Photo: Dianne De Guzman / SFGATE
I don’t meditate.
I don’t say namaste, unless forced to. It’s been years since I’ve taken a yoga class.
Yet, here I was, with a group of strangers. On a silent hike. Practicing mindfulness.
It wasn’t a hike in complete silence, mind you — I have yet to step into that calm, hellacious-sounding-to-me realm — but it was quiet enough for me. Gathered at Land’s End on a September afternoon, a group of locals were taking part in a hike by MindTravel, a silent hiking adventure thought up by composer Murray Hidary.
Together, the group wears wireless, Bluetooth headphones, which pipe through Hidary’s piano compositions as he leads us through the hike. We’re all instructed not to speak to one another, but instead to enjoy the journey, be calm and present.
That request of “being present” seemed ridiculous prior to the silent hike. I’m present everywhere, I mused, (mostly) unironically. I’m on Slack, Instagram and holding conversations. All. The. Time. I’m fielding phone notifications constantly: news alerts, text messages, the Latest Twitter Outrage — I know about it all.
Yet somewhere among the trees and ocean and lilting music, I was there. Not seeking out my phone. Disconnecting from the world and listening to music, Hidary’s calming words sounding as we wound our way to the Land’s End labyrinth.
By the end, I wondered, “Did I really buy into this? Is everyone really buying into this mindfulness stuff?”
Apparently, I did buy into it, mostly. But I’m not the only one.
For Hidary, what he’s noticed with the appeal of silent hikes like his, is that beyond the personal connection with nature, and past the personal worries of work or family, there’s a need for folks to move away from the stresses of life outside of one’s self.
“There’s something broader that I feel is happening,” Hidary told me. “I think it has to do with more global stressors that people are feeling anxious about. The political landscape is one that’s quite divisive these days, and I think people are feeling that more than they might usually, in their own way, and not just because of the ideologies but because of the impact it has on their lives directly — the conversations with families that create a lot of stress around political issues.
“I think issues like climate change are becoming so palpable now that it creates this existential anxiety for people, and I think all these things add up,” he added. “The technology revolution has the effect of creating anxiety because some people feel like they’re getting left behind because of it, or they’re afraid of being left behind. So I think all these elements conspire to create an environment that is creating more stress for people than than they know what to do with.”
It doesn’t quite seem coincidental then that the self-care industry has ramped up enough to be estimated to draw in $11 billion in revenue as noted in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article. People are drawn to things that promise mindfulness and peace; meditation, while a centuries-old practice, is being co-opted by apps like Calm and Headspace and priced to remind tranquility-desiring folks that (maybe) it can happen for them.
It also doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that events like the ones Sound Meditation SF throws — where masses meditate together in a “sound bath” — sells out within hours. The meditation juggernaut alone is commanding $1 billion in revenue per year, and the percentage of those meditating has increased to 14.2 percent in 2017 from 4.1 percent in 2012, according to Fast Company.
We are burnt out and trying to recoup that calm we all feel we should have, throwing money at it in every way possible, even if it’s the simplest thing we can turn to. Namely, meditation and silence.
Brook Stone is an instructor and integrative psychotherapist at UCSF, and she teaches meditation to caregivers and people with cancer. She’s practiced mindfulness meditation for over 40 years, saying the practice is not about escaping, but “it’s about gaining the equanimity to face yourself, and face life directly, and to have the poise and courage to do that.”
“People are hungering for something,” said Stone. “They’re hungering for some peace; they’re hungry for some calm. They’re hungering for something that gives them a fresh perspective, a sense of whether it’s solace or refuge, a place to go where they feel less alienated and in touch with something deeper and that it’s not just satisfying that needs of the ego.
“Our own self concerns are endless, and at some point, you come to realize that that is not the route to happiness. No matter how much you feed that … it just generates generates more wants. So in a way, when you sit down and you encounter yourself, it also stops that momentum and it puts you in touch with something greater than yourself.”
Bruce Davis is the head of Silent Stay Meditation & Retreat Center in Vacaville, where folks seek out and pay for days of glorious silence, and he has been running nondenominational silent retreats since the ’80s. If you asked him why people are seeking silent retreats today versus back then, he mused that in the ’80s most people were looking for something spiritual, especially those who had become disenfranchised from organized religion.
