Cultural Studies 102 Essay

Cultural Studies 102 Essay

Producing intersubjectivity in silence: An ethnographic study of meditation practice Author(s): Michal Pagis Source: Ethnography, Vol. 11, No. 2 (June 2010), pp. 309-328 Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd. Stable URL: Accessed: 23-06-2018 23:19 UTC

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Article Ethno graphy

Producing intersubjectivity in silence: An ethnographic study of meditation practice Michal Pagis


11 (2) 309-328 © The Author(s) 2010

Reprints and permissions: DOI: 10.1177/1466138109339041


© The Author(s) 2010

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel


The ‘problem of other minds’ is central to sociological theory and of immediate impor tance to contemporary research on subjectivity and interiority. How do we cultivate and maintain an intersubjective space during silent, private, experiences? Drawing on Alfred Schutz’s phenomenology, this study challenges the common view which regards silence as an obstacle to social relations. The data consist of two years of participant observation of vipassana meditation practices in Israel and the United States. Vipassana meditation is conducted in complete silence, discouraging group sharing of meditation experiences, thus offering an extreme case of silence and privacy. The findings illustrate how, despite the absence of direct verbal communication, the practice of meditation still holds important intersubjective dimensions. I suggest that covert mechanisms of silent intersubjectivity play an important role in everyday social life and require further ethnographic attention.

Keywords intersubjectivity, meditation, phenomenology, silence, subjective experience

It was evening when I arrived.1 The door was opened by a young woman, and I entered a narrow hall. She then disappeared into a second room. I peeked into it and saw a few computers and three men working. They seemed occupied, so I waited quietly. Shortly after, a few people arrived. One woman glanced through the door to the other room and said hello to one of the workers inside, she seemed to know him. The others just took off their shoes and waited quietly in the hall. No one introduced herself to me, or gave me the opportunity to introduce myself. It felt

Corresponding author: Michal Pagis, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel 91905.


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a bit awkward, especially since I was planning to make contacts for my fieldwork. Still, I was optimistic; maybe after the meditation everyone would sit together with a cup of tea. A gong reverberated, and everyone entered a big room serving as the meditation hall. The next hour passed nearly in complete silence. At the end of the hour, after several minutes of chanting, I saw people getting up. I waited until a few meditators stepped out of the meditation room, and followed them into the entrance hall. I watched, in surprise, as they put on their shoes, some uttering a quiet goodbye, and left the apartment. I realized that my par ticipant observation was over – it was time to go home. Vipassana meditation is not about speech – it is about silence: silence in med

itation courses, silence during meditation, and silence regarding participants’ med itation experiences and progress.2 Meditators report that meditation is ‘something that happens between me and myself,’ or ‘an experience that cannot be put into words.’ For them, meditation is not something you share with others – it is some thing you experience alone, in the isolation of your mind.3 For the ethnographer, this silence soon turns into a methodological obstacle.

Every ethnographic study includes a dimension of entering the minds of others. This is, after all, the one most important legacy of Malinowski (1984), who empha sized ‘the native’s point of view.’ We attempt to produce intersubjective spaces, through which we hope to understand our subjects of study, trying to put ourselves in their place. The more interested we are in subjective experience, the more depen dent we become on what our subjects of study communicate to us or to others.4 My training prepared me to observe social interactions and record conversations, examine the discourse and the experience-near concepts, and to search for the underling hidden symbolic logic. Unfortunately, I could not find a public sphere with a discourse on meditation experiences. The public life presented to me included many different dimensions – save for meditation experiences. I recorded countless conversations about partners, children, organizational details regarding the meditation course – but nothing about the meditation itself. In contrast to what I expected from a Westernized version of Buddhist meditation, the ’12-step’ culture did not enter the scene. No-one asked one another ‘how was your meditation?’ Sharing intimate inner states was just not the thing to do. It took me a while to realize I was not the only one who was frustrated. One day

I left the meditation apartment with two meditators. Another woman whom I had never seen before was walking in front of us. Walking briskly, she seemed to be in a hurry to leave. When she reached her car, she suddenly turned around to face us. With an urgent voice, she began talking: ‘You were there, too, right? How was it for you?’ ‘The meditation, you mean?’ asked Dina, one of the meditators, in a surprised tone. ‘Yes, the meditation – were you able to do it? To do vipassana, I mean.’ Still surprised by the question, Dina answered that it depends on her focus; it was sometimes difficult for her to concentrate. The woman then continued:

You see, I did my first course just a few weeks ago, and it takes me 30 minutes to get

here, and then find parking and everything, and then when I get here I sit and I just

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can’t concentrate – and I can’t even follow my breath, not to say do vipassana, and I wonder if this is worth it, I mean, what is the point of coming here if I can’t do


Here Dina replied that sometimes even one minute was worthwhile, and that she should probably talk to one of the teachers. The woman answered:

The teacher – how is he? I mean, he was sitting there like a statue… and you know, I

already asked one teacher and got an answer, so what’s the point of asking another one?

It was clear that the woman wanted to know what other meditators were experi encing, in order to compare her experiences with theirs. Unable to initiate a conver sation of this sort in the meditation apartment, she took it out into the street. But the answer she received was terse, to say the least: that it was worth coming to medita tion despite these challenges, and that if she needed advice, she should ask a teacher. But she didn’t want to ask a teacher; she wanted to speak with fellow meditators. In the silent world of meditation, meditators’ subjective experiences are not translated into the symbolic realm and remain outside of verbal expression. Yet do people meditate in an utterly private world – a pure fiction from a sociological point of view? As this article demonstrates, in the absence of direct verbal com munication, covert mechanisms of silent intersubjectivity are brought into play. Meditation practice, therefore, is not an individual endeavor; it carries important, non-verbal, intersubjective dimensions.

