Sinikka's snippets

Finland and travelling, a woman's life, cultures, languages, photography plus family recipes


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Silence is golden – or is it?

Silence does not dwell on top of mountains

Nor noise in street and marketplaces

Both are to be found inside the human heart

Silent retreats have become quite popular here in Finland. Unsurprisingly, in our more and more hectic lifestyles. Many of us are stressed out at work or otherwise exhausted by a busy life, and long to take some time off just for themselves, away from it all. Having heard about retreats from friends, it was, first and foremost, curiosity that attracted me to sign in for a weekend silent retreat.

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What is a silent retreat then? Briefly, it is a chance to spend a weekend, or a longer time, in silence, with full board, usually somewhere in the countryside, in the lap of nature. Quite often these retreats are organised by a church, and thus involve prayer sessions and even full church services, although the participation in any of these activities is fully voluntary. You can simply spend the whole time on your own, in your own thoughts if you so wish.

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Driving to the retreat, I felt a little anxious. I am not especially religious, so the role of the church as the organiser concerned me a little, despite my friend’s reassurance that I wouldn’t have to participate in anything I didn’t want to. What if I couldn’t help uncontrollable giggles during the silent meals? Or imagine suddenly bursting into tears in front of other people! Maybe I would find the silence too oppressive to bear. Then again, I was looking forward to a whole weekend without any of my everyday chores or responsibilities. Just a book with me, and two days to meditate and think about myself, my feelings and life in general. For a teacher, dealing with hundreds of people in a noisy school every day, this sounded heavenly bliss!

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The venue was lovely. Rustic style wooden houses by a lake, still frozen in mid-winter. Snow and ice everywhere but a wonderfully warm atmosphere indoors. There were a dozen of us, and each of us was given our own individual room, with all mod cons. One of the best parts for me were the regular, delicious meals, and the luxury of walking into the dining room with a ready-made buffet table, candle-lit tables and gorgeous views out to the lake. I soon relaxed, and didn’t even find the meals, enjoyed in a group in total silence, at all awkward or strange. In fact, silence shared in a group was a nice, relieving experience.

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I spent quite a lot of time inside my room, reading or just deep in my thoughts. Long walks, despite the blustery, icy wind, were refreshing, and offered me the opportunity to observe the surrounding countryside. I must say, for me, nature really showed its calming and healing qualities, even during this very brief time. More regular walks in the woods will definitely be part of my weekly schedule from now on! Being in Finland, of course the sauna was heated in the evening, and many people even ventured for a dip in the ice hole in the lake (a typical Finnish wintertime activity). There was also a separate fireplace room where you could sit by the flaming fire, snuggly wrapped inside a soft blanket, till late at night.

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I wonder how the people attending all the church activities found the quite busy programme. If you took part in everything, you had something going on about every two hours, including the meals. Obviously, the church activities had speech, singing and music, which meant the silence was actually broken. I can see the church point of view – after all, they were the organisers. What’s more, they had to make sure that everybody showed their faces at regular intervals, to avoid any issues with loneliness, mental break-downs or other personal crises, which can easily manifest themselves during such a solitary experience. Personally, though, I would have found it far too much, had I participated in all of the organised activity. Personal choice and freedom was a definite plus for me!

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All in all, the weekend passed by far too quickly, in my opinion. I fully enjoyed the experience even if no life-changing revelations entered my conscience. I slept like a log, and felt rested and energised after returning home. Never once did I regret going, and all my initial doubts were proven unfounded. I will definitely go again, if possible. On the other hand, I do also now better understand people who say they couldn’t ever imagine participating, as they are far too sociable and talkative, and simply can’t see the point in wasting any time in silence. Different strokes to different folks, as they say!

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Sweet dreams

I love sleeping – who wouldn’t? In fact, all through my life I have slept well, wherever I’ve been. Falling asleep, sleeping in, even travelling from place to place, and sleeping in strange places have never been a problem for me. In recent years, however,  I’ve been expecting the “early bird syndrome” many of my friends have experienced with age but no, if possible, I will sleep late even now. I must admit that the sweetest way of falling asleep for me is when I don’t have to set the alarm in the evening, so I can wake up naturally the next morning. Unfortunately, as for most working people, I can only enjoy this luxury at weekends and on holidays.

