Would you brave a silent retreat in the Italian alps? Here’s what happened when Stylist’s fashion news editor and resident chatterbox, Billie Bhatia, tried three days of no talking.
“I love the idea of sending someone unbelievably chatty to a silent retreat. It would be funny, but also it’s a place where you have to have difficult conversations with yourself and really listen to yourself.”
Silence is golden, right? Wrong. As someone who can’t even tolerate moments of shared silence in a lift, it’s far from golden. In fact, silence is something I have deliberately made myself unfamiliar with. ‘Me time’ is a concept that makes me recoil with anxiety. Which is precisely why I was asked (or rather offered up like lamb to the slaughter) to attend Hardcore Silence: a three-day silent retreat led by artist Janosh Art at the Mandali Retreat Center in the Italian mountains. (It was the Jacuzzi with the Instaworthy views that swung the vote.)
After a flight to Milan I was climbing the hairpin-bends from Lago d’Orta to Mandali, ready to accept my silent fate. Having dumped my bags in my minimalist but stylish bedroom and eaten a vegetarian lunch made from local ingredients, it was time to face the music… or rather lack of.
I was starting to feel anxious about what was coming as I conjured up the worst-case scenarios: I get cramp in my legs mid-meditation and break the silence with a scream, I fall asleep and start snoring loudly or worst of all, I get a bout of school-girl giggles and ruin the mood entirely. Call it pathetic fallacy or divine intervention, but as peak anxiety hit so did the mother of all thunderstorms, with golf-ball sized hailstones pelting the ground. This was it, the exodus was coming.
The silence is supposed to make you reflect on yourself, concentrate only on the things you want to achieve and disconnect from everything else. So, gathered together, my group of 16 were told: “From this moment on you will turn off your phones, you will not read, you will not listen to music and you will not speak unless instructed until Sunday afternoon when you leave Mandali. This isn’t just silence, this is hardcore silence.”
Speech over, it was time to undertake my first meditation session which comprised of kaleidoscopic shapes (known as sacred geometry) moving on a projector screen paired with music that sounded a bit like Ibiza-chill. Within minutes my Ibizan daydream was snapped with the sound of wailing and breathing so heavy I was convinced someone was having a really good time. Was this normal? Should I start crying?
Next I found myself sitting in a circle answering the question: who am I? I had a feeling, “I’m Billie, a 29-year-old fashion journalist with an Uber addiction and a habit for falling in love with men who open doors”, wasn’t going to cut it. Having confessed that even after an afternoon of deep meditation I had no bloody idea, I was grateful that it was bedtime. Sleep, it turns out, is an excellent way to stay silent for a long period of time.
Day two and I take my breakfast of homemade yoghurt and hand-picked fruit onto the terrace to soak in the view. I wince every time my spoon hits the bowl and makes a noise, but overall I feel like I’m getting the hang of being quiet. Once I resigned myself to it, it wasn’t impossible but it was difficult.
The hardest thing was not sharing what was going on – I was desperate to talk to someone to see if they found the experience as wild as I did. So I’m overjoyed to find someone has slipped me a note: “I love your soul song, as you remind me of my own. Thank you for making me remember one part again. Big hug xxx.”
I have a soul song, how exciting! Is it Dolly Parton’s Jolene? Is it Dixie Chicks’ Cowboy Take Me Away? No, it’s definitely Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me.
The morning comprised of more videos followed by meditation (I am so zen at this point I have fallen asleep twice). Before we break for lunch I have a 1-2-1 with Janosh where he has promised to look at my aura.
What he sees is that I have a naughtiness in my character (OMG he knows I fell asleep), a warmth and humour that attracts people and a smile that could brighten the world (his words). Then he finished with something so poignantly personal that I broke down crying. Feeling overwhelmed I sit on the terrace and watch the hotel cat for distraction.
As I watch the little rascal navigate the tricky mountainous terrain with a deliberate, confident step, I wonder whether this was some kind of metaphor for how I should be living my life? To not be afraid, to be purposeful like the cat. I pause on that thought for a couple of minutes and then look at the cat again, ready for my next moment of enlightenment. Instead all I hear in my head are the Lizzo lyrics, “Kitty cat, kitty cat, kitty kitty cat”.
Saturday afternoon was another open circle. This time we had to stand in the middle of the circle, turn to each person individually and listen to what everyone thought when they looked at you. I felt sick. Not just a wave of nausea kind of sick but a, “Hold my hair Brenda, I’m going to barf”, kind of sick. Five people in, I bit the bullet. I was greeted with: brave, full of humour, loving, light, naughty and an Indian princess. I was so stunned by the genuine kindness that my clammy hands were wiping away tears rolling down my cheeks.
Our hardcore work was then rewarded with a campfire where we were allowed to speak to one another. So excited by this, I was the last person standing, striking up conversation with anyone who even glanced my way.
The final day was one of mixed emotions. I felt peaceful. I was thankful for the place, the people and the lightness I felt knowing that there was more to me than I thought. I was sad that the bubble was about to burst, too, and that the silent family who had so willingly adopted me was going to disperse.
I can’t say that I am a different person. Sure, I might make marginally less noise (although I ran screaming towards a Venchi gelato shop in the airport), but I have improved. I care a little less about what other people think, care a little more about myself and have learnt that words are the most powerful tool we possess, so best use them wisely.
Mandali offers meditation, yoga, personal development and healing arts retreats. The Hardcore Silence retreat includes two nights in shared accommodation plus meals and workshops, £554; mandali.org
A quiet place
Lose you voice (without doing karaoke) and give yourself some time to contemplate and recalibrate with these silent retreats
For bohemian calm
Between April and November, the Yobaba Lounge in the foothills of the Pyrenees holds three-night retreats. From 8.30pm until noon you’ll be silent as you enjoy wholesome vegan food in this bohemian chateau.
All-inclusive three-night retreat from £560pp; yobabalounge.com
For silent beginners
Grade I-listed Sharpham House sits on 550 acres of beautiful Devon countryside. Their Mindfulness for Beginner retreats feature short periods of silence alongside meditation, plenty of fresh air and vegetarian food.
All-inclusive three-night retreat from £335pp; sharphamtrust.org
For Buddhist teaching
Gaia House in South Devon is one of the biggest meditation centres in Europe and offers silent retreats in the Buddhist tradition (all faiths are welcome), while accommodation is mostly shared rooms.
All-inclusive retreats start from £192pp for a two-night stay; gaiahouse.co.uk