Sociology of silence

Considering the attitudes towards silence that are prevalent in sociological thought, it is no wonder that I had difficulties studying a sphere of silence. Taking a per spective that emphasizes discourses and symbolic systems, I assumed that a silent sphere indicates an absence of meaning. I would therefore like to begin by distin guishing between two approaches to the study of silence – one that construes silence as oppressive, as part of a conspiracy of silencing, versus one that sees silence as a meaningful and constitutive environment. Oppressive silence is a well-studied theme in sociological research; here silence is understood as a denial of voice, and to be silent is the result of being silenced. Silencing is seen as an act in the hand of patriarchic and totalitarian regimes, in contrast to speech, one of the fundamental human rights in egalitarian and dem ocratic societies. Thus, in the study of colonial regimes an effort is made to let ‘the subaltern speak’ (Spivak, 1988), feminists struggle ‘to give voices to women’ (Amundsen, 1971; Jule, 2004; O’Malley, 2005) and victims of sexual abuse and war atrocities ‘search for a voice’ and suffer from a forced silence (Bar-On, 1989; Raine, 1998). Thus, silence is understood as a forced situation, the outcome of power relations and the opposite of freedom.

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The understanding of silence as an important part of power relations is further developed in the study of conspiracies of silence. In his article, The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies ( 1906), Simmel pioneered the discussion of conspir atorial silence, moving our attention to the shared dimensions of silence. Simmel takes silence to be a collective project that prevents speaking and fosters denial. Eviatar Zerubavel’s (2006) book, The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life, offers the most recent comprehensive discussion of conspiratorial silence. Zerubavel’s interest lies with those social relations that are infused with

‘things you don’t talk about.’ Such relations are common in both political and personal spheres.

Albeit the shared dimensions of conspiratorial silences, their main aim, for Zerubavel, is to hide truth and conceal reality. Therefore, silence has ‘negative effects on social life’ (Zerubavel, 2006: 16). Though norms of silence are shared, it is exactly these norms that create an environment of disinformation and ambi guity. For Zerubavel, silence opposes self-expression, leaving the individual with a feeling of isolation, not knowing if others share his or her experiences. The silence around sexual abuse is one such example, as Zerubavel writes: ‘the intense feelings of loneliness often experienced by incest and rape victims are largely a product of such conspiracies of silence’ (ibid: 83). As Butler (1982) demonstrates, silence produces a strong psychological burden, and does not allow the victim to create an intersubjective space around his or her experiences. Zerubavel, therefore, makes the claim that in such silent environment the elephant in the room keeps growing, and only speech can allow it to shrink to its actual proportions.

Arguably, the claim that silence produces an ‘elephant in the room’ is anchored in Freudian tradition with its emphasis on the ‘talking cure’ (Kidron, 2005). Therapy, after all, is about uncovering silent, unconscious elephants considered negative to psychological health. This approach is part of modern Western cul ture’s emphasis on speech – both as a democratic right and as an important part of sociality. As illustrated by the words of Thomas Mann: ‘Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictious word, preserves contact – it is silence which isolates’ (1967: 518). Sociolinguists confirm this view, noting that in Anglo-American culture ‘we accelerate our conversations with others and avoid pauses at all costs, because we think that whatever silences occur in discourse they inevitably indicate lack of mutual rapport between the interlocutors’ (Jaworski, 1993: 6). Bilmes (1994: 79) adds that ‘[wjhat is a comfortable conversation for a Finn or an Athbaskan, may seem to a New Yorker to be full of uncomfortable silences.’ Gurevitch (1989) demonstrates how, in Anglo-American culture, silence opens a gap between people, producing a distance between participants. Silence is understood as disturbing the affinity between individuals, or in sociological terms, breaking the intersubjective space which verbal communication generates.5

To move away from an approach that construes silence as alienating, I turn to linguists and conversational analysts who study silence as a meaningful and con stitutive sign. As Saville-Troike writes, silence can be employed ‘to question, prom ise, deny, warn, threaten, insult, request or command’ (1985: 1 1). In these micro

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studies of conversations, silent episodes that are a part of daily interaction are shown to have important functions (Bilmes, 1994; Kurzon, 1994; Sacks et al., 1974). Although linguists mainly focus on silence as interlaced in verbal conversa tions, they still recognize the existence of chosen and shared silences (Kurzon, 2007; Saville-Troike, 1985). Kurzon gives this form of silence the name situational silence and distinguishes it from conversational silence. Situational silence occurs in spaces where people share silence not merely for the sake of hiding, but as a constitutive mechanism that allows for certain experiences to surface. As Kurzon writes, situational silences can be located in art, religious spheres, and formal rituals, from John Cage’s famous silent musical piece to a moment of silence in memorial ceremonies.

