Buying Quiet in a Noisy World

Dec 29, 2011

Walking through the mall during the holidays makes you long for noise-canceling headphones. But the soundtrack of our everyday lives is far from quiet with ringing cell phones, pinging email notifications, and a workday that, for many of us, never ends. Quiet is no longer experienced after dinner or on the weekends. For many people, quiet is a rarity, even a luxury item.

One place people are going to buy quiet is Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. The Shakers were America’s longest-lasting communal religious society. In the early 19th century, they established a community just south of Lexington.  Even during this crummy economy, Shaker Village’s historic inn is constantly booked with people who want the experience of a quieter life.

 “There is a stillness and a peacefulness like nowhere else you’ve ever been,” says Amy Darnell, publicist for Shaker Village.

Weekend visitors pay around $100 a night to wander the site’s 3,000 wooded acres and try and break their addiction to their cell phones.

“It’s a total detox for people,” says Darnell. “They’re breathing a little easier, nice, long deep breaths. They just seem refreshed.”

In 2010, U.S. spas generated $12.8 billion, an increase of nearly 5 percent from 2009. Around the country, a weeklong silent retreat at a meditation center can run $1,500.

But if we have to buy quiet, what does it really do for us? Ruth Baer is a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky. Baer specializes in mindfulness, an approach for increasing well-being that involves learning how to be present by observing your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations.

Says Baer, “If you have goals for your life that maybe aren’t really related to these 150 emails that you answered, then if you take a moment to step back and think: What am I really getting done in my life, what am I accomplishing, what directions am I going in? Then sometimes, I think people realize that what they’re spending most of their time doing is not consistent with the big things that they really want in their life.”

At the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Trappist monks have lived a quiet life for over 150 years, working mindfully and attending around-the-clock prayer services.

Brother Paul Quenon says there’s a reason many of us avoid silence:  ”We’re strangers to ourselves; we get embarrassed with ourselves; we live with a self-created image of who we are, and when the silence falls, it’s hard to sustain that. So you have to come to terms with your own heart and rest with your own heart.”

Gethsemani is open to regular people who want to go on retreat. They pay by donation, typically $25 to $40 a day. Lexington resident and retired University of Kentucky dentistry professor Tom Mullaney has traveled to Gethsemani for three decades. He comes up so much for the experience of quiet and inner reflection that his wife calls him a married monk.

Says Mullaney, “You end up not getting so much answers, but questions, and you can search them out.”

Brother Paul adds that quiet is essential for a well-functioning planet:  “The world needs people who practice the pregnant silence, the authentic silence, and even though it doesn’t express itself in words, it should express itself some way, like in deeds, or … love, especially love. You can’t really love another person unless you’re there. You have to be present to yourself. Love starts out with love of yourself.”

But how do we learn to be quiet if we’ve forgotten how or have never done it? Psychology professor Baer has some ideas.

“I think people who are caught in extended franticness feel like they don’t have time to be quiet, so I’d like to recommend that people try maybe just one minute,” Baer says. “I think everybody can probably find one minute. So maybe when you get out of bed, sit on the side of the bed for one minute and watch yourself breathe and notice what thoughts are in your mind. One minute. And then go about the rest of your day. But then if you have another minute, try it again and start to see what happens.”

Mullaney often finds his doorway to silence by first reading the words of the late theologian and monk Thomas Merton, one of Gethsemani’s most famous residents: “When we are alone on a starlit night, when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descend on a grove of junipers to rest and eat, when we see children in a moment when they are really children, when we know love in our own hearts, or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear the old frog land in the quiet pond with a solitary splash … at such times …  the newness, the emptiness and the purity of vision that makes themselves evident, provides a glimpse of the cosmic dance.”