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The Coffee Shop Phenomenon

I thought I would be the last one alive to be caught in one. What with the nameless, faceless and thus uniform crowd; the pipe-in music instead of absolute silence; the pretentiousness of high-end computer notebooks in which low-end writing was done; its "see-and-be-seen" vibe; people buying one lousy drink and letting it become stale into the deadening night; and finally, the difficulty of finding a good seat--all these made me decide long ago that I would not be one of the many who study in coffee shops. Besides, I have better coffee in the house.

Nevertheless, I do not remember how it started but I've been making the rounds of the different coffee shops in the city for the past two months, searching for the perfect place to be able to read and to study. But what I do remember is why I started going out; it was because my study has turned into a war-room because of research work and writing, the manic book shopping and, to add clutter to an already cluttered house (and life), some construction work is being done, i.e., redesigning our computer area into a cafe-style study area--the logic (then) being if we did not like working in coffee shops, then why not make one in the house?

The Dark Lichtung


Because, as I have found out way back, I need at least two spaces--one for work and writing and the other for reading and studying. Call it an idiosyncrasy but I believe it is part of my obsessive compulsive disorder to keep one place tidy and neat by turning it into a clearing (Lichtung) and at the same time to maintain an organized mess in another area (the dark wood). Why? Because that way you'll always have to fix and clean something one after the other.

I digress. I wanted to tell you about my tour of coffee shops in an attempt to read Schelling, Hegel and Heidegger the past two months.

What naturally first threw me off was the noise in such crowded places; and I am person who prefers total silence than iPods or birds chirping than girls yakking. Noise is disturbing for me; and that is why I do not listen to music. Not only do they play music in coffee shops but they even play songs with lyrics, thereby disqualifying it as music which can otherwise recede into the background like the songs of crickets at night. And there is the the volume of the audio which could be lowered a lot and still be qualified as distracting.

So how do others--those serious learners--confront this musical problem? They plug into their iPods in a redundantly vain attempt to concentrate by countering or drowning it with another, equally or more so distracting noise. But that gave me an idea: to record silence on my phone and play it in the highest volume so I'd be able to listen to its static silence, drowning the noise around me. Silence can be as loud or even louder than noise.

Now of course, some (or most) like listening to music while studying. But I say to them: the quality of thinking at least doubles in total silence. Do you think monks listen to rap or trance while meditating? Or priests to Guns N' Roses or Kelly Clarkson while praying? Let what you read be the notes, your thoughts be the score, and your reflection be the harmony which unifies the musical experiences of thinking and reading. Let these thoughts be as loud as thunder. And only then can you shrug off the flat audio in Starbucks or the pathetic remixes in Seattle's Best.

So how did I do it--to study amidst the noise? I just concentrated. But why the effort of having to concentrate when you can do your reading in the solitude of your house? Because recently, thinking alone--purely and without distraction--has been, well, dangerous. It has been scary as of late. That is why I need the distraction of the speakers above my head. It keeps me on the ground, or in my seat. So that I won't fly.

Speaking of distractions, well, there is obviously the panoply of visual distractions. As you may have already observed, I like observing and reading people. Not that I stare or anything improper like that; I just steal glances and then know what I need to know.

The group of friends who decided it wise to study together for the accounting exam the following day only to find out that they could not help but chat and talk idly, thus starting their death march to a failed exam. The more the merrier.

The young couple who could not keep themselves from holding each other's hand, visibly impairing functionality and thus making each one unable to take down notes. If this be love, I'd rather be alone.

The socialite who graces her way to a table, opens her brand-new Powerbook, then talks all night on her cellular phone, flirting with a hapless man in another coffee shop. How will she notice me then?

How can I not mention those law students?--thick books and reading stands in tow, a mask of seriousness of their faces, three colors of highlighters in hand, dreaming of the bed they have abandoned for months now, wondering why they chose law, hiding the despair in their hearts. They are the walking dead. If I would need the services of lawyer someday, I would not pick someone who studies in a coffee shop all night but someone who drinks beer or goes bowling.

And those on "power meetings," dressed down to the nines, the air of a happy life that had to be won the hard--dirty--way, sucking up to the boss--"My treat. Sugar and cream?"; taking all afternoon when the point was to work and not to talk, false interest in each one's private lives, fake altruism as the point is to make more money. Of these people, I have no respect. Those who can, work; those who can't, have coffee and talk about work.