Situational silences are cultural practices that appear in a variety of environ ments and among different social groups. In Japan, for example, silence is used as a therapeutic tool, in opposition to modern Western psychotherapy (O’Kelly, 1982; Ozawa-de Silva, 2006). Other communities, from Amish to Finn, emphasize the importance of silence and lack the modern emphasis on the right for self-expression (Enninger and Raith, 1982; Lehtonen and Sajavaara, 1985). Different Christian traditions, from Catholic monasteries to Quaker meditation, recognize the consti tutive aspects of silence (Bauman, 1983; Szuchewycz, 1997). Theravada Buddhism, and with it vipassana meditation, carry a similar respect for silence. This respect is illustrated in numerous quotes of the Buddha: ‘Learn this from the waters: in mountain clefts and chasms, loud gush the streamlets, but great rivers flow silently’ (Sutta Nipata: 720). The aim of meditation is to quiet down both body and mind, calmly observing inner processes as they unfold in the present. To translate these experiences to a verbal realm implies shifting from immediate experience to sym bolic reflection (Boyle, 1985; Mead, 1934), a shift that involves extensive thought processes and therefore contradicts the aim of meditation. At the same time, dis cussing meditation experiences with others may lead to comparing, desiring and expecting – a contradiction to the ideal of ‘acceptance of the present’ that is central to meditation.

This emphasis on silent observation of internal processes led Weber to claim that the salvation offered by Theravada Buddhism is ‘a solely personal act of the single individual’ (1958: 206). This perspective on meditation is common, and even scho lars who accept the constitutive role of silence still define meditative silence as ‘noninteractive’ (Saville-Troike, 1985) or assume that ‘the silence of meditation is on the individual level’ (Kurzon, 2007: 1684). In opposition to this widespread view, this article offers a close microsociological analysis of meditation practice which reveals the social, interactive and intersubjective dimensions necessary for the process of silent introspection.

Theoretical anchors

To understand how intersubjectivity is produced in relation to meditation practice, I draw on the phenomenology of intersubjectivity and on the work of Alfred Schutz.6

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From a phenomenological perspective, intersubjectivity is defined as the ‘joint consciousness of interacting individuals’ (Scheff, 1990: 40). This definition alludes to the feeling that others understand and know what we are going through, and vice versa. In practice, and without always being aware of it, we tend to live a big part of our lives in other people’s minds. It does not imply that the experiences of two individuals are identical – as Merleau-Ponty writes, ‘because Paul is Paul and I am myself (Merleau-Ponty, 2002: 415). Rather, as Goffman (1981) claims, joint realities are the product of negotiations and settlements, always carrying some ambiguity. In fact, since miscommunication and misinterpretations are quite common, intersubjectivity is more an experience than an actual truth claim about the world.7 Thus, from a phenomenological perspective, intersubjectivity is not a given situation. Nor is it a simple product based on sharing norms or values, or on sharing the same language. It is a complex experience cultivated in the micro levels of existence, from social interactions to individuals’ minds. It is, therefore, a process requiring constant production and maintenance, in which a constant dialectic between self and other takes place.8 Schutz searched for the process through which intersubjectivity is produced in

‘lived experience’. Focusing on the problem of other minds (how one consciousness understands the experiences of another), his theory begins with situations when two individuals (or more) share the same space and time and have the same object of attention. Such situations, Schutz claims, produce a community of space and time. It is this temporal alignment of experiences that leads to the ‘the joint flow of our experiences’ (Schutz, 1973: 64), meaning two minds receiving the same perceptual data at the same time. Knowing that others share the same object of attention and therefore participate in the joint flow of experiences, a feeling of togetherness is produced – which Schutz called ‘we-relationships’. This face-to-face we-relationship constitutes a crucial phase, the basis of larger, extended forms of intersubjectivity. Based on joint experiences, one can enter the minds of others with whom one does not share a community of time and space by inferring, ‘on the basis of indirect evidence, the typical subjective experiences they must be having’ (Schutz, 1967: 143).

The practice of meditation differs from Schutz’s ‘we-relationship’. After all, even when meditating together, people should concentrate on their own internal thoughts and sensations. Meditators, therefore, share the same activity, but the object of their attention is not identical. Still, Schutz’s theory offers a good starting point, since it emphasizes the mutual sharing of the ‘Flere and Now’ (1967: 142). Face-to-face situations allow for the expression of subjective experiences so that one can perceive the experiences of another ‘[tjhrough signitive-symbolic represen tation, regarding either his body or some cultural artifact he has produced as a “field of expression” for those experiences’ (1967: 100).

The obvious cultural artifact of expression is the word, and Schutz provides ample examples of verbal communication (see also Merleau-Ponty, 2002: 413). Nonetheless, there are other important forms of semiotics that tend to be neglected. These forms of semiotics have always been a part of the study of symbolic

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interaction. For example, Mead’s (1934) model for ‘taking the role of the other’ is based on significant gestures that are not necessarily verbal (although he does give priority to the vocal gesture, see Mead, 1934: 73). Goffman (1959, 1967) highlights non-verbal cues that exist in every social interaction, occasionally giving non-verbal communication higher priority (e.g. expressions given-off). Collins (2004) empha sizes joint bodily activities and rhythmic attunement as the center of meaningful social interactions. Katz (1999) shows how physical movements, like finger point ing and eye movement, produce joint experiences. Last, a long history of ritual analysis in Anthropology demonstrates the importance of bodily expression (Handelman and Lindquist, 2005).

