The Sounds of Silence

Look for silent retreats on the Internet and you’ll find hundreds—Catholic, Vedanta, men’s, Lutheran, Buddhist, women’s, Quaker. It appears that every spiritual tradition encourages us to be still for a time, to quiet the endless chatter   of the surface mind and listen with our whole bodies to . . . well, what we’re listening for depends on the tradition, but all promote a sense of focusing inward. In Reiki we are encouraged from first degree on to “listen to our hands,” listen to our hearts. And if you practice enough long enough, Reiki, it seems, will call you to silence. This call finally led me to explore meditation after many years of resistance. This call—coupled with a fascination for the idea of practicing in community in silence—led my Reiki students to ask me to offer a silent Reiki retreat.

“Silence,” writes Joan Chittister in Illuminated Life, “is the lost art in a society made of noise.”

One part of silence is not talking, letting the mind settle into deeper places. Another part is listening. Chittister continues, “ . . . the real material of spiritual development is not in books. It is in the subject matter of the self . . . Silence is the cave through which the soul must travel, clearing out the dissonance of life as we go . . .”

Without the clamor, we can hear what’s going on inside.


From the beginning I enjoyed the silence of Reiki treatment. I had practiced for about ten years when I began to have opportunities to give many treatments—four or five a day, five or six days on end. Sitting for hours in the quiet of a Reiki session, I finally had to face the contents of my mind.

Silence supports the practice of Reiki. With hands and body we listen intently to the rhythm of the energetic flow. In silence we can watch our thoughts burble up as well, noticing how and why we worry or anger, feeling when kindness, gratitude, and honoring arise. When we listen in the silence of Reiki, we know ourselves better, and we know the person we’re treating.

Without words, we come closer to direct experience. For a practice like Reiki, where so much of what we feel, sense, know, and understand is impossible to describe, silence is a natural resting place.


Through good friends and good fortune I met a meditation teacher, which eventually led to an opportunity of a lifetime—a three-month silent retreat. What I learned and how the retreat changed my life is a book-length story. Among the many things I walked away with is an abiding appreciation and hunger for silence.

I found that talking requires tremendous energy and that there is safety in silence. When we’re not talking, I’m not telling tales to impress you, not defending myself with words. I don’t have to be anybody. You don’t either. The deeper and longer the silence, the more inside myself I can go. The deeper the silence, the more I can relate to you without pretense or masks . . . and the more you can know about me. We know each other without words.

And isn’t that also the experience of Reiki? When you treat someone over time, don’t you know that person intimately . . . and in an almost impersonal way you can’t describe?

When I returned to my Reiki community after the three-month retreat, people noticed a difference. When I took every opportunity to do more retreat, people in the Reiki circle got curious: What is this silence thing about? My colleague, Paul Mitchell, had already offered a silent retreat for Reiki Masters. Why not try it?

I borrowed the framework from the Tibetan Buddhist retreats I had attended, but the practices were purely Reiki. I wanted participants to give and receive full treatments every day and to luxuriate in full self-treatments too. Most of all, I wanted the silence to help us focus our minds around the Reiki precepts. A daily, one-hour discussion on a specific precept both relieved the urge to speak and expanded our reflection.

Through silence and sharing together in community, our appreciation of Reiki grows. We’ll retreat together for a third time this fall.

Experiences of a Silent Reiki Retreat
Voices in the Silence
compiled and edited by Karen Spiel

The golds of the maple and alder trees glowed against the deep blue of the water. The whispers of leaves falling from the trees were among the loudest voices we heard all weekend, because this was a Silent Reiki Retreat.

Thirty spokes meet at the wheel’s axis;The center space makes the wheel useful.Form clay into a cup;The center space gives it purpose.Frame doors and windows for a house;The openings make the house useful.Therefore, purpose comes from what is thereBecause of what is not there. (Tao, 11)

There were eight of us, including our facilitator. Our setting was the Harmony Hill Retreat Center on Hood Canal in Washington State at the peak of autumn. We came from different places and with different purposes, but with one common goal: to explore Reiki within a landscape of silence, which we would create together. Our three days were carefully scheduled, starting with an early morning group self-treatment while contemplating one of the precepts, morning and afternoon Reiki treatments, one hour in the early evening for group discussion about a precept, and group self-treatment to close the day. We had ample time for walking in the woods or on the beach and gazing into the fire. Here are some of our individual experiences:

From Gretchen:

I arrived exhausted, relishing the idea of taking some time off just for myself. I was having a terrible time shaking off the effects of a cold virus and wondering if it was developing into pneumonia again. I really needed some rest after teaching elementary school children.

The effects of the continuous Reiki treatments were profound. I have been doing Reiki for so long, but I was still amazed at the way my body healed so quickly. By the second day, I could breathe deeply again. Later that afternoon, I began to feel like myself. Finally, as we gathered for breakfast on the last day, I realized my mind had a clarity that had been lacking from a month of suffering from two successive viruses.

