The Morning Call (Sunday)
Shh. It’s Breakfast Time.
Silent breakfast is a wellness practice that is helping some people cope with the pandemic.
“I DON’T MEDITATE so I look to other parts of my day to become meditative, including my coffee and breakfast routine,” Nina Zorfass, 30, a New York City resident who works in marketing, wrote in an email.
Her technique? Eating breakfast in complete silence.
When she first started this practice eight years ago, Ms. Zorfass noticed that she felt more prepared for the day ahead, and could make healthier food choices. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, she has relied on that time to recharge while living and working in close quarters with her partner.
“Alone time is hard to come by in our apartment,” she said.
Eating in silence is an ancient practice with roots in many monastic communities.
“Buddhists, Celtic mystics, Sufis, Vedic mystics,” said Ginny Wholley, a teacher at the UMass Memorial Health Care Center for Mindfulness. “Everyone has a component of silence that is an inherent part of the practice.”
In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the center where Ms. Wholley teaches as a way to promote and study the benefits of practices like these in a secular setting. The concept for silent breakfast is simple enough: Focus on your food, quietly, and deal with whatever thoughts come up. But it’s more difficult than it seems.
I spent several days at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Mass., in October 2019. Signs on every table reminded guests that breakfast should be eaten in silence. Educational carousels of cards extolled the virtues of reconnecting with yourself each morning: It benefits your mind and body to start your day purposefully, calmly and in gratitude.
On the first day, I carried my breakfast tray down the aisle of the dining room, feeling the eyes of strangers follow me like some angst-ridden school cafeteria scene in movies. I passed row after row of fellow breakfasters. Some shifted in their seats as I walked by; the only sounds were the cautious clinks of silverware onto bowls and plates. Occasionally, a chair would scrape the floor as someone sat down or left.
“Our society leans into complexity and difficulty, because then there’s more ‘value’ to it,” said Cristie Newhart, the dean of the yoga school at Kripalu. “When you’re first learning to become more present, it’s like: ‘Present with what? What do I do?’ In mindful eating, you’re bringing all your attention to food.”
My mind revolted halfway through my granola. As a freelance writer, I’ve always had an unhealthy work-life balance, partially from internalizing the idea that I should maximize productivity at all costs. My parents were both entrepreneurial people who successfully worked their ways out of underprivileged childhoods. They instilled a very tough work ethic into me. “Self-care,” I believed, was for people who had the time and money. Not working hard enough meant risking failure.
But here I was, at my first wellness retreat, trying to appreciate a bowl of berries and tailspinning into existential dread. It felt indulgent and lazy to focus so intently on my food. I had a to-do list a mile long and a new mortgage to worry about. I was deeply uncomfortable.
“As someone who speaks nearly constantly, the idea of enforced silence seemed punitive,” said Melissa Klurman, a journalist in Montclair, N.J., who also tried out silent breakfast on a retreat to Kripalu in 2019.
“One of the funny things about starting a mindfulness practice is that when you quiet the external noise, you start to hear more of the internal noise. If you’re not used to this, it can be incredibly unpleasant,” said Ravi Kudesia, a mindfulness researcher and assistant professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. “The key idea here is that it’s better to notice the whispers before they become screams.”
I couldn’t concentrate, so I let my mind run wild through its litany of worries and reminders. Then, like a toddler wearing herself out after a tantrum, my thoughts quieted down. After several days of silent breakfast, I started to hear myself. My concerns and thoughts, happy with their time at the soapbox, stepped back and stopped plaguing me first thing in the morning. I could focus on what was in front of me, without guilt, without obligation, without stress. It was an unusual feeling of freedom.
For Deborah Vaphides, 62, an acupuncturist from Montclair, N.J., starting her mornings with a silent routine several days a week helps her feel more grounded throughout the day. She sits by her window and watches the sunlight stream in early in the mornings, while practicing deep breathing exercises.
“I used to listen to the news every morning for decades. No more. I know the news will find me these days no matter where I go,” Ms. Vaphides said. “The image of the light changing during my quiet mornings stays with me all day, and I come back to that peacefulness any time I need it.”
This peace, it turns out, has a lot to do with our physical response.
“When we’re in silence, our brains and bodies react similarly to when we meditate,” said Dr. Lauraine Hollyer, a clinical psychologist. “Cortisol, which is associated with stress, decreases in the bloodstream. Blood pressure, breathing rate and heart rate also decrease. We can concentrate and recall more easily.”
When I first encountered silent breakfast, in 2019, it was easier for many of us to avoid ourselves by running through our own lives. In 2020, with nowhere to go and much less to do, I refocused on silent breakfasts. I made a date with myself every morning and guarded my time against the inevitable digital intrusions. I worked on being my own company, on treating myself like I’d treat a guest, on asking myself questions. I focused on what was in front of me, which allowed me to face each tumultuous day with a stronger sense of calmness and acceptance, relatively speaking. I started to crave my quiet reconfiguration every morning.
As quarantine dragged on and loneliness became a real concern, I realized that silent breakfast unexpectedly helped me navigate that, as well.
“When I feel lonely, there’s always this sense that I need something external to fill it: another person or another engagement or to go somewhere,” said Barbara Vacarr, the chief executive of Kripalu.
She added an important point for those without much time for themselves because of child care or other obligations: “There’s no doing this to perfection, that’s not the point. The point is choose a day or a few days a week maybe and see how best to integrate the practice into your daily routine.”
When her daughter’s family moved in with her during the pandemic, it significantly altered Ms. Vacarr’s silent mornings, for example. So sometimes, she retreats to her bedroom with tea. Other times, she tries to include her three young grandchildren.
“It doesn’t last long at all, but children love ritual,” she said. “Having silent breakfast together becomes our special event.”