A silent community of time and space ‘I need 10 days to be with myself,’ one of my informants told me before departing for a 10-day vipassana course. People go to the meditation center to be alone and to face themselves through silent introspection. This may sound paradoxical con sidering that a meditation center by no means offers an isolated environment – in fact, this space is shared with quite a lot of people. And yet, the nearly complete silence in the meditation center, combined with minimal social interaction, makes it an ideal social place for seclusion and isolation. In the Satipatfhnana Sutta (1985: 5), the Buddha offers some guidelines for the practice of meditation, advising the monks to go ‘… into the forest, or to the foot of a tree, or to an empty space…’. Monks are instructed to go to an isolated place, renouncing the comfort of the presence of others. More than 2500 years separate this sutra from the current structure of meditation centers. In fact, meditation centers are a wholly modern phenomenon (Gombrich, 1983, 1988). These centers allow for an organized space, monastic in nature, that includes a partial monastic discipline yet has a clear orientation towards lay people.9 The physical conditions in meditation centers aim to reproduce the experiences of forest monks without actually having to send people alone into the forest. Located in a quiet and rela tively isolated environment, these centers offer a space where people can be alone, but to some extent, still be together and safe. With only one small road leading to it, the Israeli vipassana meditation center is located deep in the desert, about three hours from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In Illinois, the center is based on a farm, about two hours’ drive from Chicago. Other meditation centers around the world have similar peaceful locations. Each such center consists of dorms, a kitchen, a dining hall, and a big meditation hall that can accommodate between 50 and 300 meditators, depending on the center. The kitchen and other facilities are operated solely by volunteers, since meditation courses are all offered free of charge.10 New students typically arrive at vipassana courses without knowing much about vipassana meditation. They might be acquainted with someone who meditates, or they might have read the rules and schedules on the website, but normally they have heard very little about the actual practice. After all, meditation is taken as

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something indescribable – one should experience it for oneself. Some students might have had some experiences with other meditations, but the large majority have never meditated before. They usually do not know any of the other students, but if they have come with a friend, the acquaintances will be seated far apart from one another and will not share the same room. Some students arrive a few hours

before the course begins and have the chance to get acquainted with a few other students. Some arrive just in time for the course and do not even know the names of those who share their room.11

Although vipassana meditation is based on the teachings of the Buddha, med itation courses emphasize practice and not scholarly teachings. Students spend 11 hours a day meditating, and even after completing a course they often have little knowledge of Buddhist philosophy. The evening lectures during the course do refer to Buddhist concepts and ideas, but at this hour the students are already tired from the long day. This absence of knowledge of Buddhist philosophy was illustrated in one of my interviews when I questioned a woman who took one meditation course and continued to practice daily about the idea of ‘sulfering’ (probably the most fundamental Buddhist teaching). Her eyes widened in surprise as she answered, ‘You will have to remind me, I do not quite remember that idea.’

When the course begins, students are asked to refrain from speech, gestures, eye contact, touch, reading, writing or listening to music. They are asked to leave their phones, pens and books behind, to wear plain clothing (but no special uniform), and to avoid perfumes and activities that might attract attention. Only on the 10th day will they be allowed to speak for half a day. For nine days there is complete silence in the rooms, in the dining hall, and for the majority of the time, in the meditation hall. The meditation hall is unique since here students listen to medi tation instructions for a few minutes at the beginning of each meditation session and are allowed to ask the teacher short questions in a designated hour. They also hear a daily evening lecture with further explanations about meditation.

The most important space in the meditation center is the meditation hall. In most centers, this is where the students spend 11 hours a day. Some of the bigger centers (such as those located in India and the one in Massachusetts) offer private meditation cells. These cells provide a more isolated space for meditation and are reserved for advanced students. The ideal meditation should be taken alone, yet new students will probably find it extremely challenging to sit alone in a 1.5 square meters cell with no windows and white walls.

Vipassana meditation halls are painted white, with no symbols and decorations. Students are seated in rows on the floor, and an invisible line separates the female side from the male side. As shown in Figure 1, students face the teacher, who sits on a small podium with his back against the wall. Side mattresses are kept for the volunteers – female volunteers on one side, and the male volunteers on the other. The volunteers face the teacher from the side, thus sitting with their sides to the students. The meditation spots closest to the teacher are kept for the female and male course managers, who like the volunteers, are also sitting with their side to the students.12 This way they can see the students and the teacher at the same time.

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Female side Male side

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Figure I. The meditation hall. Note: This diagram represents the Israeli vipassana meditation hall. Other vipassana meditation halls follow the same general patterns, but the number of students and teachers may vary.

Of course, their point of view is limited – it is only the teacher who can truly watch all the students with one glance.

At the time of joining a course, each student is given a number. This number refers to the specific mattress and cushion where she or he will sit for the rest of the course. Only on special occasions – for example, if a student asks to be seated next to a wall – is one allowed to change position. Since students are asked not to touch or sit on the cushions of others, meditation spots are considered personal. A dis tance between the cushions is kept so students can indeed avoid touching others’ cushions, or other students, when they walk to their spot. Since sitting arrange ments are fixed for the entire 10 days, each student will be surrounded by the same students throughout the whole course.

Let us look for a moment from the point of view of a female student sitting in the meditation hall. The only face she can clearly see is the teacher’s face. Then there are the volunteers, whose sides she can easily see. The main view, though, is of other women’s backs in the front rows – meditating backs, one next to the other, in straight lines. The backs that our student observes are not randomly positioned; students are seated in the hall according to their seniority in the practice. In Figure 1, female number one sitting in the front row will be the most senior female student – seniority is decided by the number of courses she has taken. Therefore, most students observe the backs of more advanced students. This important fact sheds some light on the production of intersubjectivity in this environment.13

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So what is the purpose of this sitting arrangement? Why would it matter where students sit, if their eyes are closed anyway? During the meditation, students are asked to close their eyes and try to keep as still as possible, concentrating on their internal sensations. They are told that they can sit in any position that feels com fortable, as long as their back and neck are straight. Students are explicitly asked to ignore others during the course. This inward directed concentration offers very little time for watching others. But in the few glances that students do take once in a while, they quickly learn the one most important non-verbal sign – the non-movement of others.