There was another response within me. The quality of our relationships in silence was a unique experience of peaceful connection. The sense of harmony built among the group, expanding to a fullness of blessed community. It was a joyful experience that I have carried back to the children I teach.

From Tod:

Silence is a much different experience for me than just quiet. I am usually a “quiet” person. In the case of this weekend I experienced both aspects, quiet and silence. Quiet is relatively easy if and when I remember to keep my mouth shut. The social compulsion to greet someone is a hard habit to suppress. We were all laughing about it as we gathered. We all said, “Oh yes, I can do this. No problem.” Yet first thing on the first morning, there was the urge to speak.

Silence is another thing. Until I actually approach it in earnest, I don’t experience it that much except during times of meditation and sometimes during Reiki treatments. The rest of the time I have a relatively boisterous life. This is particularly true in the collective residence where I live. Silence becomes an inner experience that I can rely on for comfort amidst the activity around me. The renewal experience here at Harmony Hill reminds me of what is possible when I have silence well in mind.

The addition of almost constant Reiki helps the meaning and the practice go just that much deeper. My experience of Reiki, while in an environment of silence and quiet, becomes even more intense. I find that in silence, with intention, I allow the Reiki to become more effective.

From Casey:

For years I listened to stories from other circle members about their silent retreats. I don’t really meditate, but it sounded so heavenly! I asked our leader what she thought, and so the first retreat happened last year. I didn’t make it. This year though, I did, arriving with a full-fledged cold. Could it get worse? Sure it could—I threw my back out Friday before lunch. I saw stars. I was in silence, what was I to do? It was time to make friends with my afflictions: This cold is making me miserable. I can’t think, I can’t smell, I can’t taste. I am running like a faucet. I used that as a tool to help me work. It became a cleansing river, washing away whatever I could let go of. My back—what can I say? Anyone who has ever had a backache knows. It hurt to move. I was doubled over like I was ninety years old, every step sending pain from head to toe. I had no choice but to “be still and notice,” so I had stillness and listening. It was so powerful. I do not at all regret that I could not walk in that beautiful place. I have no doubt what happened was what was supposed to happen. There is something truly wonderful about silence by agreement. It allows you as much room as you could possibly need. Our leader told us silence was as much about listening. I listened a lot! Am I changed? Most definitely! As I write this, it’s about three or four weeks later and the peace and depth are still with me.

From Karen:

At first I had to quell little urges to talk, and it was pretty noisy inside my head, with lots of unspoken conversations. I was worried that I would forget and make some silly remark, shattering the silence. At the same time, the freedom to experience, ponder, and savor without the need to verbalize was deeply restful. When I stopped talking, not only did my noisy left brain get to rest, but I noticed more of the thoughts that came from my quieter, intuitive right brain.

As time went on, we all seemed to feel more and more comfortable with not talking and with the spare gracefulness of simple gestures for thank you, excuse me, and back-in-a-sec. The silence began to feel like something we were all creating, not a lack of words.

Beginning our morning with contemplation of a precept helped me weave this thinking into the day, and the quiet gave opportunity for insights to arise. Often for me these insights were visual, tactile, or visceral instead of my usual verbal. I had wondered what it would be like to break silence every day for our hour-long discussion of precepts. Our discussions were thought provoking, and after the hour, we renewed our commitment to silence, so there was a slow rhythm to the day, like breaking a fast. Over the weekend I began to realize that a theme for me to take away from this weekend was listening—without worry or impatience, to hear what people need so that I can act with more kindness, mindfulness, and gratitude.

From Arlene:

I went to the retreat to explore the qualities of silence. I learned more than I expected. There are many levels of silence. There is the comfortable silence of a couple married for many years that have already shared so many thoughts and often know what the other is thinking without saying anything. There is a silence where people come together for a silent retreat and have many thoughts and observations that they try to share through non-verbal means. And there is the silence where people come together prepared to let go of thoughts and ideas as unnecessary and drop into a deep introspective peace. So one silence is obviously quieter than others are, and there are things to be learned from each type. Each afternoon, after our second treatment, we came together to discuss the Reiki precepts. This was not a time to visit; it was a guided discussion on a specific quality of one or more of the precepts. Coming out of a treatment and silence seemed to intensify and focus our thoughts. Each person had some insightful ideas about the precepts and how they all interconnect with each other. It expanded my understanding and helped me to appreciate the depth of these simple phrases. I came home determined to be more diligent about making the precepts an integral part of every day.

As with the cup of the Tao, the purpose came from what was not there, and together we filled that empty cup with Reiki. Three days of moving toward wholeness as individuals and as a groupit was a rich, restorative, and unforgettable experience.