Taking a vow of silence has long been fodder for pop culture.
In HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry meets a spiritual man named Vance who has taken a vow of silence and only communicates by mouthing words.
Larry isn’t amused, though many viewers were.
Kramer takes a vow of silence during an episode of “Seinfeld” to rectify his lack of filter. And teenager Dwayne took a vow of silence as he worked toward becoming a test pilot in the hit film “Little Miss Sunshine.”
Though it makes for good entertainment, religious and spiritual leaders have used vows of silence throughout history for several reasons, including a desire for introspection and increased closeness with a higher power.
They contend that even people who aren’t religious or spiritual can experience profound benefits from observing a period of silence, whether it’s for a couple of hours or several weeks.
There are a few ways to take this type of vow, and it’s not for everyone. Read on for the benefits, guidelines, and potential pitfalls of taking a vow of silence.
In its most basic form, a vow of silence is exactly what it sounds like.
“A vow of silence is when you simply decide not to talk for a period of time,” says Om Swami, founder of OS.ME, an online wellness community.
Religious and spiritual leaders have utilized vows of silence in varying forms throughout history.
Christian monks reportedly observed periods of silence and solitude throughout their days. Silence was often observed following mass and lasted until the next day, according to an excerpt from author George Prochnik’s book “In Pursuit of Silence” published in the New York Times.
Swami says mindfulness and silence are key components of Buddhism.
“When the Buddha was sitting under the tree for his awakening, he was also silent in meditation,” Swami says.
Silence at mealtimes may have been a requirement in Daoist monasteries, religious scholars say. The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have said, “Anyone who believes in God and the Last Day should either speak well or remain silent.”
But silence isn’t only observed by spiritual leaders. It’s been used by advocates and protestors to bring awareness to important causes.
The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) asks students to participate in a Day of Silence each April to protest discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.
WE Charity spearheads the WE Are Silent initiative, encouraging people to take a vow of silence in solidarity with children who are being denied fundamental human rights.
Sometimes the world feels chaotic. We can access information with a couple of taps on our mobile devices and constantly communicate. Swami says going silent allows people to disconnect to reconnect.
“It’s like a detox… for the brain, body, and mind,” he says. “Taking a vow of silence, whether it’s 1 day, 3 days… 40 days… quiets your mind down.”
Vows of silence haven’t been widely studied. But meditation, which is often a component of vows of silence and silent retreats, has.
Some research suggests silence is good for the body and mind.
“Many people get ideas when they’re taking a shower because the mind is silent and the water is just flowing down,” Swami says. “In silence, the wisdom of the consciousness speaks. In silence, insight dawns.”
Michelle Thielen, C-IAYT and founder of Christian yoga school YogaFaith, relates. Thielen does a silent retreat each January with her ministry. She says she’s gotten ideas, including the one for her business, after a vow of silence.
Silence may also help people become more mindful and connected to themselves and others.
“You feel more in touch with the universe and yourself,” she says. “As a result, you’re more creative, you’re more articulate, you get less angry and your negative emotions take a back seat. You’re more aware of your emotions and what you’re thinking, feeling, and saying.”
Swami says the best way to go about taking a vow of silence is first to decide how long you’ll stop speaking. Then, decide whether or not you’re going to communicate in other ways, such as writing or with gestures.
After that, it’s time to prepare yourself and others.
“You might put a silence badge that says you’re observing silence so you can point to it if they try to talk to you,” he says.
Finally, just turn your phone off and do it.
There are various levels of silence vows Thielen and Swami say. To some extent, you’ll make your own rules.
“Everybody has a little bit of a different take on this,” Thielen says. “Ultimately, it’s a personal goal.”
Swami says the three basic levels are:
- not communicating at all
- only communicating in writing
- communicating with gestures
The first one, cutting off all communication, is the one he most recommends if it’s possible. However, it may not be if you still have to go to work or school or care for a loved one.
Thielen has a caveat to the no-writing rule.
“As far as writing or journaling for reflection, I think that’s encouraged,” she says, adding that it can help people recall what they learned during their experience and apply it in post-vow life.