New students are unaware of the ranked sitting arrangement, but they soon dis cover that the students whose backs they can see sit more quietly and for longer periods of time than themselves. Non-movement, therefore, almost immediately turns into an indicator of good meditation and seniority. Many times I have heard from students how they took someone to be a serious meditator because he or she sat very quietly throughout the course. In fact, non-movement has become so important that an advanced student might be afraid to fail this test, feeling embar rassed about sitting in the front row: ‘What will they think of me, I keep moving all the time.’ In addition, many students assume that non-movement indicates that the other person is going through an easier course and suffers less pain or agitation. Thus, in the lack of other expressive cues, the small cue of non-movement is used by students to deduce what is going on in the mind of the other.

Sound, or the lack of it, is also used to track movement and non-movement. In the case of meditation, since most of the time is spent with the eyes closed, auditory cues are an important source of information. During most sessions, no chanting or instructions are used, and the meditation hall is quiet and still. And yet, there are small sounds – heavy breathing, the rustling of fabrics, hushed coughs. Students definitely hear other meditators, and attune themselves to their movements.

Imagine a meditation hall, full of meditating bodies. The general sight is quiet and devoid of any movements or gestures. Perhaps 60 bodies sitting quietly without moving. You observe their faces, sitting there with their eyes closed; some appear filled with concentration and others with a relaxed look of calmness. Once in a

while you can see or hear a movement, but by and large the students sit quietly. After many long observations, I have come to realize that despite the apparent lack of communication a pattern emerges out of the silence, connecting the movements of different meditators. Following the movements closely, I noticed that move ments cluster and form bundles of noise: the movement of one woman would

lead to a reaction of a few others. One person’s cough would trigger others to join. It was clear that the movement of one person tends to lead to the movement of another.

The first time I noticed this was when I participated in a group sitting at the meditation apartment. Sixteen people were sitting silently in meditation, when the phone in the other room suddenly rang. One woman quickly got up and stepped out of the hall to disconnect it. A moment after this interruption, two people changed their posture and two people coughed. It was as though the break in

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silence opened a narrow time slot for communal noise. A minute later, we were all in complete silence again. Following this incident, I began to monitor movements in the meditation hall.14 In one incident a loud cough was heard from the male side. As the man continued coughing, a woman in the third row moved her leg and changed her posture. Her movement was loud and activated two other movements – another woman moved

her hand, and another straightened her back. In another incident, 15 minutes before the end of a one-hour sitting a woman moved her leg. Almost concurrently, another woman, sitting a few spots away, straightened up, and her neighbor then took a deep, audible breath. In fact, once I became aware of this mutual influence of movement I suddenly found myself, while in meditation, taking a heavy breath a second after the woman next to me let out a heavy breath.

This attunement to others is usually quite minimal, but it can grow into a live orchestra. On the ninth day of a meditation course, during the individual medita tion hours (when there is no teacher in the hall), a woman sitting in the first row started giggling. She tried to control her giggling but was not successful. She giggled, was silent for half a minute, and then giggled again. During the third round of giggling, a woman sitting behind her began giggling as well. They shared a short laugh together. To an outside observer, it looked as if they were acquainted with one another (as I later inquired, they were not). At the next giggle, a third woman joined in – her giggle was more restrained but could definitely be heard (all three were giggling while sitting with eyes closed and bodies still). The incident lasted a few minutes, and then they all returned to silence. Throughout the entire episode, the other students in the hall sat quietly.

This orchestra of sound and movement merely reflects human nature and human sociality – we tend to react to others, even when surrounded by silence. Even though every student knows that he or she should not move, when someone else moves, it becomes much easier for others to violate the rules. This influence can take place even without direct intention or awareness. Students report that occa sionally they would find their hand moving, without quite remembering themselves making any conscious decision to move anything. The joint giggling episode is an excellent example of the mutual influence of physical proximity. Though these women were not concentrating on the same amusing object, they were certainly influenced by emotional contagion (Hatfield et al., 1994). At the same time, the other people in the room, by continuing their own silence, conveyed to these women that they were expected to end their interruption and return to meditation.

These clustered movements and noises uncover a silent and subconscious agree ment between students: ‘If you move, I can move too; if you are silent, I should be silent.’ Therefore, students avoid movement not only because they are instructed to, but also because they do not want others to hear their movement. The effect of this social monitoring is further revealed when novice meditators report that they find it easier to meditate quietly in a group. This attunement to others supports Goffman’s claim that ‘when nothing eventful is accruing, persons in each other’s presence are still nonetheless tracking one another and acting so as to make

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themselves trackable’ (Goffman, 1981: 103). Although students are instructed to focus on the ‘inferiority’, they spend a part of each meditation in the minds of others. They read silence just as they would read speech, turning silence into a form of communication.

Of course, as in the case with verbal communication, misunderstandings are abundant. The significance of the gestures of others needs to be learned during one’s first course and – like any other social interaction – some ambiguity can remain. A story from my fieldwork serves as an example. David is a man in his 30s who has taken three 10-day courses. In his last course, David was tormented by a pressing need to swallow saliva continuously during meditation. He was extre mely bothered by this and was certain that others suffered from the sounds that his body generated. When the course was over, he went to the person who sat next to him and apologized for ‘making so much noise’. His neighbor was extremely surprised and answered sincerely that he was not aware of any noise and was certainly not troubled by it. This anecdote illustrates how the sharing of time and space may produce misinterpretations regarding mutual experiences. David tends to be bothered by noises produced by others and assumed that his neighbor shared a similar inclination. While he was meditating, David was interacting with his neighbors, yet this was a one-sided interaction, maintained by him alone.

