Ciúnas! The search for silence in the modern world
As the multi-media landscape becomes ever louder, silence is an increasingly sought-after commodity. From silent retreats and meditation to noise-cancelling headphones, here our reporter explores how to turn the volume down this year
A meme entitled 'Reasons I Turn on the TV' recently did the rounds online. It's a pie chart with two disproportionate slices. The first slice correlates with 'to watch'; the second slice - about 95pc of the chart - is labeled 'to use it as background noise so I'm less lonely while I'm on the internet'.
It's a depressingly accurate representation of the multi-screen, multimedia, always-on world, where the soundtrack of white noise is harmonised by the comforting ping of incoming messages.
Of course, the relentless tapping of keyboards and text alerts on smartphones aren't the only sounds adding to the din.
The cacophony of road, rail and aircraft noise - aka noise pollution - is turning up the volume, and making silence sound like a symphony in comparison.
The pursuit of silence has become big business. Some household appliances under a certain decibel level - washing machines, tumble dryers and food processors - now carry the Quiet Mark. Certain cars will soon be accredited with it too.
The wearing of noise-cancelling earphones and earplugs in public spaces is another surprisingly popular trend. Film composer Alexandre Desplat, a man who is gifted at discerning the finer nuances of sound, recently revealed that he often wears ear plugs to drown out noise pollution when he's in public spaces.
Elsewhere, Universal Pictures is almost midway through a four-year project to restore 15 classic silent movies, and Wandelweiser, a group of minimalist composers and performers, are starting to receive international attention for their musical exploration of the rests in between the notes.
What's really making noise, however, is the rise of the quiet getaway. Another utility mark has emerged - the Quiet Room label. Customers can now look for hotels where they are guaranteed a room with complete peace and quiet. The Crowne Plaza Group has taken it a step further by rolling out dedicated 'Quiet Zone' floors in some of its hotels.
Resorts and retreats offering digital detoxes are also on the rise. Delphi Mountain Resort in Connemara was an early adopter in this regard - the bedrooms have been TV-free since it opened in 2008.
While some people just want to turn off, others are signing up for a full system reboot. The silent retreat, once an outlet for the dedicated spiritual-seeker, has entered the mainstream.
London-born Nick Scott, a meditation teacher at Sunyata Buddhist Centre in Co Clare, says the type of participant signing up for the centre's 10-day silent mediation retreats with visiting monks and nuns (or Nick himself) has changed considerably in the last five years. "Originally it was blow-ins and alternative types," he says. "Now it's just anyone."
Nick, who has lived in Ireland for the last 12 years, has been practising Buddhist meditation since 1973. He was one of the thousands of British people who embarked on the 'hippie trail' in the 1970s, hitchhiking from London to India. These days, he is arguably one of the most respected Western meditation teachers in Ireland.
A 10-day silent meditation retreat is known as Vipassana, which comes from the Theravada School of Buddhism and literally means 'seeing in various ways' - or seeing clearly.
Fundamentally, it is a practice of self-examination, or as Nick explains: "A meditation retreat doesn't work by helping you blot out all your stuff. It works by showing you how to face up to it and let it go."
Participants avoid make-up, perfume and immodest clothing and eat a vegetarian diet during these residential retreats. The meditation can be sitting, standing, walking or lying down and verbal communication only takes place if it is absolutely necessary.
Canadian-born yoga teacher Amy Kokoszka of Hayoka Yoga began her first Vipassana on Stephen's Day in 2015. "A friend suggested it to me when I was going through a crappy time," she explains.
"I found it so challenging because I was going through something so difficult. It really showed me how much of a monkey mind I have."
As a very active person, Amy struggled with the relatively sedate pace of the retreat. She remembers circling the garden 20-25 times in an hour. She also noticed that she had an involuntary tendency to reach for her phone - even though it was powered off.
On the fifth day, she fell apart. "At the halfway point, I wanted to get out of there and run away from myself. I came into my room and started packing my bags and my roommate, who wasn't supposed to speak to me, walked over, put her hand on my shoulder, and said, 'I did this last year. I left. Don't do it.'
