went away.
When you sit and observe your thoughts, which is a big component of meditation, some are bound to be valuable. I’ll leave you with three that came up for me:
Human connection is sacred. When you can’t talk, make eye contact with anyone, and are off your phone, you realize how much relationships can actually fuel you. When the retreat ended and I was able to turn my phone back on, reconnect, and get a bunch of happy birthday texts, the love that I felt was special. People can’t love you unless you let them and those that choose to do—don’t take them for granted.
Don’t succumb to reckless chatter—focus on the output. Much of life is fluff. People complaining, saying what they should be doing or want to do, or just mulling about instead of focusing that internal energy. When you can’t talk and much of the external noise around you is reduced, one truly realizes that the “sacred” practice is really to just grow closer with oneself and redirect personal energy into things that matter. Define what matters, formulate a plan, and focus on the goal. The output. That’s it. When we think of goals we only think of work, but this is not the case. Do you want to spend more time with loved ones? Pick up a new hobby? Finally fall in love with running? If you’re pulled in a million directions, if you’re stuck in the noise, you’ll never decide what you actually want to be, let alone take steps to get there. As Seneca says, “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.” It’s 2023 so we are gender neutral but Seneca got it right—define your port and do your best to navigate the winds with a plan.
You’re much more malleable than you give yourself credit for. We hear about neuroplasticity a lot these days, the ability of the brain to change itself even as we age. I tend to agree and believe you can re-work old and negative patterns, but you have to recognize them first. Fasting and silence gives one this perspective. It is important for us to realize the power that discipline provides us and instead of it making us more rigid, we actually then open the opportunity to be flexible: We know what needs to be stretched because we took the time to actually look. Believe that you can actually change. We see it in sports and fitness all the time—if you put in the work you literally become a different person not just physically but mentally.
If you have the opportunity to do a retreat like this, I would highly recommend it. But it's also not a cure-all: Many people leave these experiences feeling refreshed but then go back into their old ways, feeling ragged, tired, and thinking about the next time they can “escape.” What’s the point of that? A mission of mine is to help people understand how to enact wellness practices into their daily lives, things that don't require you to spend money or to go without food and talking for days.
The main lesson that hit me during the retreat is that it should not be confined to these monastic-style experiences. You can implement a “silent retreat” structure even if you can’t actually go on a retreat. Most people can’t go a full day without talking when we are in the “real world.” The point that can be universally applied is to “fast” from excess sensory stimuli that is not serving a purpose, to free up time by concentrating our focus, and engage in activities that refresh us. To constructively use your idle time and turn it into purposeful downtime, where you rediscover the benefits that accompany laziness. To make laziness what it always was meant to be, strategic, and not feel guilty about embracing our rest.
Here are a couple key parameters to lead the strategic laziness lifestyle:
When you decide to do something, do only that. Stop trying to multi-focus. You cannot. An example is when I’m in the gym training clients, I make the vow to stay off my phone unless absolutely necessary. Or when I’m writing this column! A text or social media scroll can wait.
If you can’t block out the “noise” completely, create parameters. What if you reduced your social media/phone usage from sunset on Friday to the morning on Monday? Or maybe created a schedule that allows you to be off your phone the first two hours of your day? If you do both those things, you could free up hours of “mental” silence every week. Even if you still have to speak, you’re reducing your cognitive load.
Be wary of your words. When you speak, make it deliberate. Don’t just speak just to fill in empty space with noise but instead use your words wisely and embrace silence. A fun practice I have is imagining I have a word limit for the day. That means every word I speak has to count. Otherwise, very kindly, just tell yourself to shut up and direct that energy elsewhere.
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit. This is the difference between idle time and down time. Idle time is where you’re doing nothing for no reason: It has no purpose, and you likely haven’t adequately managed yourself to fill the gap in your schedule. Down time is where you consciously choose to rest and do nothing so you can recharge. Embrace this. For me this might be sitting at the end of the day and watching the sunset, taking an “awe walk” around the block in the morning. We are off the melting on the couch and scrolling mindlessly through Netflix.
These small things add up. Look for time in your day and week where you can insert a bit of silence or strategic laziness. I guarantee it will improve your overall well-being.
Originally Appeared on GQ
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