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Silent meditation, as its name suggests, involves eliminating any noise around you, including music or a teacher’s guidance, and cultivating an awareness of your body in the present.
Buddhists have practiced this type of meditation, also called unguided meditation, for more than 2,500 years. Jenelle Kim, DACM, author of Myung Sung: The Korean Art of Living Meditation, says this practice traditionally aims to focus on mindfulness in order to foster calmness, clarity, and acceptance.
There are multiple approaches to silent meditation, including vipassana. The name of this approach comes from a Buddhist term that means to see things as they truly are. According to Laurasia Mattingly, a meditation and mindfulness teacher and founder of The Sit Society, this practice involves sitting in silence and observing your thoughts and emotions without judgment.
Here’s what to know about the benefits of silent meditation, along with some tips on how to practice it.
Meditation doesn’t necessarily require silence. It might involve:
- guided instruction
- mantras, which can help you stay focused and grounded in the present moment
- music or nature sounds
In fact, many people prefer guided meditations. In this approach to meditation, a teacher offers instruction through each step of the process. Guided meditation can prove especially helpful for beginning meditators as they get comfortable with the practice.
“In silent meditation, there is no music to fall into, no voice to tell you what to think about and no sound vibration to zone you out,” explains Dominica Fisher, Director of Meditative & Creative Exploration at BIÂN.
“The biggest difference between silent meditation and other types is that you must take ownership of where your thoughts lead. The power of silent meditation lies in understanding you have control over your perception — you are the driver of the experience,” Fisher says.
The benefits of meditation are well-studied.
According to a 2017 research review, meditation can help:
- lower anxiety, depression, and stress
- increase empathy
- boost attention and focus
- improve sleep and overall mood
A 2012 review also found that both sitting and silent meditation may help you better regulate your emotions, including negative ones, so they don’t overwhelm you. Researchers noted these emotional regulation skills may be particularly useful for people living with specific mental health conditions, including:
Silent meditation in action
The 2012 review mentioned above also suggested that meditation can help shift how you respond and react to negative cues in your environment.
Say our partner rolls their eyes, raises their voice, or seems to ignore you. Your automatic instinct might involve an angry response.
But if you’ve been practicing silent meditation, you may find it easier to pause, reflect on how their behavior affected you, and calmly explain how they made you feel without jumping to any conclusions about their intentions.
Poornima Sharma, PhD, a meditation teacher at the Art of Living Retreat Center, notes some additional benefits of silent meditation:
- reduced stress and improved ability to manage stress
- greater sense of joy and enthusiasm
- increased focus
- higher energy levels
- better quality of sleep
- improved ability to listen and connect more deeply with others
- greater clarity in a range of situations, including work, parenting, and relationships
- increased awareness of your mental and physical health
According to Fisher, silent meditation may also help calm your fight-or-flight response and promote a state of relaxation in its place. As a result, this practice may make it easier for you to stay calm during stressful situations, or when you encounter something you perceive as a threat.
Instead of remaining in a state of worry and concern, which can flood your system with potentially harmful stress hormones, you learn to rest and repair, explains Fisher.
While anyone can try silent meditation, it won’t necessarily work for everyone, says Mattingly.
You might, for example, find it too challenging to stay in the present moment in total silence. For that reason, if you’re new to meditation, you may want to start with guided meditation until you feel comfortable directing the practice on your own.
According to Fisher, silent meditation generally proves most effective when you already have a basic understanding of certain techniques like breathing and body scanning, plus a good strategy for anchoring yourself when your mind wanders.
If you try silent meditation several times and notice you consistently finish the practice more frustrated or stressed than when you began, it may be time to try a different type of meditation, says Kim.
It may take some time
It can take up to 90 days of daily practice to experience positive changes, Mattingly notes. So, you may not always notice the benefits of silent meditation right away. But if your practice doesn’t seem to have any negative effects, it may be worth sticking with it a little longer.
Above all, Fisher encourages being patient and kind to yourself as you experiment with silent meditation.
On some days, you might find it easy to quiet your mind. On others, you may find it next to impossible to quiet the noise inside your head. Both experiences are common and totally OK. As with any other new skill, you may just need more time to strengthen the mental muscles involved so you can get what you want and need out of the practice.
When trying silent meditation (or meditation in general) for the first time, Mattingly advises easing in with short sessions of just 5 to 10 minutes.