"Being alone makes you realise how you constantly try to make things OK for yourself instead of just being and allowing things to unfold," she concludes.
Silent retreats offer many benefits. Shorter retreats give people the tools to find space for meditation or mindfulness in their daily lives, says Marjó Oosterhoff of Passaddhi Meditation Centre in Beara, Co Cork.
"What I emphasise [to participants] is to create a stop somewhere along their day when they get home, whether it's having the cup of tea and just staring out the window, or waiting for three or four rings instead of one ring when they pick up the phone.
"People who have attended the retreat come back to me a few weeks later and say 'I've turned off the radio in the car because I realise it's not necessary'," she adds.
The effects of longer silent retreats tend to be more profound. "When you come off a retreat like that you are usually able to do anything," explains Nick. "You've got a well of vitality. You've got an inner steadiness and centredness. That phonecall that you've been avoiding… you don't have that experience anymore.
"The advice I give to people is that it doesn't last," he laughs. "It's just an effect of the retreat. However, eventually, if you explore it enough, you get better at that sort of thing."
Nick attributes the rise of the silent retreat to the status anxiety and stress of modern society. He also believes that the Catholic Church's waning power has created a space for people to explore other religions and philosophies.
Historian Diarmaid Ferriter has another take. He thinks Irish people are searching for an outlet for reflection and solitude that was once provided by religion.
"The Catholic Church encouraged people to reflect," he says. "There was a severe side to that of course and people may have found it suffocating.
"Today we don't have those quiet moments. It's just the constant need for physical and oral stimulation. People don't seem to be comfortable focusing on themselves and their own thoughts in a silent way."
The role of quiet contemplation and silence in the Irish religious orders precedes the Catholic Church. Monastic spirituality came to Ireland in the 5th century and hermit cells are still dotted all over the Irish landscape.
"These monasteries are so similar to the monasteries I see in Thailand and Tibet," says Nick. "And they still have an amazing resonance in Irish society. There is an openness to the monastic tradition in Ireland. I've been part of bringing Buddhist monks to Ireland for many years and the standard reaction when an Irish person meets a monk is, 'You're a monk - you'll need feeding.' Straight away they want to support them."
There are still many contemplative orders in existence in Ireland. Glenstal Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Limerick, is perhaps one of the most well known.
It is a myth that all monks take a vow of silence. They do, however, spend large parts of the day praying and going about their tasks silently.
The monks at Glenstal (almost 40 of them in total) have also opened up the Abbey to the public as a space for quiet contemplation. Their God Pods - single, self-catering dwellings on the grounds - are inspired by the beehive huts of Skellig Michael and are intended for those who "seek God within". Suffice to say, the accommodation doesn't include Wi-Fi.
President Higgins regular seeks sanctuary at Glenstal Abbey. In fact, he wrote part of his inauguration speech there after he won the 2011 Presidential election.
Silence is also golden for the Poor Clares, an enclosed contemplative order of 12 nuns based in Nuns' Island, Galway. They haven't taken a vow of silence, but according to Sister Colette, they try to maintain an atmosphere of it. "Our founder, St Clare, said 'the sisters can always say what is necessary in a low voice'," she adds.
The Poor Clares' best-selling book Calm the Soul: A Book of Simple Wisdom and Prayer, describes silence as "the blanket we wrap around ourselves to enable us to sink deeper into the true reality of life and into our being".
It also acknowledges that while silence is beneficial, it can be painful, too. "Because it provides a space for the things that we have buried to surface... We often live disconnected from our inner selves because we may have suppressed things that we do not like about ourselves. We need to let these things surface, and allow them to be healed and integrated."
It seems that anyone who truly explores silence - holy person or lay person - eventually discovers that the experience is liberating rather than repressive. Or as Indian sage Ramana Maharshi wrote, "Silence is ever speaking; it is the perennial flow of language".
The BBC used to broadcast the two-minute long sound of silence that has been observed on Armistice Day since 1919. When a BBC commentator was asked why he thought the broadcast was so popular, he quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, saying: "Silence is a solvent that destroys personality and gives us leave to be great and universal."
