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Flipping the mute button of life
December 13, 2012 11:18 AM   Subscribe

Silent retreats’ rising popularity poses a challenge: How to handle the quiet.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (24 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's pretty difficult to get into. I have been spending a lot of time at home alone lately, and, at first, I was really jittery about it -- I would read for 10 minutes, check the internet, do some dishes, remember the book, etc. With practice, I have gotten much better at concentrating by myself. I must work harder at being unappealing so I get more alone time, I guess.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:31 AM on December 13, 2012


Okay, I can see why people attending retreats would be discouraged from bringing books - but journals? If anything, I would be encouraging people to bring them - they're a great help to introspection.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:44 AM on December 13, 2012


My wife has tinnitus that's been particularly ringy lately. A silent retreat would be her own special little hell, unless they could make an allowance for a device capable of seamlessly looping a short white noise mp3. The mechanical white noise machines just don't cut it anymore.
posted by owtytrof at 11:47 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


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posted by dersins at 11:49 AM on December 13, 2012


When I was growing up the TV was on every waking moment; literally the first person to wake would start the day by turning it on, and the last to retire would turn it off. You could hear it throughout the house.

In those days there were only 5 broadcast channels, so lots of this "viewing" really was just habitual stimulation with meaningless noise. When i was a teenager my parents both worked, so during the summer vacations I read and worked my hobbies with the set on. But during the afternoon there really was nothing on but soap operas, and one day when I was 16 in a fury at the lack of anything I remotely wanted to watch I stabbed the OFF button.

The result was like an altered state of consciousness. I found it fascinating. I resolved after a few minutes that I would only watch TV when it was playing something I actively wanted to watch, which meant that for most of the summer vacation day it stayed off, and I spent many evenings in my room instead of watching it with my parents.

By the time I moved out I wasn't following any current series any more so I was hardly watching any TV at all, and the only reason I owned one was because my computer needed one to use as a monitor. I've never paid for cable and gone through several situations where I couldn't receive broadcast TV for years. Occasionally I would watch a special or take up a series for a season or two but mostly I rented video tapes and rarely watched more than a couple of hours of anything a week.

To this day I only watch TV that actively interests me, except that now every public space has turned into my childhood living room. Home is now my quiet retreat. I don't have a smartphone and, while I do spend a lot of time at the computer I don't need a lot of stimulation like a TV in my workshop or constantly playing radio in the car when I'm doing other things.

I have several ongoing mental projects that I can occupy myself with when there's nothing to do in meatspace and I often come out of quiet time with new ideas. I am also comfortable letting unstructured thought flow, a kind of mental play which has led me to some awesome places.

Nowadays I frequently find myself in situations, such as at the company lunch table, where everyone else is holding a fork with one hand and tapping their smart phone screen with the other and I'm just quietly sitting there, having no conversation. And nobody can figure out why I don't want a smart phone.
posted by localroger at 11:54 AM on December 13, 2012 [9 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos, from my experience (a 10-day vipassana retreat; I can't speak for other traditions), the "no journals" rule is specifically meant to discourage introspection/bean-plating. If you're trying to directly experience the world surrounding you, a blank page can be just as much of a distraction as a chatty neighbor.

There's certainly value to writing in solitude, but I think it's not necessarily the same value.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 12:10 PM on December 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


Okay, I can see why people attending retreats would be discouraged from bringing books - but journals? If anything, I would be encouraging people to bring them - they're a great help to introspection.

Well, it really depends on the type of retreat and the type of introspection, if any, the retreat is geared towards.

The 10 day Vipassana retreat I did made you leave everything at the door, so you were totally focused on learning the technique and seeing the benefit from it. It order to do that, you really had to focus on what your senses were doing, so a journal would have been a distraction.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:14 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I grew up in a house where there was almost always music playing, except when we were eating dinner together or sleeping, so I've grown to think of a silent house as a lifeless house. Quiet is great, but I find complete silence (which is almost impossible to get in Toronto, anyway) a bit unnerving. This only applies at home in the city, though...when I'm camping, the less man-made noise I hear, the better.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:26 PM on December 13, 2012


My wife has tinnitus that's been particularly ringy lately. A silent retreat would be her own special little hell

I've had tinnitus for almost four years now, and this was my initial thought as well. However, upon reading the article I think they're looking at "silence" or "quiet" in a different sense—a lack of contact with anyone else (even things like books and music, which are an indirect form of contact)—and not just the absence of sound. If the goal were merely an absence of external sound, you'd go to an anechoic chamber, not a sparsely furnished cabin in a wooded area. I don't know whether the particular monastery described here would allow some sort of white noise generator/recording, but I would definitely argue that that would be in the spirit of the "silence" being sought here. Although it might need to be pure white noise of constant volume—think radio static, not ocean waves.

I completely agree that the mere absence of external sound can be absolutely maddening to someone with tinnitus.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:28 PM on December 13, 2012


Gotcha both on the vipassana retreats; I just got the sense that the kind of retreat referenced in the article is more of a "help yourself to shut down outside stimulation and reflect upon things" thing.

For me, a journal helps with that, though. I've had moments of insight brought about by shutting down everything and watching ducks at Prospect Park, but -- thinking back to them later on, I'd lost that insight. I've always used writing as a tool for that, and doubt I'm the only one.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:31 PM on December 13, 2012


Why pay a lot of money for a retreat? Just get your own apartment, get on disability, and have no friends.
posted by serena15221 at 12:53 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Um. Wow. I feel really weird now.

