The interpersonal dynamics of silent retreats

by Adrian Segar

Can meetings where no one says a word exhibit significantly different interpersonal dynamics? After completing my third Vipassana silent meditation retreat (this one at the headquarters of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts), I’m gonna say: yes they can!

If you haven’t experienced a Vipassana retreat, here’s the program flow:

  • Registration, with some time for participants to meet and talk.
  • Housekeeping announcements, an introduction to the teachers and format.
  • Enter “Noble Silence”. During the silence, which continues until almost the end of the retreat, participants avoid direct eye contact, reading, or writing and do not speak or communicate nonverbally.
  • Many sets of 45-minute seated, silent, focused awareness mediation, followed by 30-minute walking meditation.
  • Communal on-site meals eaten in silence.
  • “Yogi jobs” that support the retreat center, approximately 45 minutes per day. Typically these involve cleaning or food preparation. (I am now quite familiar with washing and drying procedures in commercial kitchens!) When necessary, minimal talking is allowed during your job.
  • Retreat teachers give talks / guided meditation / Q&A sessions, and may meet with participants individually or in small groups. When relevant, participants may talk during these activities.
  • Closing ceremony and the end of Noble Silence. Participants can then converse with each other. At longer retreats, Silence may be ended for the evening of the last full day, and reentered for the last few hours of the retreat.

As you can imagine, opportunities for interpersonal interaction are pretty limited during these retreats. That’s how it should be, as the focus is on personal inner work free from the distractions and commitments of everyday life. I’ve written about the value of my first retreat experience here, and plan to continue to attend retreats for my own benefit rather than to connect with other participants.

Nevertheless, as a meeting designer I noticed some interesting differences in the quantity and quality of interpersonal dynamics at the three retreats I’ve attended to date. Here are some relevant statistics:

Location Length # participants # teachers My subjective “level of connection” (1 – 10)
Vallecitos, New Mexico 5 days 40 3 8 (highest)
Easthampton, Massachusetts 1 day 25 1 3
Barre, Massachusetts 3 days 100 2 2 (lowest)

As you can see, I judged that Vallecitos participants became quite highly connected over the 5-day retreat, even though we only had a few hours at the beginning and end to meet and talk with each other. In comparison, I rated my 3-day Barre retreat at a very low level of connection, despite a comparable amount of potential connection time. And even though the Easthampton retreat was short — no yogi job, one non-communal lunch and perhaps 30 minutes of non-silence together — I think that slightly more connection occurred there than at Barre.

Why these differences? Here are four factors I believe are involved:

1 — Frequency of random contact
Vallecitos has a single small main building (formerly a hunting lodge) with a meditation hall and dining room large enough for 50 people. We roomed in tiny nearby individual cabins or tents. Over our five days together, we saw each other frequently, eating meals together, and passing during daily activities.

Barre is a sprawling facility of multiple buildings joined by enclosed connecting hallways. My wife was on retreat with me, and we barely saw each other during the three days, except when we sat (far apart) in the large 150-person meditation hall.

In Easthampton, 25 of us sat in a single small room. Except for lunchtime we were all together the entire day.

Although during any retreat there is no conventional contact, one is indirectly aware of neighbors, and that awareness becomes a form of connection that increases with time and opportunity. The limited number of chance encounters at Barre, due to the layout of the facility, minimized this form of indirect connection. (This, of course, is a plus if you really want to concentrate on your own work for an extended period of time without distraction, but that’s not what I’m focusing on here.)

2 — Size of group versus time together
A small group of strangers is potentially more intimate than a crowd of strangers. The time spent together increases the indirect intimacy but, in my experience, the sense of personal connection fades rapidly with increase in group size — I’d guess as the square of the number of people in the group. So our Easthampton retreat, though time was short, felt intimate because the 25 of us were all together most of the time, and Vallecitos was long enough for the 40 of us to recognize each other. At Barre, on the other hand, I barely registered most of the 100 participants and the sense of being part of a community was absent.

3 — Number of leaders
At Easthampton, our single teacher, Jesse, created a more intimate environment that felt more informal and intimate than at the other retreats. Jesse sat close with us in a small room and was easy to hear at a conventional voice level. At Vallecitos and Barre, the teaching felt more formal (Jesse was one of the 2 teachers at Barre) with sound reinforcement required at Barre because of the size of the room. The more teachers at the retreat, the more context switches we had when they were speaking. A compensating factor was that at Vallecitos we had an opportunity to meet in small groups with each of our 3 teachers, which improved our individual connection with them. This did not occur at Barre, where our teachers, though friendly with the large group were not seen outside the meditation hall.

4 — Meals
At Easthampton, the meditation center is situated in a large former factory, converted into a set of stores and businesses, so we were free too have lunch separately somewhere in the facility.

The Barre dining facility felt sterile. The weather was beautiful so many people took their meals outside in the grounds. Surprisingly to me, there were few places outdoors for small groups to sit together. Consequently, I ate all of my meals by myself, with no one else around.

At Vallecitos it was sometimes too cold to eat outdoors, so we ate in silence in the dining room. I’ve described the remarkable effect this had on me in this earlier post. Even when the (stunningly beautiful) outdoors beckoned, chairs and rocks were arranged so people gravitated to sitting near each other, eating together in silence.

Conclusions
It may seem strange to be thinking about the level of interpersonal dynamics developed at retreats whose core purpose is to allow participants the environment, structure, and process to explore and experience themselves. But if meditation was easy, we wouldn’t need to create group retreats to support individual work; we’d just learn to do it by ourselves. Sustaining this work requires a community of spiritual practice (called sangha in the Vipassana tradition) and formal retreats like the ones I’ve described are a key opportunity to develop such communities.

At Vallecitos, I had some wonderful conversations at the end of the retreat, and when I go there again later this year I hope to meet some of the friends I made during that short period. So, though building community through the development of intimacy and connection at silent retreats is not a core goal, it’s important to the growth of the practice, and I offer these observations in the spirit of supporting a practice that is important to an increasing number of people, including me.

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