Best places to seek silence
When was the last time you had some quality ‘me time’? And no, a night in front of Netflix doesn’t count. Sometimes you need to stop, switch off your time-sucking smartphone and enjoy a little peace and quiet in order to recharge.
When the modern world’s constant clamour gets your ears ringing, escape to these quiet noise-free spots and silent retreats.
Esalen Institute, USA
Founded in 1962 by a pair of expanded consciousness-seeking Stanford grads, this retreat centre in Big Sur, California, is the mothership of the New Age movement (esalen.org). Well-heelled bohemians flock here for massages, encounter groups, ‘vision quests’, and soaks in the world-renowned nude hot tubs. While most of Esalen’s workshops are decidedly un-silent – think Gestalt sex therapy, ‘shamanic dream healing’ and so forth – the institute is famed for its occasional, highly sought-after silent retreats. Spend five days watching the sun rise over the crashing Pacific, eating organic meals, meditating and receiving patented ‘Esalen massages’, all in total silence.
Vipassana Meditation Retreat, India
The ancient pre-Buddhist technique of vipassana has been gaining popularity among stressed-out 21-st century dwellers. Vipassana, which means ‘to see things as they really are’, involves silence, stillness, and observing your breath. Practitioners learn the technique at 10-day silent meditation retreats, held at some 160 centres worldwide. Dhamma Giri, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, is one of the biggest. Meditate beneath cyan skies in a golden pagoda with over 400 separate meditation cells, and share vegetarian meals with everyone from cleaners to CEOs. Adherents claim benefits ranging from hallucinations to full-body orgasms (!).
Hridaya Yoga, Mexico
Practise your downward-facing dog and tree pose in blessed quiet at Hridaya (hridaya-yoga.com), a yoga and silent retreat centre on Oaxaca’s glorious Mazunte beach. Get your toes wet with a three-day retreat, practise your fortitude with a 10-day session, or go full-on hermit with an invitation-only 49-day solo experience. A full schedule of hatha yoga, group meditation and study of Hindu, Sufi, Buddhist and Taoist texts will banish the boredom that might creep in after a few days of separation from your iPhone. Plus, the landscape – golden-green mountains tumbling down to an agate sea – is so gorgeous, who needs to talk?
Kartause Ittingen, Switzerland
In a former Carthusian monastery in Switzerland’s hilly orchard country, this hotel and farm complex (kartause.ch) combines monastic peacefulness and modern comforts. While Carthusian monks take strict vows of silence and solitude, visitors to the Kartause enjoy a rather more relaxed and luxurious existence. Spend an afternoon lost in thought in the ‘silent room’, quietly stroll the garden’s thyme maze, wander the ancient cloisters, or join in group meditation. Afterwards, feel free to exercise your vocal chords while enjoying a meal of fresh-baked bread, raw-milk brie, and salads of local herbs and flowers.
Emoyeni, South Africa
On the slopes of South Africa’s Magaliesberg range lies this Buddhist retreat centre (‘place of the spirit’ in Zulu). Open to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, Emoyeni offers a variety of silent and semi-silent retreats. A weekend ‘encounter with enlightenment’ requires only one day of quiet, while traditional nine-day Vipassana meditation retreats mean no speaking for more than a week. If that’s not your bag, just come here on a ‘self-retreat’ – eat vegetarian meals, hike in the bushveld, explore the library, or walk the garden labyrinth. Talking is permitted except during daily post-dinner ‘Noble Silence’.
This dot of an island in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides has been a spiritual centre for at least a millennium and a half. Colonised by Irish monks in the early Middle Ages, its scriptorium produced some of the most important illuminated manuscripts of the period. Today Iona is dotted with monastic ruins and enormous stone crosses. It attracts thousands of pilgrims each year, many of whom attend retreats in and around ancient Iona Abbey. While most retreats are Christian-affiliated, many welcome anyone wishing to experience quiet contemplation.
Nyepi Day, Bali
On the Indonesian island of Bali, locals ring in the Balinese New Year by… not ringing anything at all. Nyepi Day, which usually falls in early spring, is honoured by maintaining complete silence from sunup to sundown. Though a Hindu holiday, it’s practised out of respect by most non-Hindu locals as well. In addition to no speaking, Nyepi Day means no travelling, watching TV or listening to music, and no working. Do as the locals do, and use the day for contemplation. Be aware that business and transportation are curtailed on Nyepi Day.
Kyoto International Zendo, Japan
Get Zen – for real – at this traditional Japanese Zen centre. Guests come from all over the world to practice zazen – the art of seated meditation – in the zendo’s incense-fragrant wooden buildings, set in the hills outside Kyoto. Silent meditation is only broken by ritual chanting, though chatting is allowed in the evenings in the old-fashioned farmhouse that serves as the sleeping quarters. This is no spa – expect simple meals of rice, pickles and tofu, manual work, and a daily wake-up time of 4.50am. You’ll be rewarded with a clear head and new sense of tranquillity.
Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, USA
Spend a week as an urban hermit at this latter-day hermitage, behind Washington, DC’s Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America (myfranciscan.org). The modernist-style cabin is built for one guest, and comes complete with a kitchenette to encourage self-sufficiency. Guests are invited to stroll the grounds in quiet contemplation, though (non-silent) monks are on hand should you have any questions. Apparently Washingtonians are in need of a break from the grind of city living – the hermitage has been almost fully booked since it opened in 2012.
Kielder Forest, UK
An acoustic engineering professor from the University of Salford recently declared a certain boggy hill in this 600 sq km Northumberland forest the quietest place in the UK. But you don’t have to wade through the muck to get peace in Kielder Forest. Far from the nearest town, major road or flight path, this is one of the most tranquil corners of England. Hike, mountain bike, watch for osprey, or sail on one of Europe’s largest man-made lakes. Or wait till dark and train your telescope towards the spectacular night sky. In addition to being the UK’s quietest spot, it’s also one of the darkest.