In later years, the BBC became the first broadcaster to air four minutes and 33 seconds of silence when they played a live performance of John Cage's controversial silent work 4'33" in 2004. Cage argued that "everything we do is music" and the experimental soundscape of a performer sitting in front of a piano without ever touching the keys was his case in point.
What is silence anyway, asks artist Amanda Coogan, whose moving image work contains no dialogue. "My practice is an embodied practice. I take away the rational, verbal, thinking mind," she explains.
Silent Dinner, which was performed for FADO at The Theatre Centre in Toronto, is one of her most compelling works. Over eight hours, a group of 12 people prepared, cooked and ate a dinner in shared silence, without communicating in their own languages. The participants were a combination of deaf and hearing artists, performers and non-performers.
"Once you strike out verbal utterances, you re-imagine another way of communicating which is very body focused," she explains. "What's fascinating is that the audience read things into the work that are totally new to me. Because I'm not verbalising and pinning it down, they are reading the body and bringing their personal philosophies and ideas to it."
This is echoed by an insight in George Prochnik's In Pursuit of Silence, in which he writes about his friend, Adam, who was deaf for a short period when he was a child.
When his hearing returned, Adam concluded that "sound imposes a narrative on you… and it's always someone else's narrative. My experience of silence was like being awake inside a dream I could direct".
Perhaps it's only in silence that we hear what really needs to be heard. Ciúnas le do thoil.
5 things you can do to embrace silence every day
1 Start a morning ritual by getting up half an hour earlier and enjoying the stillness before the whole house awakens.
2 Try going to bed half an hour earlier and lying in silence (without your smartphone by your side and Netflix in the background) before you fall asleep.
3 Stop taking lunch at your desk and instead go for a walk at lunchtime, preferably in a quiet green space.
4 If work becomes stressful, find an empty meeting room and take 10 minutes just to sit in stillness and realign with your breath.
5 When the weather picks up, enjoy your morning coffee on the patio, away from the radio/TV/phone.
How noise pollution can affect your health
Long-term exposure to noise pollution may account for approximately 3pc of coronary heart disease deaths (or about 210,000 deaths) in Europe each year, according to a study by researchers at University College in London.
Researchers in Germany have linked long-term noise pollution to mental health issues. The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, found that people living in areas with high traffic noise were 25pc more likely than those in quieter neighbourhoods to have symptoms of depression.
According to Swedish research, people who live in noisy areas are more likely to be overweight. "Traffic noise may influence metabolic and cardiovascular functions through sleep disturbances and chronic stress," said the lead author of the study at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet.
DECIBELS RISING: WHAT TO DO AFTER A SILENT RETREAT
Maureen Cooper is a meditation teacher and the founder of Awareness in Action, an organisation that uses meditation practices to transform stress at work. She says:
"At the end of a meditation retreat, there is usually an integration seminar which talks about re-adapting to your daily life - but sometimes people are too overwhelmed by the experience to take advantage of it and, crucially, they don't ask enough about what to do when they leave.
When you come out of a meditation retreat, it is important to take it slowly. Often people come out with this huge agenda: 'Now my life is going to be totally different,' they think. Invariably, within a few weeks, they crash and burn. So start with something quite small, like making sure you do a meditation session in the morning and evening. Keep the sessions quite short and keep a record of them (there are plenty of apps that you can use for this).
Sometimes you will have been taught more than one type of meditation during the retreat - so work out which one helped the most and stick with that instead of dabbling with all of them. After a formal retreat, some people can think of meditation as something that is only done on the cushion. Instead they want to be looking at their daily schedule and working out where they can take just one, two, three minutes to return to the method they learned. This could be in the shower or at the bus stop. You don't have to make a big deal of it - it doesn't have to be obvious - you don't have to draw attention to yourself.
If you hit it off with someone during the integration at the end of the retreat, make sure to swap numbers. What happens is that people are in this very protected environment and then when they are out in the big bad world they can become lonely and they don't know what to do when it all falls apart. Looking for a local centre where you can practice meditation is also important. You might need to try out a few to get one you like.