Here’s how to practice silent meditation, according to Mattingly and Fisher:
- Find a quiet place to practice and get comfortable. You might sit cross-legged on a floor cushion, or on a chair with your feet flat on the ground.
- Set a timer for your practice. Ideally, opt for a gong or soothing sound instead of a jarring alarm sound.
- Gently close your eyes and settle into the stillness.
- Choose an area you’d like to focus on. Fisher recommends starting with the breath by noticing where your belly and chest expand and contract and how the air feels flowing in and out of your nostrils. (Find two breathing exercises to try below these steps.)
- From here, you may choose to move on to your body. Hone in on any parts with tension and try to relax them. Notice how your clothes or how the air feels against your skin.
- You can also try a body scan. starting with the top of your head and gradually moving down to your toes, simply notice any physical sensations you’re feeling.
- Shift your attention to the external world. This might involve noticing the temperature of the room, smells in your environment, or subtle sounds, like the humming of a refrigerator.
- If and when any emotions arise, try to observe them without any judgment. Remember, there’s no right or wrong way to feel in this moment.
- Come up with a simple labeling system for thoughts that pop up — for example, past or future, reminiscing or planning. When you begin thinking about something that distracts you from meditation, simply label the thought and then shift your attention back to your breath or body.
Keep in mind that it’s completely natural for your mind to wander while meditating.
Briefly noting your thoughts and then moving on, rather than getting frustrated or discouraged and judging yourself accordingly, is all part of the practice, Fisher explains. In fact, doing so can actually strengthen your mindfulness muscles over time.
- Box Breathing: Breathe in through your nose for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, and then exhale through your mouth for four counts. Repeat three to four times.
- 3-Part Breathing (Dirga pranayama): Inhale into your belly, sip more air into your rib cage, and finish by letting more air fill your upper chest and collarbone. On the exhale, let your breath first escape from your upper chest and collarbone, then your rib cage, and finally, your belly. Repeat 10 times.
You may feel the need to pause between each part of these breathing exercises until you get more comfortable with them. Eventually, you’ll likely find you can transition between each part smoothly.
Remember, as Kim explains, the main principle of silent meditation is to bring your attention back to your breath every time you get lost in thought or your mind drifts away from the present.
Many people find silent meditation one of the most difficult types of meditation, Kim says. That’s because distracting thoughts are often more likely to bubble up when you don’t have a voice guiding you through the process.
Still, it’s possible for anyone to master it, with enough practice.
Mattingly recommends starting and sustaining your practice of silent meditation under the guidance of a teacher in order to get the most out of the experience.
You can start your search for a meditation instructor near you with these directories:
- The International Mindfulness Teachers Association
- Mindful Directory
- Mindfulness Center at Brown University
If you can’t access a local meditation teacher or would rather try silent meditation on your own, you still have options.
You’ll find many silent meditation videos available online:
These videos serve as a timer, with a gong prompting the start of your meditation and another signaling the end.
Prefer to try guided meditation first before transitioning to silent meditation? Meditation apps can help you get started. A few options to consider include:
If you find a teacher on Insight Timer whose teaching style really resonates with you, Mattingly suggests searching for them online to find out if they offer one-on-one coaching.
Find more options for trying guided meditation online.
Once you’ve gotten comfortable with longer silent meditation sessions, Kim recommends participating in a retreat for a deeper level of reflection and contemplation.
The guidelines for these retreats can vary, but participants generally refrain from talking for the entire duration, typically 7 to 10 days. This includes during meals, yoga classes, reading, journaling, and any other activities.
When to reach out
What if silent meditation (or any other form of meditation, for that matter) doesn’t seem to help ease your mental health symptoms, including feelings of depression and anxiety?
At that point, experts recommend reaching out to a therapist or other licensed mental health professional for more support.
“Many times, meditation is used in conjunction with therapy,” says Fisher. “No single approach is right for everyone, and more often than not, these practices are combined for personal wellness.”
Start your search for a therapist.
Silent meditation can be a highly rewarding experience. Eliminating sounds from your environment can help you focus on anchoring yourself in the present moment and boost your awareness of what’s happening internally from a mental, physical, and emotional standpoint.
That said, silent meditation may not work for everyone. Consider starting with a few short sessions to check whether it feels right for you. You might also find it helpful to seek guidance from a certified meditation teacher.
And remember, if you don’t enjoy the practice, you have plenty of other meditation approaches to try.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.