I dressed for my first time on The Couch like it was a first date. It was a sunny June day, I was 26, and I wore a geranium-colored dress—I wanted to look nice for Dr. J, an impulse that surely pointed to a multipack of psychological deficits. I went into therapy to discuss the usual grab bag: fear of commitment, fear of not committing, boredom, fear of boredom, guilt about the bourgeois nature of my neuroses, etc. But most pressing was my insomnia. And as Dr. J learned about my sleep disorder, I learned about hers. “I can’t sleep,” I told Dr. J. “I think I’ve forgotten how.”
She responded: “Uh-huh.”
I upped the ante: “I’m cursed. It’s torture.”
Even this didn’t rouse Dr. J. And after some back-and-forth about the usual offenders—caffeine, stress—her eyes assumed a glassy, remote expression, her lids fluttered in slo-mo, and her head dropped, heavy as a porcelain doll’s, her hair sweeping across her face like a curtain closing. Dr. J wasn’t just resting her eyes; she was happily en route to REM. I sat there stunned, embarrassed for us both—not to mention jealous: How dare she make sleep look so easy? Eventually, I offered loudly, and in retrospect, absurdly, “You appear to be very tired.”
“Yes,” she said—groggy, but provocatively cavalier about her rendezvous with the sandman, “I am tired.”
That was 10 years ago, and I’ve been on and off the couch (okay, mostly on) ever since. While the majority of my sessions have been far more productive than that one—I’m just about over the insomnia of my twenties—now I’ve diversified to a new conga line of fears: aging, money problems, having children, not having children. I’ve always had a talent for questions (asking, not answering), which is perhaps why therapy has felt natural to me. But questions can be much like cocktails: One tends to lead to another, and too many can leave you disoriented.
Ideally, voicing your problems is a way of not only acknowledging them, but also resolving or making peace with them—and pushing on. For me, though, all this talk has provided problems of all sizes with a podium, exaggerating even those not worthy of a mic. Now I find myself questioning the value of talk therapy altogether. Could I find more peace through quiet?
There’s been a lot of noise lately about silence. There are books on the subject, including Susan Cain’s 2012 best-seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. (Cain’s theatrical TED talk about the power of quiet—a New Yorker cartoon waiting to happen—is nearing 3 million views online.) Or George Michelsen Foy’s Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence, which follows an American writer’s pursuit, through Parisian catacombs and a Canadian nickel mine, of absolute quiet. There have also been events, including a 2011 gala curated by Marina Abramovic´—who has staked her career on soundlessness—at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. that featured mute performers whose heads poked noiselessly, and creepily, through tabletops, amid the entrées and flatware; an Oscar-winning film (The Artist); and, of course, an app (iTunes best-seller Mindfulness Meditation, for one, narrated by the author of Meditation for Dummies).
And, judging by the proliferation of silent retreats—where urbanites are voluntarily enlisting for weekends of lips-zipped ashram-toilet scrubbing—shutting up is seriously in vogue. It’s good enough for Gwyneth. In her cookbook My Father’s Daughter, Paltrow shares her favorite takeaway from the silent retreat she attended at a Japanese monastery: the recipe for a bowl of noriand-kimchi-spiked short-grain rice.
The impulse to retreat from the demands of a noisy world in order to contemplate the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life is hardly breaking news. Silence has long been seen as a direct line to the divine. In the fourth century, the Desert Fathers, led by Anthony the Great, fled the Roman Empire for the solitude of the Saharan dunes. Saint Benedict, who founded Western Christian monasticism in the sixth century, instructed his disciples “to be silent and listen.” And in Buddhist and yogic teachings, mute meditation is believed to provide a kind of all-access pass to the truth of the present moment.
Silent retreats as we now know them can be traced to the ’60s countercultural love-in with Eastern traditions. When Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary thumbed their way across Central Asia’s so-called Hippie Trail, they stopped at Indian ashrams—hermitages where swamis and their followers sought spiritual enlightenment. And in 1968, the Beatles decamped to an ashram in Rishikesh, India, on the banks of the Ganges, steeping themselves in yoga and meditation, and lending instant sex appeal to things like sarongs and, yes, silence.
But there seems to be something new—or at least a little more pressing—about our need for quiet these days, if only because it’s shockingly hard to find. The phenomenon that British philosopher Bertrand Russell dubbed our “cult of efficiency” in his 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness”—about a modern culture held in thrall to ideals of enterprise and productivity—the American author George Prochnik now terms our “age of incessancy.” In 2010’s In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Prochnik writes that silence can bring about “a kind of listening that only occurs after a break in the circuit of busyness.” The silent retreat—where the mute button, by the way, applies to your lips and your iPhone—offers an escape route from the timegulping quicksand of multitasking. When I call Prochnik for an interview, he tells me in a hushed voice, “The hunger for silence has to be seen through our current issues with overstimulation. It’s tied to our changing relationship to technology.” An aural fast, Prochnik explains, can sharpen attentiveness and receptiveness, and even increase our capacity for empathy. It’s less about shutting out the world and more about letting it in—and enjoying it more fully. “Silence provides more mental room,” he says, “but also more room in the heart for the world around you.”
It can make not just minds healthier, but our bodies, too, according to Herbert Benson, MD, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Silence evokes “a bodily response that’s the opposite of the stress response,” lowering your heart rate and blood pressure and reducing symptoms of PMS, Benson says. And if you’re not sold on it yet: It can even be anti-aging, “triggering the body to shut down the inflammation genes,” like an antioxidant.