As practitioners progress in their meditation many report they are no longer bothered by noise, and that they now keep still more often. Advanced students learn to disconnect themselves from others, and concentrate on their own feelings. Nonetheless, this does not mean that advanced students do not rely on intersub jectivity for their practice. Even when closed in a private meditation cell much like solitary confinement, they are aware of others who sit in other meditation cells. Eating, walking in the center, or keeping to their rooms, students still see others. Although they are relatively isolated, novice and advanced students alike are part of a community of time and space, and their experience carries intersubjective dimensions.

Expanding the community of time and space As outlined above, a meditation hall produces a community of time and space, as everyone in the hall is engaged in the same activity. Information regarding the shared activity flows through both auditory and visual channels, assuring collective participation. And yet, there is one important difference between Schutz’s commu nity of time and space and the one of the meditation hall, or any other shared introspective activity. During meditation, each person must concentrate his or her attention on subjective feelings and sensations. Although the object of attention of different members in the community is similar, it is certainly not identical. Different students can definitely experience different physical sensations, and the exact experiences of others remain unreachable.

Here Schutz’s discussion of indirect intersubjectivity is very relevant. As Schutz explains, face-to-face interactions are the foundation of ‘we-relationships’, since

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face-to-face interaction is the place where individuals share joint experiences. These joint experiences can later go through a process of ‘typification’. Once typical experiences are assumed, individuals can begin to read other minds ‘on the basis of indirect evidence’ (Schutz, 1967: 143) without actually sharing the same time and space. In many social structures such indirect evidence is supplied by experts’ voices. And indeed in the case of meditation, indirect evidence is supplied by the teachers.

Since communication with other participants is so limited, students rely on their communication with teachers for information regarding other minds. Although meditators cannot speak with one another during the course, they are allowed to approach the teachers with questions. The designated time frame for questions is extremely short, and students are asked to avoid questions that are not directly concerned with the meditation practice. Yet, even in this short period, students still obtain cues regarding intersubjectivity. I witnessed many incidents of students approaching teachers with their specific questions. The answers given in reply were usually quite vague, yet incorporated aspects of intersubjectivity, for example, ‘It is normal to feel that way,’ or ‘It happens sometimes.’ Because teachers’ answers are usually oriented toward the general structure of the experience and not the content it holds, these answers serve the function of producing intersubjectivity. When students leave this short meeting, they go out believing that others are going through similar experiences – that what they are feeling is ‘normal’ and ‘expected’. When Dan had difficult nightmares during his second meditation course, he thought he was losing his mind. He had violent dreams as he had never had before where he was murdering others. When he approached a teacher, he was told that it can happen, and that nightmares are in fact quite common. Although the answer he received did not refer to the content of the specific nightmare he was experiencing or to violent nightmares at all, Dan still found this answer comforting. He was not losing his mind after all – others around him were having nightmares as well. In a similar way, Mona, a woman in her late 20s, had a very uncommon experience in her first meditation course. While most participants feel mostly pain and discomfort, she was experiencing pleasant, subtle, sensations that were erotic in nature. She was so embarrassed that it took her a few days to approach the teacher. Again, the teacher gave a generic answer telling her that her experiences were perfectly normal, and that she should simply keep practicing meditation. As Mona later told me, this answer was extremely reassuring and led her to depreciate the uniqueness of her experiences and believe that others had gone through similar events.

Why do teachers emphasize the general structure of the experience and not the content it holds? When answering, ‘This is normal,’ the teachers do not have in mind the production of an intersubjective space. Instead, they attempt to reduce the importance the student gives to his or her unique and personal experience. From the point of view of vipassana meditation, it does not matter if you feel pain or euphoria, if your dreams are violent or erotic. In all these cases, you should just continue to observe internal processes calmly. From a Buddhist

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perspective, the content of one’s specific subjective experiences is ephemeral and without essence. Only by emptying this content of meaning can one truly reach a state of equanimity. The combination of auditory and visual non-verbal cues together with partial information based on statements such as ‘it is normal,’ leads the participants to certain assumptions that transcend the community of time and space of the med itation center. When asked about their meditation experience, meditators com monly answer that they cannot put it into words, and that in order to understand what they have gone through one should simply participate in a med itation course. This common answer reveals an assumption regarding the common ality of experience: undertaking a similar procedure leads to similar experiences, and therefore one shares an intersubjective dimension with each and every person who has taken a meditation course. A good example is an experience best described (and yet still considered indescribable) as a feeling of great peacefulness or calm ness. Students who complete a meditation course with a feeling of peacefulness usually expect others to feel the same, and they are taken by surprise when they find that some students experience mainly irritation. Often, meditators who encourage family members to take a course are truly convinced that their spouse, for example, would enjoy the peacefulness that the meditator has experienced and are disap pointed to learn that he or she had a different meditation experience.

Out of the course’s sphere, in their everyday life, meditators practice in solitude. Once in a while they might go to a joint meditation sitting, but it can happen that they do not meet another meditator for months. Yet when they do meet a medi tator, an intersubjective space opens up. In one of my interviews, the first question I was asked was whether I had taken a meditation course. When I answered yes, my interviewee responded ‘Okay, so that makes it easier.’ When I asked why, he laughed and answered, ‘I just think it would be impossible to have this conversa tion with someone who had never taken a meditation course.’ When I told another

meditator about my research, she told me that writing about meditation never captures the real essence of the experience: ‘Words just circle it round and round, but don’t really touch it. They just don’t capture that feeling… You know what I mean, right?’ The expression ‘you know what I mean’ was repeated in interviews, revealing the assumption that meditators were expecting me, as a fellow meditator, to understand the depth of their experience, an experience that can only be felt, never described.

