On silence and (not) meditating through a pandemic

Years ago I shared an apartment with a guy who used to take a month-long vow of silence whenever the mood struck him. He was the night cleaner at the coffee shop where I worked and played in a band (or sang? I can’t remember now). The apartment was absolutely frigid—my room was a kind of closed-in former second-story sun room and it was the middle of a Minnesota winter—but it was cheap and we got along fine.

I often worked the morning shift at the coffee shop, and would arrive slightly after 5:30 a.m. when my flatmate was still there cleaning. That job taught me to love the quiet of an early morning. The shift started at 6 but if I got there a bit earlier I’d have time to read the paper with a hot, fresh cup of coffee and quiet before we opened at 6:30.

There was a quality of entering the empty coffee shop when this guy was doing his silent month that I found soothing. When you know a person isn’t going to answer you with words, the social pressure to make small talk falls away. My own mind tended to rest more easily on those days, even if the rest of it was crowded with noise and chatter.

I was reminded of that experience when reading Jane Brox’s book Silence recently. The book was really more about time than silence, about modern life and what happens when the pace of it all, the demands on our time, are removed, either by choice, as in the case of Thomas Merton and the monastic life; or by law, as in the cases of the earliest inmates of the Eastern State Penitentiary, a prison designed by Benjamin Rush to keep all inmates in both total silence and total isolation because it would reform their souls.

The prisoners, Brox wrote, usually craved the work they were assigned (shoemaking in the early days) because it gave a point and structure to their days. The monastic life is likewise full of meaningful work and prayer. Both lives in her book had a minimum of verbal communication, but Merton still struggled against the invasion of time that the renown of his writings brought to the contemplative life he’d chosen.

None of us can truly shape our days any way we’d like. Attending writing residencies in the past showed me what my days would look like if I weren’t responsible for childcare, had little reliable phone service, and never had to cook or do dishes. It’s unbelievably productive and feels wonderful, in part because I don’t have to give or receive conversation unless I choose to and can dedicate all my prime hours to writing, but that’s not my life. Nor is it most people’s. We all have demands and obligations, many with far less control over their time than others.

I don’t know that I would want to take my old flatmate’s vows of silence (though sometimes I wish everyone else would for a while), but I do miss the quality of walking into a space where talking was not expected and I felt, even for half an hour, that I owned my own time.

Meditation, like silence, seeks to hush the cluttered audiosphere that keeps us from focusing on the existence of existence and marveling at it all, inside and out of ourselves. The stillness and aliveness and interconnectedness. They both serve to clear away the distractions that demand attention for the fleeting and irritating.

I would have thought that a pandemic semi-quarantine (whatever all of this is called where the U.S. has no national response and we’re trying to protect one another as best we can) would be a perfect time to really dedicate myself to building a meditation practice and rediscovering the peace of those half hours. But no. I’ve found the opposite.

I’ve been struggling with a strong aversion to my Headspace meditation app and meditation in general over the past few months. It’s partly that I loathe the moment when I first turn on my phone in the morning, but the pandemic has added another layer: the formlessness of the days. I’ve worked freelance from home for over twenty years, so that wasn’t an adjustment, but now my spouse, who has spent our twenty-year-plus marriage traveling more than half the year, is also home all the time mostly on conference calls, and our kids are homeschooling. The days have this godawful sameness that feels like it should be wonderfully malleable but somehow isn’t. It’s just formless, even with a routine to keep the days running. Forget meditation and mindfulness, it’s a struggle for me not to slide into living on beer and potato chips.

Trying to meditate with an app that’s loaded with hundreds of choose-your-own pre-recorded guided meditations feels weirdly horrifying. There’s a yawning maliciousness to it that grins at the meaninglessness of it all.

So I haven’t been meditating. I could do it without using an app but realized early on that I should have formed a robust practice years ago if I wanted to be able to keep meditating in this situation. My “practice” is haphazard at best. I have better luck with yoga or walking in the woods, or just walking out of the house, but even that’s a struggle—I hadn’t realized how much I rely on walking my kids to school to start my days. (I also miss being alone so, so much.)

An essay titled “Mindfulness is useless in a pandemic,” from 1843 Magazine (a publication of The Economist; it looks like it might be need a login but not a subscription to read) popped up on my Curio app last week. I’m not sure the arguments all made sense to me, but the point that expectation of future events is vital to survival and part of our evolution is well taken: “The pandemic has reminded us that the joy we take in planning is as valid as the event itself. . . . When the present is crushing, and when lives and economies are being ruined, our imagination offers us a welcome escape.” It was nice to hear that I’m not alone in a current aversion to mindfulness.

For some reason, right now the Headspace app makes me feel like I’m being dragged into a Black Mirror episode; and meditating on my own, without a guide, makes me feel like walking to Canada. Instead of trying to do meditation each day, I’ve been grateful for the reset from Pondercast, where host Laurie Brown has been doing a twenty-minute guided meditation each Monday and a grounding thought on Fridays. Each one is new and explorative.

Maybe it helps to be reminded that, if you have someone guiding your meditation, they’re not just sitting out the pandemic on a higher plane of perfect mindfulness or with the comfortable safety of a Silicon Valley executive’s income. They’re trying to walk through this year, too. The Pondercast meditations keep me anchored in time, reminding me that Earth is still moving and me along with it, and that every day is unique even if it all feels the same, and that however we find or form silence for ourselves, it’s likewise unique. As my flatmate wordlessly taught me all those years ago, every half-hour of silence can be its own world to explore.