I live...pretty much like serena just described, except without the disability. I have two friends that I see on a regular basis, usually once or twice a week each if I'm feeling especially convivial. If I watch a show, the TV will be on for as long as the show is and no more, and it'll be streamed or played from media so there aren't commercials. I only put on music if I'm cleaning.

When I go to the office instead of telecommuting, the incessant chattering of coworkers gnaws and grates at me. Sometimes I slap myself in the face to try to regain focus. Sometimes I have to go and hide in an unused conference room.

That not only are there people who can't go an hour without noise but this is seen as some form of normal...I guess it explains some things to me.
posted by darksasami at 1:13 PM on December 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


Recently the 7 days here alone with no power was a retreat of sorts. With no light, though, it was less about experiencing the moment, than being trapped in your own head.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:44 PM on December 13, 2012


I could happily sit and do nothing quietly in a cabin in the woods. Looking at trees, listening to the forest. bliss. When I'm at my parent's cottage, I'll often take a book out onto the deck to quitely read - I usually don't get more than a few sentences red before I just space out and enjoy my surroundings. It seems odd that people will pay high prices for a silent retreat - just rent any old cottage in the woods, and leave all the devices behind - you need to pay $50 more a night to have a monk tell you to do it?
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:48 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I was growing up the TV was on every waking moment; literally the first person to wake would start the day by turning it on, and the last to retire would turn it off. You could hear it throughout the house.

This is true at my parents' house lately (it wasn't always true, but now that there are a zillion channels on cable things have changed) and it's probably the thing I like least about going home to visit them.
posted by madcaptenor at 2:38 PM on December 13, 2012


A couple of decades ago I had access to a very remote, partly underground dome in the woods. More organic and mushroom-like than geodesic, the place was a marvel of double-walled concrete with blown-in vermiculite insulation, and was capped with dozens of pie-slice windows that gave a gorgeous view of the trees or sky, depending on the season.

I spent weeks at a time there alone and once spent an entire day happily watching the sun cross the floor, with only birdsong and the breeze breaking the silence. It was one of the most completely enjoyable days of my life.

I know very few people who appreciate the wonders of solitude and silence. Most think I was either selfish or insane to spend so much time in the woods alone. This strikes me as terribly narrow and sad. There is a richness in silence that can never be equalled by any sound.
posted by kinnakeet at 2:56 PM on December 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


you need to pay $50 more a night to have a monk tell you to do it?

For the structure. I'm sure it depends hugely on the retreat, but you're not there to hang out and do nothing. Or rather: actually succeeding in doing nothing (as opposed to just happily distracting yourself with various kinds of thinking) might be fantastic, but I certainly couldn't get anywhere near that without the structure of a meditation timetable.
posted by oliverburkeman at 2:59 PM on December 13, 2012


just rent any old cottage in the woods

I would be very surprised if you could rent a cottage for less than $70 in the DC area. I mean, I'm in Wisconsin and when we tried to find a getaway place, there was nearly nothing under $100 except motels and some row cottages. Definitely nothing in the middle of the woods.
posted by desjardins at 3:07 PM on December 13, 2012


There's a weird cargo cult quality to someone going to a Franciscan monastery for a silent retreat and then wondering "Am I doing this right? What's the point of all this silence anyway?"
posted by straight at 5:12 PM on December 13, 2012


serena15221: "Why pay a lot of money for a retreat? Just get your own apartment, get on disability, and have no friends."

I'm not on disability (although I have several) and am married, but have no friends and don't own a cell phone of any type. On days like today, the mister has gone into work (he works at home most days), the quiet is nice. It is ten or so hours of nothing but me and the four legged beasties. It's not totally quiet, there's traffic noise and I talk to the animals, but it's close. There are also a couple times a year where the mister is gone for several days and it's just me and the beasties and that's nice, too.

In other words, I think I can handle a couple days in the woods by myself.
posted by deborah at 5:20 PM on December 13, 2012


Those pictures show an environment that's way too aesthetic. Evidently you are permitted to "handle" the quiet by enjoying beauty. Makes it too easy.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:42 PM on December 13, 2012


think radio static, not ocean waves.

This is precisely what she uses, and I agree that you're probably right. Of course a cabin in the woods isn't going to be absolutely silent, in the strictest definition of the word. Best of luck with your tinnitus; my wife is being fitted with a hearing aid tomorrow morning to see if that can reduce or eliminate the ringing.
posted by owtytrof at 8:15 PM on December 13, 2012


I have hearing aids (since age five) and sometimes I have auditory hallucinations when I take them out. Not like voices telling me to do something, but like a radio program off in the distance. A doctor told me that when sound is taken away, the brain will just fill in the gaps. I imagine that that makes many people uncomfortable (including me; I'll usually put the aids back in and then turn on the actual radio). The noise feels very real but I know it's not. It's a horrible uncanny valley to be in.
posted by desjardins at 8:30 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another one who has days of quiet - I work from home, and I am not a fan of background music: if music is on I listen to it and can probably do it when cooking or cleaning, but to actually read or work, I do it in silence (or just the ambient noise of a house).

I like it. I don't feel jittery, I don't feel weird. It just is. And I say this as someone who spent part of her life growing up in a house where the radio was ALWAYS on, and the TV was on for much of the day. I think, like many things, while some people have to learn to appreciate it/live with it, some of us are just wired to cope with stillness.

I have been on retreats - both organised sesshins and self-directed, in my room all day in a monastery ones. Sometimes you feel the need for structure, sometimes you just space and quiet.
posted by Megami at 1:40 AM on December 14, 2012


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