Silence and Solitude

One of my beautiful friends attended a meditation retreat over the weekend and I was a bit jealous. I was also concerned that she’d return all enlightened and be on a level way too high too wonderful to be hanging out with heathens like me.  

Luckily, despite the zen-like aura following her around, she’s still talking to me. She loved the retreat. It involved yoga and exercises which progressively worked up to 30-40 minute ‘empty mind’ meditative practices. My friend reported that she’s come away feeling a sense of overwhelming calm and she’s got another coping strategy up her sleave when it comes to dealing with all things life.

But the thing that I was really jealous of in this experience is also the reason I have never been to one of these retreats. What I think is most interesting and powerful and overwhelmingly terrifying about this retreat is that it also involved no talking. Total silence and solitude for two whole days.

I’ve always been interested in the ‘silent’ retreat or Vipassana. Vipassana means "to see things as they really are". This meditation practice is based on the teachings of Buddha and attempts to rid the mind of its impurities. The full Vipassana meditation lasts ten days during which one takes an oath of “noble silence”, no communication of any kind to anyone except for the teachers or the assistant teacher at specific times only. Meals are simple and vegetarian. The daily schedule consists of 11+ hours of meditation with breaks for food and rest in between. Wake up at 4 am. In bed by 9:30 pm. Intense.

I’m incredibly glad that my friend decided to ease herself into such meditation practice by starting with a gentle two days of silence. The thing that terrifies about me about these practices is – what the hell would happen to my mind if I could not communicate or be communicated with for really long periods of time?

There is a lot of “sitting” (actual sitting – this could get a bit uncomfortable) with emotions here. And they could be anything - discomfort and anxiety, frustration, resentment, sadness, loneliness, and confusion… no doubt unconscious thoughts would come to the surface in a dreamlike fashion and surprise me with their content. I am going to assume that with time and practice (and indeed I have noticed these effects with my own mindfulness practice) that I would become more desensitized to the slew of possibly difficult emotions. And that could in turn be pretty empowering and calming. But gee whiz that process sounds a bit scary and painful when it happens all at once over a week and a half.

But the thing I do love about the idea of retreats like these is the component of solitude and silence.

Solitude can be very broadly defined as the act of being alone. From the outside solitude might look a lot like loneliness, but the two are worlds apart. In loneliness you feel that something is missing and you’re in a state of discontent. Solitude is a desirable state, being alone where you provide yourself with wonderful and sufficient company.

In my world and in the world’s of those around me there seems to be so much noise. Have you ever thought things were silent and then the fridge or the neighbour’s lawnmower abrupts into silence and you get a shock? Similarly we can pretty easily become numbed to the buzz of our technological world.

Turns out that us smartphone users check our device every 6.5 minutes, which works out to around 150 times a day. Silence is replaced with a cacophony of communication, and solitude is replaced with social media (well, I noticed mine has been anyway).

In the last couple of years I’ve begun to embrace and now I try to prioritise times of both solitude and silence in my daily life. Because I’m finding that the benefits are pretty awesome. What I’ve started finding that by having meaningful time on my own I feel much more connected in my relationships, my work and to my mind and emotions.

And I did some research and it totes supports all these airy fairy hypotheses and beliefs I was having about silence and solitude. Here’s what I found:

  1. Solitude allows your body to catch up with your mind. In this fast-paced existence that most of us live in, we’re always tilting forward — our minds are way out in front of our bodies, thinking, analysing, and planning ahead. It’s only when you stop that your mind and body can once again get back into sync. Silence and solitude pulls us out and immerses us back in the present.
  2. Solitude allows your brain to rest. In a universe of overstimulation (hello smartphone!), our minds are constantly in an overactive mode. Solitude allows your mind to detach from all the endless chatter coming from the environment around you — the radio, the Internet, conversations, street noise, traffic sounds, barking dogs — and rest.
  3. Solitude kick starts the parasympathetic nervous system (the branch of the autonomic nervous system that calms you down). When you’re able to get some time to yourself, your muscles relax, your blood pressure decreases, and your heart rate slows. Think of solitude as the anti-adrenaline system that kicks on when there’s no longer a need for the stress response.
  4. Solitude prevents burnout. Burnout is what happens when you’re subjected to prolonged, intense, and unresolved stress. You run out of physical and psychological energy, and you act in a disorganized, inefficient, erratic manner.
  5. Solitude enhances creativity. This is a fact! Solitude frees the mind up from all the distractions of everyday life and allows it to focus more fully on one thing. It allows your brain to think outside the box and to come up with unique, extraordinary solutions to ordinary problems. The creative process includes a crucial stage called incubation, where all the ideas we’ve been exposed to get to meet, mingle, marinate — then produce an “A-ha” moment. The secret to incubation? Nothing. Literally; disengage from the work at hand, and take a rest. It’s also the elixir for mental blocks. Apparently this is part of why artists — painters, sculptures, musicians, writers — spend so much time alone.
  6. Solitude can be a time of self-reflection. Solitude is your chance to learn something about yourself. Self-reflection is so very important to human development and learning. Self-discovery is a process that involves asking and answering four basic questions: Who am I? What makes me unique? Where am I going in life? Am I comfortable with myself? And sometimes it can be worth asking these questions.
  7. Solitude allows you an opportunity to deal with the big questions in your life. At various times in your life, you’ll be faced with big questions like: If anything were possible, what would I welcome or create in my life? When I’m feeling most courageous and inspired, what do I want to offer the world? When I’m honest about how I suffer, what do I want to make peace with? It takes time and a lot of careful thought to come up with the answers. Such answers are more likely to come to mind in a quiet, introspective moment — solitude — than when you’re fully engaged in your usual day-to-day activities.
  8.  Solitude provides an opportunity for perspective. When you’re caught up in the hassles of day-to-day life, all you can see is what’s directly in front of you — the problem of the moment. If you want to see and appreciate the big picture of what your life’s all about, you have to step back and get a more objective view— and that’s exactly what solitude allows you to do. The visceral reaction of swearing at a loved one or over-disciplining our children often comes with regret. It happens when we’re completely governed by actions, and absent of reasonable thought. In silence, we make room for the self-awareness to be in control of our actions, rather than under their control. The break from external voices puts us in tune to our inner voices — and it’s those inner voices that drive our actions. Awareness can lead to control.
  9. Solitude grows your brain. The brain is the most complex and powerful organ, and like muscles, benefits from rest. UCLA research showed that regular times set aside to disengage, sit in silence, and mentally rest, improves the “folding” of the cortex and boosts our ability to process information. Turns out carving out as little as 10 minutes to sit in your car and visualize peaceful scenery (rainforest, snow-falling, beach) will thicken grey matter in your brain.

    I think we all need periods of silence and solitude. But when I look around at times in my own life and those of others I wonder if we’re getting enough for it to be of benefit to us? Because being alone and quiet can give us the power to regulate and adjust our lives. It can restore our energy and provide us with rest. It can bring out our curiosity and our longings and our hopes and wishes. Alone time can be a fuel for our lives.  

    We could all start small, quiet time in the car on the commute to work, a 10 minute walk with the dog, a 20 minute rest in your bedroom after work before Neighbours starts. But one day, I’m going to work up the courage to try the silent retreat. And find out what real enlightenment looks like.

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