If you end up out partying the weekend after the retreat, don't be too hard on yourself. You never, ever lose the benefits of doing a meditation retreat so don't get disillusioned. Just start again tomorrow and don't waste time beating yourself up about it.
Finally, try not to evangelise to people when you get home. If there are people you love and care for and you think meditation will bring them benefits, find low-key, anecdotal ways to tell them. And talk about all the benefits that it brought you, not all the benefits that you think it will bring them."
* Maureen Cooper is running a three-day retreat called 'Transforming Stress into Well-being at Work', in Dzogchen Beara from May 19 to May 21. Visit dzogchenbeara.org for further details.
“Silence nourishes my spiritual body like food nourishes my physical body”
Sister Lucy Conway was in her 40s when she joined the Redemptoristine Sisters, an order for contemplative nuns, in May 2006.
“I always knew God wanted me, but I wasn’t sure where. After many years of searching while living and working in the US, I came home in 2001.
I was working in education welfare and trying to help children get education in their homes if they needed it. I then got a job in Ballyfermot and I did a Master’s in Mater Dei Institute of Education.
I was looking for somewhere close to Mater Dei to stay, and someone mentioned a retreat centre in Drumcondra. I knew the moment I stepped in the door that this was where God wanted me to be.
I was always called to the contemplative way of life. When I lived in America, I went on a retreat every year. I went to mass on Sunday and I was always walking Long Beach when there wasn’t a soul around.
I stayed there for two nights a week while studying in Mater Dei. After that I lived in Offaly for three-and-a-half years while working full-time with the Department of Education. I then took a trip around the world to get the travel bug out of my system. I joined the monastery in May 2006.
Silence for us contemplative nuns is not about the absence of noise. It’s about the silence of surrender. Pope Francis recently wrote a document for the contemplative orders. There is a line that says: ‘Silence is a prerequisite to hear and to ponder God and to welcome him into our lives.’
“We have our Great Silence from 10pm until morning prayer the following day. And we have breakfast, dinner and supper in silence.
On Tuesdays and Sundays we have Recreation, which means talking at the table. On the nights when we have silence at supper, we have recreation in another room where we can chat and play Scrabble.
The internet is part of the 21st century. We’ve done our Honours degrees in Theology on the internet. It’s in our constitution that we are up to date and trained, but that we use it responsibly.
We’re on social media — we have Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as our own website — to promote our lifestyle and show that we are a happy community; that we exude the joy that God has given us and to let the world know that we are here and we’re praying for them. Most of the sisters have computers to keep in touch with the world.
Now and again we watch the news so that we can be aware of the needs of the world and pray for them.
We are so much part of the world even if we’re not out in it. So many people come here, we welcome the world into us. And you wouldn’t believe the amount of letters and emails we get from people.
We need silence in our lives so badly — it’s an essential element. Of course, it’s a skill to get that interior silence. When we have that deep silence, we have that union with God. Silence nourishes my spiritual body like food nourishes my physical body.”
“I wear ear plugs and noise-cancelling headphones while at work”
Adrian Weckler is the technology editor for the Irish Independent.
“I started wearing earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones at work four or five years ago. Some of the reasons are productivity-related; some are personality-related.
I’m probably oversensitive to other processes. When somebody else is talking or tapping in a certain rhythm on the keyboard, I get too easily distracted — perhaps in a neurotic way — and my mind wanders. Whatever the reason, it distracts me and it puts me in a different humour than the one I want to be in. I don’t feel like I’m controlling my mood anymore, and that’s an issue.
This can also disrupt productivity and, for me, those things are quite closely linked. Teamwork.com is a Cork-based company — one of the fastest growing tech companies in Ireland. They make software productivity stuff that is a rival to Microsoft Office and they have an interesting workspace concept.
They are veering away from open-plan offices because they have found that a shared collaborative space doesn’t help productivity for a large category of workers. It does help for sales and marketing. So the sales and marketing people work in the same space, while the engineers have the option of a cubicle or an office. The result is that productivity is higher and people are happier because they feel like they got more done with their day.