Regardless of which rules you choose, Swami says it’s important you follow through.
“If I take a vow, and I don’t see it through… it weakens willpower [long term],” he says.
Swami says the first step for taking a vow of silence is to decide the length of time. This choice may vary depending on your experience with taking a vow of silence and lifestyle.
For example, if you work Monday through Friday, you may consider reserving silence for weekends. And Swami suggests people start with a few weekends.
“Do 2 or 3 of those rounds over a period of 7 weekends,” he suggests. He understands this may seem like a lofty goal, but encourages people to go for it.
“It’s like learning the piano,” he says. “If you want to do it, you have to make time for it.”
Thielen thinks even short, intermittent periods of silence throughout the day or week, such as from evening prayer until the morning, can help. This is similar to what monastic communities have done over the years, she says.
“In different religions, [people] pray five times per day,” she says. “You can do something like that, where it’s not silence [for an extended time].”
If you’re in a committed relationship, Thielen says a partner may be wary of the idea. She suggests talking to your partner and introducing the concept in a way that frames it as a moment for self-reflection.
“[Try saying,] ‘It’s not that the relationship is on pause, but my communication is on pause for however long that is, whether it’s 24 hours or 21 days. It’s a personal retreat,’” Thielen recommends.
Swami says vows of silence are often more difficult at schools and universities than they are within intimate relationships because a person’s circle is wider.
“Peers want to come and talk to you, and you have to tell more people, particularly if you’re living on campus,” he says.
Swami suggests giving professors and friends the heads up and wearing a badge indicating that you’re taking a silent vow if you’ll be attending classes or running errands. He says you can point to it and smile if someone tries to communicate with you.
However, he warns even these badges can diminish the benefits of a vow of silence.
“If I draw too much attention to myself while I am observing silence, all my energy will be on how people will see me and not actually reflecting,” he says.
Swami says it might be best to reserve a vow of silence for weekends or wait until spring, winter, or summer break for a longer self-retreat.
Though you can observe a vow of silence at home, some people prefer to do it while on a retreat. Here are a few places to find silent retreats.
The ancient Indian meditation technique of Vipassana emphasizes a deep mind-body connection to help individuals transform themselves by observing bodily sensations.
Dhamma.org has a directory of more than 200 centers worldwide, including in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. There are 18 centers in North America where individuals can sign up for Vipassana courses.
Shambala Mountain Center
This mountain center allows for self-guided individual retreats, allowing individuals to customize their experience. The center will assist with meditation instruction if requested. It’s located in Feather Lakes, Colorado, and has eight wilderness trails and several meditation halls.
Green Gulch Farm at San Francisco Zen Center
This farm has a handful of organic vegetable farms, flower gardens, and coastline views, making it an ideal spot for introspection. It offers overnight and longer-term residential opportunities as well as meditation for people of all levels.
Green Gulch is currently not hosting guests due to COVID-19. Check back when regulations are lifted.
Silent retreats are offered, and they welcome everyone regardless of religion, sexuality, or gender identity. Multiple meditation spots, including a room, library, and garden, give guests places to sit and reflect.
Though Thielen and Swami say many people can benefit from taking a vow of silence, they admit it’s not for everyone.
“When your mind is not engaged in any activity, whatever it says is magnified,” Swami says. “Whatever the brain says feels very real. We can never talk our way out of emotions.”
Taking a vow of silence involves not speaking — and often not communicating at all — for a specified period.
Many of the rules, including how long you stay silent, are up to you and depend on individual goals and lifestyle.
Though there isn’t much research on long vows of silence, one study did link silence with new cell growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain linked to learning and memory.
Spiritual leaders say it can make you more mindful and in tune with yourself, your emotions, and the divine.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition like depression or anxiety, speak with a therapist first. Spiritual leaders suggest individuals with schizophrenia refrain from taking a vow of silence at all.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based writer. In her spare time, you can find her training for marathons and wrangling her son, Peter, and three furbabies.