Therefore, although the object of attention is not identical, since each meditator concentrates on his or her interior feelings, there is a general underling feeling that these experiences are similar, and that participation in the same type of event keeps the ‘joint flow of our experiences’ (Schutz, 1973). The above suggests that while intersubjectivity is indeed based on face-to-face interaction, once intersubjectivity is constituted, a community of time and space can transcend local time and space, and even the requirement for an identical object of attention. The actual partici pation in a similar activity, albeit at different times and locations, leads participants to assumptions regarding others and produces a general feeling of intersubjectivity.

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Outside of the meditation center, meditation group sittings are organized on a regular basis. These sittings help maintain this general feeling of intersubjectivity. They reproduce a face-to-face community of time and space, a temporal reproduc tion which lasts for one hour. The faces in these meetings frequently change, there is little socializing, and sharing of personal experiences is not customary. Still, there is a common knowledge amongst the attendees – all have been to a vipassana meditation course and all practice vipassana meditation. Although this common knowledge seems very incomplete, it produces a feeling of a collective experience, a sense of sharing an intersubjective space.

Towards an ethnography of silence

In their book Subjectivity: Ethnographic Investigations (Beihl et al., 2007), the authors call for a new ethnography of experience. Such ethnography is predomi nantly phenomenological, building up from micro worlds of experience. In this article I argued that this type of ethnography should be deeply anchored in the social worlds of individuals, in the nature of sociality and in the dialectic of the subjective and intersubjective. It is an ethnography that captures how people feel, tracking the microsociological background processes that lead them to feel the way they do.

Intersubjectivity is an evolving process, continuously transforming. Throughout our lives we acquire new experiences, and these new experiences require new inter subjective spaces. Thus, the problem of other minds is never solved, but rather it is an emergent faculty of every social interaction. We constantly ‘read’ and interpret other minds, using a range of mechanisms that allow us to do so. Direct commu nication is one such mechanism, probably the most common one in modern Western culture, but along with speech, or overt gestures, other covert mechanisms are constantly at play.

Meditation is a personal and individual practice. Yet, at the same time it is also a collective practice. The fragile balance between the two is generated through the production of intersubjectivity in silence, an intersubjectivity that does not require the exact articulation of experiences. The individuals who share a meditation center compose a community of strangers. They are not familiar with one another, they have not learned the specific expressions of the other members, and they have not socialized together. In fact, they do not even know each other’s names. Moreover, they are denied the main tool for socializing – verbal expression – along with other forms of communication, such as eye contact, gestures or touching. These partici pants have come there to be alone, to ‘spend time with themselves’. And yet, they are not alone. They are not alone not only in the physical sense, but they are not alone in experience. They spend time in other minds: they react to the movement and non-movement of others, they feel comfort when they learn that their experi ences are ‘normal’, and they assume that the others understand their experiences since they participate in a similar event.

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Silent intersubjectivity produces a structure that allows for communal support without the actual sharing of the specific details of subjective experiences. From the point of view of vipassana meditation, such a structure is ideal for sharing the process of meditation without sharing the content. After all, from the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, subjective experiences are ever-changing, fluid and without essence (Collins, 1982). They should only be observed in the present and therefore are denied a translation into the verbal realm. The cause and the meaning of emotions, dreams or physical sensations are considered irrelevant to the practice of meditation (Pagis, 2009). Not sharing the content of one’s experiences with others, while still sharing a process and a form, facilitates a mode of self-reflexivity that overlooks the personal meaning of experiences while encouraging calm observation of interiority. Silent intersubjectivity is therefore qualitatively different from the type articu

lated by speech. It allows for a more general and inclusive form of intersubjectivity, a form that is not obsessed with content, with exact comparisons of one mind to another. Silent intersubjectivity can actually prevent such processes of ‘othering’ by allowing for difference under a general rubric of sameness. It offers a wide canopy that connects people based on embodied involvement in the same event. Moreover, unlike verbal intersubjectivity, silent intersubjectivity does not force a translation of experiences into words, a process that tends to modify experiences, moving them from firstness into thirdness.15 It allows experiences to remain in qualitative imme diacy (Rochberg-Halton, 1982), while still offering shared dimensions. Although meditation practice is extreme in its demands of silence, it serves as a window to social processes that are part of everyday life. Art, dance, physical illness and romantic love are just a few examples of spheres infused with non-verbal, intersubjective dimensions. Sharing a breathtaking view from the top of a mountain or a joint walk through a museum are silent episodes with minimal social interaction in which we are alone and together at the same time. A gaze, a giggle, an uncomfortable movement – these are all minute cues, of which we are often unaware, but which carry significant information about others’ minds. We are constantly maintaining sociality through covert, unarticulated channels, chan nels that conjure our social world.

The analysis presented in this article is therefore productive for any ethno graphic project, regardless of the specific norms of silence in the studied sphere. By putting aside discourse and symbolic systems, at least temporarily, and obser ving silent social relations, we open up a new venue. This venue brings to the fore classical sociological problems, problems that in recent years seem to have suffered from a lack of attention: the embodied maintenance of intersubjective spaces; the connection between subjective experiences and social relations; the different mechanisms through which we relate to one another and read other minds.

