Silent retreats’ rising popularity poses a challenge: How to handle the quiet

Correction: The Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land was incorrectly referred to upon second reference as St. Anselm’s. This version has been corrected.

December 12, 2012

The headline in the monthly Ward 5 newspaper described what sounded like an antidote to the nonstop iPhone-checking, list-making, ladder-climbing, goal-setting, Washington mind-set: “Refuge for the Metropolitan Hermit.”

The article described a postage stamp of a cabin, urbanely designed and gloriously sunlit, standing alone amid four acres of maples and white oaks on a protected hilltop you’ve probably never seen, although it’s in the middle of the city. Dubbed “the hermitage” by the brothers of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Northeast Washington, the space has no WiFi, TV or radio, and its occupancy limit is one.

It’s been booked nearly solid since it opened in October.

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.

The Catholic University architecture students who designed the RV-size space worked to envision the needs and rhythms of tenants who were unplugged. They were asked to turn off all their own devices and spend an hour alone and silent. Of the 12, only three were able to do it.

“Everyone tried, but it started to seem like a waste of time” to them, said William Jelen, the professor who oversaw the project.

“It’s not easy to find silence.”

The biggest U.S. retreat centers, including the Insight Meditation Society in central Massachusetts and Spirit Rock in Northern California, anticipate the roadblocks to achieving an inner focus and discourage — in some cases, forbid — participants from bringing books or journals, even for weeks-long silent retreats. Retreat staffers say such rules are necessary to help participants focus on their interior lives, because many people would rather do just about anything else.

Yet the number of Americans going to silent retreats has been climbing, particularly in the past five years, as more data emerge on the value of meditation and meditation-derived practices such as mindfulness. Despite tough economic times, it seems, people are willing to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a few weeks or months of . . . what?

Even those heading for such retreats aren’t sure. What is silence? The absence of noise? Achieving inner peace? Knowing yourself? Being able to hover above your own thoughts and observe them without judgment? Halting the constant hunger for accomplishment in a society absorbed with getting ahead in measurable ways, with doing rather than being?

Silence isn’t the end; it’s the means, experts say. And its absence from our culture isn’t a small thing.

“It’s the crisis of our age, the loss of the interior of our lives,” said James Finley, who lived in silence for six years as a Trappist monk before becoming a clinical psychologist who leads silent retreats. For most people, “it’s like trying to make a U-turn at rush hour. We’re caught up in the momentum of the perceived urgency of the next thing.”

Emphasizing solitude

The 350-square-foot hermitage was the idea of brothers whose order is named for Saint Francis, the legendary Catholic preacher who ditched his wealthy upbringing in pursuit of a material-free life of contemplation. Typically hermitages — the word means a place for someone who wants to live in seclusion, usually for spiritual reasons — are in remote areas, but the Franciscans wanted to create one in the middle of the city.

The 42-acre monastery grounds lent themselves to the project; the property sits on one of Washington’s rare hilltops and feels almost Mediterranean. Its main building is a huge Byzantine-style church built in the late 1800s and modeled after Istanbul’s 4th-century Hagia Sofia. Its grounds include sprawling rose gardens tended by a 100-volunteer guild and the four-acre wooded hillside that is home to the hermitage. Although 20 friars live in the monastery, the property emphasizes aloneness, its design intended to facilitate contemplation of the inner self. (For the Franciscans, such contemplation ideally deepens one’s relationship with God.)

The hermitage itself looks like a structure that would be profiled in Dwell magazine: simple, sustainable modern materials and design with a clean, sparse interior. There is a Bible on the table, a cross on the wall and an intentional division of its “profane,” or everyday, space (kitchen, bath, bed) and “sacred” space, which is a deck with a chair on it.

The effect can be both inspiring and daunting, as it was for Harris-Love. The 39-year-old is busy at work as a brain researcher focused on stroke rehabilitation and at home with a 5-year-old son, a mother-in-law and a husband whose different race (he’s black, she’s white) and home town (he comes from the city, she from a farm) are fodder for constant talks about racial identity, economic justice and how to simultaneously change the world and accept it as it is.