Sleep1My natural sleeping rhythm has always required quite a long night’s rest, even 9-10 hours per night, especially in the darkest winter months. I seem to be related to bears, slumbering into a semi-hibernation in winter. Just recently this has started to worry me, though, with new research suggesting that it’s not only sleep deprivation that has a negative effect on your health but apparently also too much sleep can be detrimental. Sleep science is quite new, and there seems to be quite a lot of new research going on in the field. What would then be the ideal amount of sleep for somebody like me? And, more importantly, is there natural, individual variation in people’s sleeping rhythms?

While the recommended amount of sleep for adults, at least here in Finland, has long been about 8 hours a night, recent research suggests that the optimal amount might be one hour less, i.e. 7 hours a night. Some of these findings were reported in the Wall Street Journal in July this year (links to the article are apparently not allowed but you should be able to read it by finding ‘Why Seven Hours of Sleep Might Be Better Than Eight). One sleep expert has found the lowest mortality and morbidity in people who get that 7 hours of sleep each night. Another study suggests that too little sleep, even as little as 20 minutes less than 7 hours, causes impaired memory and cognitive performance. On the other hand, “oversleeping”, i.e. over 8 hours per night, has been linked to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases and higher death rates. If this is true, at my age, I should be really concerned! Luckily, the jury is still out  on the above-mentioned results.  For example, Dr. Morgenthaler from the Mayo Clinic lists factors affecting our sleeping patterns, including age-related shorter spans of sleep or sleep deprivation, both of which may lead to an increased need of sleeping hours. He also refers to cultural and genetic differences between individuals, which sounds reassuring to me.

Sleep2The plot thickens with research into gender differences. According to experts at Duke University US, women are more susceptible to the adverse effects of lack of sleep, and thus should sleep more than men. This has also been looked into at Loughborough University Sleep Research Centre in Britain, where one expert stated the following:

“The more of your brain you use during the day, the more of it that needs to recover and, consequently, the more sleep you need. Women tend to multi-task — they do lots at once and are flexible — and so they use more of their actual brain than men do.”

Makes sense to me as a teacher, whose working days include a lot of mental exertion and constant interaction with hundreds of people. Yet, I wonder what my husband would say about this! Probably dismiss it as utter sexist nonsense. Naturally, the same also applies to those men who use their brain a lot during the brain but researchers do suggest that, on the whole, women seem to need slightly more sleep than men.

Sleep3aWhat am I to make of all this then? Should I limit my sleep to only 7 hours a night in an attempt to minimise my risk of diabetes and heart disease? Or, should I take into account my gender and mentally challenging job, and allow myself more sleep? My personal problem is that with a tendency to procrastination in the evenings, I often find myself burning the midnight oil with school work. Consequently, most weeknights I only manage to sleep 6-6.5 hours, which probably is too little for me, judging by my frequent feeling of fatigue. Mind you, the long and dark winter here in the north also takes its toll, and many people would attest to needing more sleep in this season. My gut feeling is that I would feel better if I managed to increase my nightly sleep by at least one hour on weekdays.

Perhaps, the best thing for me to do, during the next school holiday, would be to try the test suggested in the above-mentioned Wall Street Journal article:

Experts say people should be able to figure out their optimal amount of sleep in a trial of three days to a week, ideally while on vacation. Don’t use an alarm clock. Go to sleep when you get tired. Avoid too much caffeine or alcohol. And stay off electronic devices a couple of hours before going to bed. During the trial, track your sleep with a diary or a device that records your actual sleep time. If you feel refreshed and awake during the day, you’ve probably discovered your optimal sleep time.

Tonight, however, it being Saturday, I will be able to sleep without any alarm in the morning – and even gain one extra hour of rest as it’s the end of daylight saving time.

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         Photo credit: Sweet Dreams by Thomas Heylen on Flickr