I don’t think that’s entirely unrelated to someone like me wearing earplugs. There are all sorts of people working in a newsroom. Some people buzz off sitting beside someone and getting an idea or a lead from a conversation; for others, most of their productivity is tied into very singularly focusing on what they are trying to do. I fall into that group.
The downside is that it’s borderline rude and unsociable. I’m the only person in my area that does that and the people around me know I do that because I don’t want to be disturbed. It’s a signal of, ‘Come over to me if it’s really important but I’m not available for a general chit-chat just for the sake of it. I will be at lunchtime’.
Thankfully, it’s accepted as such.”
“It’s hugely revealing if you can stop doing enough to notice what you can’t stop doing”
Dubliner Claire O’Meara, a freelance consultant in her 30s, has been attending silent retreats since 2005. She finds them as challenging as they are enlightening. She attended her first 10-day retreat to help her overcome the heartache of a break-up.
“At my very first silent retreat, I was the youngest by about 40 years and I didn’t know what to expect. By the end of the retreat, I had an overwhelming sense of peace and well-being.
There was a feeling — it felt more like a ‘knowing’ — that everything was OK, that I was OK. I still felt the grief of the break-up, but it was apart from me somehow. It sounds odd, I know, but when I got a pang of sadness I’d think ‘ah, there’s heartbreak’, as opposed to ‘I’m heartbroken’ in the devastated sense of the word.
I’ve never felt that strong a sense of peace since but I still experience peace when I attend retreats. I’ve been hooked since the first time. One of the hardest things at the start is having to navigate living in close quarters with others without using the usual social norms, such as thanking people, saying the Irish ‘sorry’ when you bump into someone. You also have to deal with the boredom, at times emptiness, at times total joy — whatever comes up — and you have to let it pass without talking about it.
One of my greatest challenges is dealing with the 200 imaginary conversations — about how mad the retreat is — that I have with friends and family. They’re always hilarious conversations so I’m usually the weirdo who’s frequently laughing to herself in the corner.
Others spend their time writing reams of notes, trying to figure it all out, with obvious frown lines, deep in thought. It’s hugely revealing if you can stop doing enough to notice what you can’t stop doing.
Everything you crave at the start becomes a burden by the end if you give into it. If you have sneaky chats, it takes away from it. If you check your phone all the time, it takes away from it. It’s a real lesson in giving up to get more.”
Take 5: IRISH SILENT RETREATS
WHERE: Sunyata Buddhist Centre, Co Clare
WHAT: Offers a range of Vipassana and mindfulness retreats with lay and monastic teachers.
HOW MUCH: Donation-based (€45 per person per day meets the 'break even' cost). sunyatacentre.org
WHERE: The Sanctuary, Dublin
WHAT: 'Stillness transforms' is the slogan of Sister Stan's The Sanctuary - a centre for meditation and stillness. They don't offer residential retreats but it's the perfect introduction for someone who wants to dip their toes into the practice of silence.
HOW MUCH: From €45 for a three-week introductory morning course to mindfulness and meditation. sanctuary.ie
WHERE: Passaddhi Meditation Centre, Beara, Co Cork
WHAT: A small retreat centre run by resident teacher Marjó Oosterhoff and a team of monastic teachers.
HOW MUCH: Donation basis. passaddhi.com
WHERE: Kalyana Centre for Mindfulness, Dingle, Kerry
WHAT: A small but perfectly formed meditation centre run by Swiss woman Eva Bruha, who was ordained as a nun in Burma in 1993. Kalyana offers daily practice and residential retreats.
HOW MUCH: The 'Being Real' mindfulness retreat runs from July 3 to July 10 and costs €490 (including food and accommodation).
WHERE: Dzogchen Beara, Beara, Co Cork
WHAT: A Tibetan Buddhist meditation centre (and soon to be the home of Ireland's first Buddhist temple). They offer daily meditation sessions and residential retreats that last for up to three months.
HOW MUCH: All daily meditation sessions are free with the option to make a donation if you wish. Prices for retreats vary. dzogchenbeara.org