Stacey O’Gorman On What She Learned From A Silent Retreat
We don’t get a lot of silence anymore, do we?
I mean, even before we started walking around with Gameboy-sized computers in our pockets there wasn’t a lot of “quiet time”, but especially now, in a world where being hyper-connected and highly-contactable is the norm, we’ve cultivated an almost compulsive need to fill the gap. With conversation and unsolicited advice. With podcasts. The Radio. A quick scroll through TikTok. Even the apps that don’t require us to talk or listen – like WhatsApp or Instagram – still encourage us to relentlessly communicate with one another.
Which is why when women’s wellbeing coach Stacey O’Gorman told me she’d recently completed a “silent retreat”, I didn’t know if she’d described my dream vacation or worst nightmare. As an outgoing introvert (yes, it’s a thing), I simultaneously find it exhausting to be in the company of others, but I also really love to talk. When I told my dad about Stacey’s retreat, he replied without even a hint of sarcasm, “You could experiment with that for just, like… one or two minutes each day?”.
You know that moment when you’re swimming in the ocean and you submerge yourself underwater and hold you breath for six or seven seconds? And for those few seconds everything is dead quiet? So quiet that it feels both peaceful and a little terrifying? I wanted to know if that’s what a silent retreat felt like.
Here’s my conversation with Stacey.
How did you first hear about the concept of a “silent retreat” and what were your initial assumptions about it?
Typically, when people from the meditation community talk about silent retreats they’re referring to a technique called ‘Vipassana’. Vipassana is a very hardcore, dogmatic approach in which guests spend ten days literallysitting in silence and meditating. That’s it. It’s incredibly structured and has a very masculine energy. I’d been talking about it with friends and put my name down to attend last year but didn’t get in which, in hindsight, was a blessing because I ended up exactly where I was meant to.
I knew I still wanted to do something, so I spoke with my ex-husband who has done both Vipassana and the Te Moata silent retreat in Tairua and he thought I’d love Te Moata because it has a much more gentle and fluid structure, and was only seven days instead of ten so a great option for my first time. I’ve done tons of spiritual work in yoga, embodiment and dance, but I’ve never intentionally sat still with myself.
Tell me a little about the details of your retreat. Where did you do it, for how long, and with who?
The Te Moata Retreat Centre is based in Tairua and our silent retreat was facilitated by Stephen Archer. Stephen’s approach to meditation is based on neuroscience; he spent many years as a monk before realising that while he loved the benefits of an altered state of consciousness, he was also starting to lose his people skills from isolating himself so often. So in Stephen’s courses he keeps things really grounded and practical, and takes a deep dive into the science of how these practices work and can benefit us.
It cost $600 to do the seven day retreat, which in my opinion was amazing. That $600 covered my accommodation, food and facilities for the seven days. It’s not a “glamorous” retreat, it’s very much a back-to-basics experience: You don’t have your phone or any technology, you’re immersed in native New Zealand bush, surrounded by incredible hikes and waterfalls, and you’re staying in these beautiful shacks in the middle of it all.
I went with my mum (who had never done any meditation before!), my sister, two of my best friends, and my ex-husband. We all loved doing it at the start of January because it created this spaciousness and stillness that allowed each of us to go into the new year with so much intention and clarity.
Tell me about your own personal experience. What did you love and what did you find the most challenging?
What I realised is that we seldom sit in silence! In our daily lives there is always an obligation to speak or be a part of a conversation. It was so nice to sit with my friends and family, who I adore, and just be. There was something really powerful about sitting in each other’s energy, showing up exactly as we were, and not having to come up with anything to say – it was actually a relief!
I also found it interesting to reflect on how accustomed we are with sharing our daily experiences with each other – social media has obviously played a big role in this. On the retreat, I’d go off on one of my hikes, stumble across an incredible waterfall, sit and meditate by the waterfall for an hour, and then go for a swim, and have this unbelievably perfect day and then just return back to camp and not tell anyone about it! Your experiences and adventures were just for you.
In terms of what I found challenging; I was processing some relationship stuff while I was there, and the silence meant that I was forced to deal with that head on. Because you spend so much time sitting in stillness, anything that is remotely triggering for you – whether good or bad – is going to come up and you can’t escape it. What my stillness revealed to me is that my emotions towards my relationship stuff moved like a wave; throughout the seven days I went from spaces of deep resentment and anger, to days where I’d feel a softening and sense of acceptance, to other days where I felt sadness, and this wave would ebb and flow. By the end of the retreat I actually felt relief, like: “You know what? I’ve thought about this relationship stuff so fucking much this week – I don’t need to think about it anymore!”
How did you feel coming out of the retreat?
When the retreat finished we all sat in a circle to share our experiences and then had a group lunch, and I really struggled with this part of the experience. It was pretty overwhelming to go from not speaking at all, to suddenly be immersed in conversation. Physically, it felt weird to speak – my throat was uncomfortable! But also energetically, communicating with everyone was really overwhelming for me. I felt grounded from the experienced but also had some new temporary sensitivity – to sounds, energies, and that old familiar “obligation” to speak. What I really valued after the retreat was going and having a day at my aunties house in Kuaotunu, and spending 24 hours easing myself back into the world.
Lastly, what feelings or practices will you be carrying with you as you return to “normal life”?
I’ve held onto the morning meditation practice. When I wake up, I instantly sit up in bed, and set my timer for ten or thirty minutes (depending on how much time I have), and sit in stillness. Stephen talked a lot about being kind to ourselves when we’re meditating and not being fixated on doing it perfectly; it’s human nature for our brains to be overstimulated and constantly processing something, but the key is that when you notice your mind has wandered, gently and kindly bring it back to your breath. Full transparency: throughout the retreat I’d often spend 45 minutes “meditating” but only come back to proper awareness maybe once or twice and for the rest of the 45 minutes I was off thinking about the dramas and shit of my life haha. The key is to not judge it. You’ll eventually get better at coming back.
Since the retreat ended I‘ve noticed that I have a larger capacity for work, friendships and life in general! I think that’s because when I’m in business mode, or can feel burnout creeping in, I know that I can take ten or twenty minutes to just sit with myself and reset. There’s a sense of groundedness to everything I do.
Stacey O’Gorman is a leading women’s wellbeing coach and the co-founder of Lou, an eight-week program designed to help women move from burnout and overwhelm to freedom and alignment. Lou’s next program begins on February 16th.