Photo: Richard Formica / Silent Stay Retreat Center
These days, however, most were seeking downtime, a chance to nurture themselves, Davis said. Of the 40 percent of local people coming to his retreats these days, he guessed that half of those come from tech to stay. And in a lot of ways, that sentiment seems to track: When someone as tech-embedded as Twitter founder Jack Dorsey is seeking out 10 days of silent meditation (and there are others like him), it’s perhaps one of the more conclusive signs that perhaps all of the tech kids are in need of a time out.
Prior to 2012, Davis and his wife Ruth lived in Italy, running silent retreats together in Assisi, returning to California to be close to family. But Davis also cited the emergence of technology as another reason for wanting to return, looking to help others through their retreat.
“We felt the whole technology thing was happening and we wanted to be a balance to that,” Davis said. “There’s so much going on in their head and there’s not much support for the heart.”
“We’re surprised how popular it’s become, when we first started [doing our silent retreats] nobody was doing this,” Davis later added. “We just feel a call to do it, and since we’ve come back in 2012 we’re surprised how popular it is, there’s all kinds of silent retreats.”
Meaghan Joynt is one of those who have sought that “time out,” so to speak. Although her first visit to Silent Stay was a mistake of sorts — her winery weekend plans thwarted by a failure to read the fine print of her booked stay — Joynt was already a meditation practitioner and decided to give into the silent retreat. Joynt said she “fell in love” with the experience and has returned to silent retreats (both at Silent Stay and other places) repeatedly since, calling the retreats an antidote to anxiety.
Despite growing up in New York City and moving to San Francisco in more recent years, just a few months ago she moved to Half Moon Bay — “We are overstimulated beyond belief,” she said of city life — saying she moved purposefully “to be in an environment that is not so stimulating.”
“We’re all realizing — even if we don’t know what it is [and] you can’t put your finger on what it is — that our senses are overwhelmed with all of this information and technology that’s coming in at us, sound and sight, and it’s really overwhelming and we need a complete rest,” Joynt said.
“We live in an Age of Anxiety,” Joynt later added. “So even though I don’t struggle with anxiety from a clinical perspective, I’m a pretty sensitive person and being around anxiety all the time is disconcerting and impacts me. So if I can bring myself to a different level of consciousness and peace and depth of heartfelt love, then that’s going to impact those around you, and a lot of it is in unseen ways.”
JoAnn’E Verry is another client of Silent Stay. She travels to Vacaville from her home base in Las Vegas, where she runs a real estate business, and co-owns a sign business with her husband. For her, the silent retreats have been a “tune-up” for her, likening the experience to a more tangible, understandable thing (auto repair).
“There’s a lot of hostility in the world right now and I think that people just want to kind of quiet that chatter down and the anger, and feel included and feel like you can breathe. I think that’s a lot of it,” Verry said. “Everyone has different experiences, so you could talk to 10 people and [their experiences] might be the polar opposite but, personally, it just gives the time to really reflect. And when that silence happens, for me it was profound, but really any answers I had just became clear as day.”
Verry said she is attempting to make a trek to Silent Stay four times a year, solo, with plans to also bring others on group trips. Verry’s goal is to do a three-month retreat, she said, likening that experience to an engine overhaul, rather than a tune-up.
“With the technology and stuff, [a silent retreat is] a gift that you give to yourself — to be with yourself, reconnect with yourself and recharge,” Verry said. “When I come out of silent retreat, especially those last ones, I had so much energy and was so motivated and I was so clear. That’s the other thing I’d say — the clarity is huge.”
“People are looking for connection through their devices and that actually creates a profound sense of isolation,” Stone said. “So when you’re in a public place and everybody’s looking down at their phone, put your phone down and just connect with people. Or smile at someone. I mean, these things are so basic, but actually to connect with your world and get out of your own head — that’s sort of mindfulness in action. ‘Where am I? What’s happening around me?’ That connecting in with the world. So it’s not just meditation to escape and go into yourself, but it’s meditation to help you become more present to yourself and the world.”
Have I booked my silent retreat yet? No. But I’m considering it more than I used to.
Dianne de Guzman is a Digital Senior Editor at SFGATE. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.