Despite this symphony of biological benefits, going silent is anything but easy, no matter how deeply you retreat. Noise is addictive; it causes spikes in levels of dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical. “Psychologically, we feel frazzled, but physiologically, we crave that fix, that beat,” says Prochnik. “Noise is like a hyperfood, full of salt and sugar and fat. It’s about instant gratification,” whereas the relaxing effects of silence—that brown rice for the brain—take longer to sink in and make us feel great.
In hopes of quieting my inner soundtrack—the anxieties, the infernal questions—by stifling the outer one, I call the Loyola House, a Jesuit center a couple of hours outside Toronto, where I live. “In the next few weeks?” the woman on the line asks, laughing the way a reservationist at, say, the French Laundry, might if I were calling to score a table at a moment’s notice. As in: Good luck with that, babe. “I can put you on a waiting list?” I call a local Augustinian monastery. Booked for months. But L’Ermitage Retreat Center in Quebec has just had a cancellation. Bingo.
I share my plan with a colleague. “Is that supposed to be relaxing?” he asks, taking a nervous sip of his cappuccino, anxious at the very idea. “I can’t think of anything more stressful.” The prospect of enforced silence does seem lonely, terrifying even. Last summer, when I cut back on carbs to try to lose weight and gain energy, I spent all my newfound zest fantasizing about linguine: Denial is generally the surest path to desire. In the week before my verbal fast, I find myself talking and texting constantly—gorging on words, stuffing myself with syntax—like a smoker hacking through that last carton before quitting.
In Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains, even the whispering breeze seems complicit in my speechlessness, sending shushing sounds through the pines. At L’Ermitage, I’m greeted (verbally!) by coowner Paul Perreault, who hands me a plastic bag stuffed with a couple of thin, coarse towels and some bedsheets. The message is loud and clear: Luxury here will not come in the form of Egyptian cotton. Perreault gently shares retreat rules. The main one, of course, is that conversation is outlawed. Bathrooms are shared and there are no assigned activities (meditation classes are optional), but mealtimes are set (and somewhat Floridian: dinner is at 5:30). My room is private, mini, and monastic, with a sliver of window and a reading lamp.
First up, lunch. The dining-room walls are washed in shades of cantaloupe and hummus-beige, with a bulletin board featuring brochures for Tibetan yoga and “intuitive painting.” The only sound is that of knives spreading veggie pâté on flaxseed flat bread. (L’Ermitage, like most retreats, is vegetarian. It occurs to me that, technically, one could eat a T-bone as quietly as one could tempeh, but on this profound point—as on all others—I stay mum.) After lunch, I obediently stand in line to wash my dishes, per house rules, and watch a woman in a Navajo-patterned fleece (a regular? I’ll never know) toss in the trash the paper plates she has cleverly packed in her canvas tote, presumably to avoid cleaning.
L’Ermitage is set, to postcard effect, amid evergreen-clad slopes reclining toward a sun-glossed lake, where a pair of swans glide. This couple, it seems, has not been briefed on the rules of conduct. Over two days, I watch as they engage in various feather-flying domestic quarrels, which conclude when one swan cruises to the other end of the lake, as if punishing her mate with, well, the silent treatment. (You know it’s quiet when the sound of flapping wings starts to sound raucous.)
Apart from swan gazing, I spend my days reading, wandering slowly around the 125-acre property, and watching the 15 or so other guests wander about even more slowly. Occasionally I see an individual stop midstride, standing still with eyes closed as though struck by an urgent need to contemplate. My fellow retreaters range in age from early twenties to seventies; some wear earth-tone ponchos, others Lululemon yoga gear. I observe them the way my cat would—that is, like a creature who can stare at a leaf for an hour, riveted, as if he were watching an episode of Dynasty. Have I found myself in a world more civilized and gentle—or one less sane?
En route to a meditation class, I get lost somewhere between the Pavillon Vérité and the Pavillon Sérénité and don’t feel comfortable asking for directions, for obvious reasons. So I sit on a bench and watch a squirrel eat a nut, holding it with both paws like a club sandwich.
Later, Perreault tells me that some of his guests check in when they’re at a professional or personal crossroads, perhaps postdivorce, or when they need a trial separation from their BlackBerry. “People have told me that after a day of silence here, they go to the cliff, sit on a bench, and cry. Others say they sleep better than they have in years. A couple of people have left after a few hours—confronting their inner worlds was too destabilizing.”
With the space and time to ponder the mysteries of the infinite, I find myself focusing on other unsolved mysteries: Couscous tonight? Or quinoa again? I go to the so-called weeping cliff. Not a tear. Nothing dramatic happens. But I do feel relaxed—even at peace. Not talking, not being hunted by e-mail and texts and a ringing phone, is profoundly restful. And without time-thieving conversations, days seem weirdly spacious and delightfully open. While my mind generally feels cramped and tight, my worries engaged in some kind of chronic high-speed chase, here, my mind—in sync with its surroundings—seems to loosen and slow. My internal soundtrack hardly goes mute, but after only a couple of days, it loses some vigor and volume, as if without external stimuli it’s lost its power source.
I’ve always longed to be one of those type-A’s who bemoan their inability to do nothing. I’ve always been fabulous at nothing! If I’m good at talking, I’m great at nothing. As a child, my teachers often accused me of having tête dans la lune— head in the clouds. (I went to a French school.) Here, not only is daydreaming allowed, it’s considered productive, spiritually evolved. Although, the fact that I take to staring at clouds and ducks and lunching rodents with such ease should, perhaps, be more alarming to me than something to be proud of. “Maybe you’re meant for a contemplative life?” a friend suggests upon my return. Maybe. I’ll talk about it with my therapist.