She knows she needs quiet and tries deliberately to find it. A lifelong Christian, she has always attended Protestant churches. A year ago, she bought a dark, smooth wood figurine that sits in a contemplative posture that she sees as an aspirational metaphor. She keeps the statue on its own table and looks at it while meditating and praying for about 15 minutes each morning.

When she learned that the hermitage had opened in October, she signed up right away. And then the questions began: How should she enter this place called silence? The monastery is a short distance from her home; should she walk? What should she bring? She started with a box of journals and books and a lengthy to-do list, with items such as “Things I wish I had more time to consider” and “How do I feel about my grandfather’s passing?”

Then she winnowed the box’s contents and tossed the list, thinking she was supposed to be “guided by someone other than myself,” as she put it on a recent weekday afternoon at her Brookland house. She finally settled on bringing a book of patterns by the 19th-century textile designer William Morris and some colored pencils.

The coloring, she said, helped her fight the urge to “accomplish something.”

A break from hindrances

The challenges posed by silence are well-known to those who study and teach it. Some retreats encourage people to train — to refrain from checking their BlackBerrys for a few hours at a time before coming, for example. Others ease people into silence over a couple of days instead of all at once.

Meditators have a term for the obstacles that present themselves when one attempts to turn one’s attention inward — “hindrances.” “That’s when the mind comes up with some way to object to what’s going on. It’s filled with imaginings of things it wants. Or things it doesn’t like, like ‘My knee hurts,’ ” said Gyano Gibson, development director at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., one of the country’s largest centers for silent retreat, where occupancy is at 97 percent this year, having risen steadily from 85 percent in 2009.

Spirit Rock had nine times as many first-timers in 2011 as it did in 2003. A six-day January retreat with popular D.C. meditation teacher Tara Brach has more than 100 people signed up and more on a waiting list.

Silence is also subject to the burden of expectations. A typical first-day exercise at longer retreats is to discuss them, said Sharon Salzberg, a prominent writer on Buddhism who leads silent retreats. “People think in 48 hours they are going to float away and resolve all their problems. External silence doesn’t guarantee inner silence and usually is the opposite at first. You become aware of the nuances of every feeling.”

Time for introspection

Delores Bushong had a lot riding on her stay at the hermitage.

Having just retired from teaching after 40 years, the 65-year-old was feeling disoriented by suddenly having so much free time. Twenty years ago, Bushong glimpsed the friars walking around the monastery at dusk over a friend’s fence, and she had always been mesmerized by the quiet oasis in the midst of the D.C. bustle. When the hermitage opened, she signed up for two nights.

Bushong typically fills every moment with purposeful activity. “I’m someone who is constantly busy,” she said during a pre-retreat visit at her Northeast Washington bungalow. “Even though I live alone, I find 10,000 distractions around myself.” Leave the house every day at 7:10 a.m. Saturday tango, Monday yoga. Ushering at Arena Stage at night. Gardening in the back during the day.

Then came the identity-rocking experience of retiring from a job that had defined her — and her days. It forced questions: What other goals did she have? A breast cancer survivor, the avid kayaker knows her fit body will eventually slow, and how will she want to live when that happens? Beneath it all was a nagging feeling that she’d long avoided difficult questions by keeping busy. “Am I keeping things from myself? If I can find a way to get out of my surroundings, will I hear other things that are troubling that I haven’t heard?”

Once there, she says, Bushong mostly stayed inside the sunny box, writing questions down, making tea, walking around the room, reexamining the questions. She realized she had been asking the questions in the second person: Do you still have hopes and dreams? How do you feel about paying someone to take care of your physical needs? “I realized: Why am I using ‘you’? I needed to change it to really confront this,” she said.

The hardest part wasn’t being alone; it was the lack of distraction. No cats, no TV, no pictures to straighten. “I think any longer would have been hard,” she admits, but she came to realize that she was more at peace than she had been when she was younger.

Harris-Love also found something reassuring in the silence. “It was like, you are where you are, and you can’t see everything, but that’s okay,” she said.

Late morning on a recent Saturday, Harris-Love’s 48 hours of solitary contemplation came to an abrupt halt. Her husband picked her up from the hermitage, and they drove directly to a children’s birthday party.

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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