What to do?

The question is What to do with silence?

What do we complain about more these days than the tyranny of constant stimulation? Our attempts to tune out the outside world — the occasional radio-less drive to work, the concerted decision to leave the phone at home for a few hours — are often ineffectual. It has come to this: True solitude is such a rarity in our modern lives that we have to buy it — or, in this case, rent it for $70 a night.

But it turns out solitude isn’t that simple. Although participation in silent retreats is on the rise, many of those preparing to spend time at the hermitage said they were so unaccustomed to unstructured time alone that they made to-do lists — then feared they were doing “solitude” wrong and scrapped them. They agonized over what to bring and wear and eat, as if they were traveling to an exotic land.

Michelle Harris-Love, a neuroscience researcher, wife and mother who lives near the monastery, was happy to pay $140 for two nights at the hermitage. But as the days drew closer, a stressful question surfaced. “I thought: ‘How am I going to fill my time?’ ”

This is a serious question.

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  • As someone who makes a good part of her living online, I think about this a lot. When I unplugged for a silent retreat at a monastery, it took me about a day to settle in to the silence.

    I wonder if it might help to be more deliberate about observing sacred time each day, week, month, and year: praying the hours, observing the sabbath, participating in Christian (and Jewish) holidays, following the church calendar, etc. When I get my act together and pray the hours, I find myself more willing and able throughout the rest of the day to unplug and spend time with, you know, non-virtual family and friends.

  • Silence is a precious commodity that I hoard and cherish like gold. I feel the same way about alone time. For me, protecting these requires effort and focus but yields a treasure. I have to refill the well daily and guarding both of these is how I do it. At this well is where the Holy Spirit meets me on a frequent basis.

  • Pat Pope

    That’s so sad to me that people don’t know what to do with silence and find themselves becoming anxious. However, I say this as someone who is a contemplative introvert for whom silence comes easily. In fact, what I’m probably more guilty of is living in my head. But silence? I love and cherish it.

  • Jean

    I work at a retreat centre that provides space for people to come and spend time in silence and solitude. I believe it takes practice, just like many other areas of our spiritual life require. I believe it is misguided to think we will be proficient and at ease with being still and quiet when the routine of our daily lives is to the contrary. It takes time.
    If it is something that a person feels is missing in their lives, then start today, where you are. Don’t worry about whether you’re doing it right, just start.

  • Jon G

    As a 38-year old adult who was recently diagnosed with ADD, I find this post particularly interesting. I was told that I have a hard time “inhibiting”. In other words, I tend to percieve a task or subject as “boring” and must either avoid it or make it more interesting by adding extra “noise” to it – I can’t just dwell in the moment and focus on the task/subject before me. So, for instance, I never drive without listening to a podcast (music is too boring…I need to think), I almost always fiddle around on my smartphone while watching tv or (to my wife’s dismay) engaging in conversation, and I can’t tell you the last time I read a book for more than 20 minutes straight.

    Looking back, I realize that this inability to rest in the moment has shaped my whole life. I have trouble completing goals, live like a slob (because cleaning up has “boring” written all over it) and can’t pay attention to conversation partners. I would probably be described as flighty or lazy by someone who didn’t really know me. It really has been a source of great personal pain for me.

    Anyways, the reason I bring this up is that I’m wondering how much of my condition is enhanced by the multitude of stimuli (sp?) that our culture provides? I’m wondering if we are actually facilitating behavior like my ADD.

  • Jonathan

    Before kids, my wife and I used to observe an occasional day of silence – perhaps about once a month or so. It became a very sacred space and time for us. Now that we have four kids, 6 and under, the idea is most impractical although increasingly desirable.

  • Steve Robinson

    I have always loved silence. It used to drive my employees nuts on my construction jobs. Silence is a fearful thing, actually. It is a rare person who can actually endure silence in reality even if they love it intellectually….