Ethnographers have moved away from the micro-foundations of our lives and from studying the nature of sociality (Glaeser, 2005). We tend to overemphasize words, discourses, and symbolic abstract systems. We forget the importance of phys ical, embodied interactions.16 And yet silent, covert, micro-processes are at the base of many classical sociological theories, from Simmel to Schutz to Goffman.

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Choosing silent interaction as a starting point for ethnography can therefore reveal important dimensions of sociality and phenomenology. Through this aperture we have the means to study basic, non-verbal forms of semiotics that are crucial for subjective experience. We can study the non-articulated basis of our lives.


1. Between 2005 and 2007, I conducted participant observation in Israeli and American meditation centers belonging to the same global meditation organization, Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N. Goenka. This is the largest global vipassana meditation organization, with more than 100 meditation centers worldwide, all of which offer courses free of charge. I participated in meditation courses, volunteered in meditation centers, and observed meditation group sittings around Israel and Chicago. I spoke with practitioners in both formal and informal conversations and observed them in meditation retreats. Observations, interactions, informal conversations, and personal meditation experiences were all recorded in detailed field notes. During this period, I conducted in-depth interviews with 60 meditators, 20 in North America and 40 in Israel. In addition, I conducted three to five follow-up interviews with each of 12 practitioners and inter viewed their family members as well.

2. In Hebrew, there are two different words for silence: sheket means no noise, and shtika means no speech. Throughout this article I use the word silence to refer to the latter.

3. Vipassana meditation is a Theravada Buddhist meditation – popular today in Southeast Asia and around the world (see Cadge, 2005; Fronsdal, 1998; Gombrich and Obeyesekere, 1988).

4. There is no consensus regarding the best method for studying subjectivity ethnographi cally. However, from psychoanalytic methods (e.g. Obeyesekere, 1981) to the public use of experience-near concepts (e.g. Geertz, 1983), there is an emphasis on verbal commu nication and verbal expression.

5. In Israel, social interactions carry a similar disregard of silence and encourage straight forward verbal expression (see Katriel, 1986).

6. The production of intersubjectivity is a central problem in sociological studies, from Durkheim’s collective consciousness to Marx’s class consciousness. As a point of depar ture I chose to use Schutz, since he suggests a simple, basic mechanism for the micro-level production of intersubjectivity that is centered on joint temporality and space in addition to communicative acts. As other points of departure, one could use G.H. Mead (1934), Erving Goffman (1967) or Martin Buber (1992).

7. Take the classical example of color (Wittgenstein, 1972: 272-3). It is unclear whether different people indeed have the same experience of ‘redness’. And yet this does not hinder the production of intersubjectivity in regard to seeing red. In this case, as in other examples given by Wittgenstein, the basis for this intersubjectivity is verbal (the word ‘red’).

8. For similar insights regarding intersubjectivity, see Habermas (1990) and Buber (1992), though, again, for both authors intersubjectivity is based on the dialogic act, which is predominantly discursive.

9. Vipassana meditation centers – oriented towards laypeople who were not ordained as monks – first appeared in the beginning of the twentieth century in Theravada Buddhist countries and were later adopted in non-Buddhist locations (see Cook, 2006; Gombrich, 1983).

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10. Each meditation center is dependent on the work of volunteers and on donations. Donations are taken exclusively from people who have participated in at least one vipas sana meditation course. Volunteers must also have participated in at least one course.

11. In ideal meditation centers (like the one in Illinois), students have separate rooms and do not share a sleeping area. In Israel, since the center is a rented place and not owned, each sleeping area has two or three beds.

12. Apart from the teachers, course managers are the only people to whom students are allowed to speak in case of need.

13. This spatial order was taken from Southeast Asian monasteries, where senior monks sit at the front. This order is also common in martial art classes, dance classes and sym phonies, which suggests the efficiency of such a spatial arrangement for silent learning.

14. Since I sat on the female side of the meditation hall, my observations refer mainly to movements of women.

15. I am referring to Peirce’s distinction between firstness, secondness and thirdness. For Peirce, firstness and secondness are forms of direct experience, relying on iconicity and indexicality, while thirdness is the outcome of abstractions, moving into the symbolic level (Peirce, 1960, v. 2: 85).

16. An important exception to this linguistic bias is ethnographies of embodiment, which emphasize pre-discursive bodily experience (e.g. Csordas, 1994; Desjarlais, 1992; Wacquant, 2004).

Acknowledgements: An earlier version of this paper was presented at the ASA and the IAA (Israeli Anthropological Association) annual meetings 2007. I wish to thank Andrew Abbott, Andreas Glaeser, Steven Collins, Daniel Manchik and Erika Summers-Effler for their help ful comments.


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Michal Pagis obtained her PhD at the University of Chicago and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the department of Sociology and Anthropology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. Her work focuses on the relation between culture, subjectivity and sociality with an emphasis on the non-discursive bases of experience. She uses ethnographic methods to shed light on the social dimensions of self-cultivating practices and is currently conducting research on life-coaching culture in Israel.

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  • Contents
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  • Issue Table of Contents
    • Ethnography, Vol. 11, No. 2 (June 2010) pp. 211-328
      • Front Matter
      • Access: Reflections on studying up in Hollywood [pp. 211-233]
      • Painting with permission: Legal graffiti in New York City [pp. 235-253]
      • Listening to the monkey: Class, youth and the formation of a “musical habitus” [pp. 255-283]
      • In pursuit of experience: The postindustrial gentrification of the rural American West [pp. 285-308]
      • Producing intersubjectivity in silence: An ethnographic study of meditation practice [pp. 309-328]

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