A summary: Loud voices, empty chatter, unread books, doodles, cold coffee, feet on the table, cups and cups of lukewarm water, stolen Splenda, fast food sneaked in, phone chargers, money wasted, sleep postponed, and coffee instead of beer. Tell me why. I want to know.

But I said I've been doing the rounds. So I must be one of them. Yes and no.

Yes because the experience has, I think, grown on me. I'm beginning to feel comfortable already, producing more and more, and heck--shall I say it?--even enjoying it a bit. (Watching people's just too much fun!) Just last night I spent four hours in one, carefully reading the careless Heidegger, initially with a Cafe Americano and the a Saturday Blend at the end, and of course, cigarettes in between.

No because my style is different. I only bring books that I need as I study "light," instead of a laptop for taking notes I bring those cheap but handy 3"x5" index cards, I go alone and leave alone, I befriend the barristas while they treat them like nothing, I stay there as long as my mind is clear and capable of absorbing each word while they stay there even if their minds are already blank, I treat these places as libraries while they treat them as extensions of their own rooms, I work and some pretend to work.[1]

But the coffee shop, you say, is not a library. True. But neither is it your party.


1. Last week, when I arrived at the Starbucks on the third floor of Fully Booked in Bonifacio High Street--which I have deemed the best place to study so far, but as to why will take another entry--the barrista, seeing me in a buttoned-down polo shirt, asked, "Did you come from work, sir?" to which I responded with a smile, "No. This is work." I don't think she understood.


  1. the first and second situations made me laugh, esp. the second one (yeah, having a significant other around while studying is a BIG distraction). haha! :P back in college, i really refused to study with my kada during exams because they just ended up chatting with me, and i, no room to cram. hehe (= call me killjoy, but it paid a lot (= just feel like sharing, i know you won't mind (=

  2. Martini Heidegger10/21/2007

    I have read your blog for a while now, and learn so very much from it. We have the same interests.

    Fortuna has favored you, you know, at least insofar as your dwelling and habitation. I write from NYC, and am a philosophy student and professor, and here there is no room for cannot be done, on the salaries we are given here, we must live and dwell constantly with others, who have no need of silence.

    I must admit to great envy when I see pictures of your rooms there, or read of your problems in studying or reading in public. Unless one is quite wealthy from family fortune, there is no such place here -- everywhere one goes -- even at home, there is noise. It is the death of thought. What I could get accomplished in one month in a room like yours.

    Anyway, as Schopenhauer wrote, intelligent men are highly sensitive to noise. It is true.

    Appreciate your Lebenswelt! And use it to its fullest!

  3. Dear Martini,

    Thank you for your response.

    I above all and more than others am very grateful for my "dwelling and habitation." I always tell my friends that had it not been for these gifts among many more essential ones, I would not have been able to even think about venturing into philosophy five years ago (after graduating with a business degree). This is pure gift--as I do not own these things but merely borrow them; I do not have possessions of my own--even all my books come from the generosity of my parents.

    But as you hinted, best among these are a space to in which to dwell and a time to think. These cannot be bought as they are created within and without. My "situation" merely gave me the conditions of the possibility for thinking; but it was me who decided one day not so long ago that I shall attempt to live the life of the mind. And I guess, everything follows from that decision.

    I am sure that you have decided on this, too. Otherwise you would not have discovered on your own how essential time and space are. But I do see it in your writing and hear it in your tone. They say that you can immediately see whether or not a person comes from silence; I see that in your words and in your attempt to seek for "silence." To wish for silence is almost the same as being silent already. Why? Because you are already training yourself in bracketing ("epoche") the noise.

    And, as I narrated in this piece, I was quite surprised that I am not so much disturbed by studying in public as I would have thought. Perhaps, it is because I have "exercised" on "inner" silence already that nothing outside perturbs me anymore. But it sure is difficult and I agree with you completely that as long as noise is around, thinking is challenged. Maybe all we can do is find a compromise--to admit as little noise as possible from our surroundings but at the same time, to heighten and amplify the silence that springs from within. This second silence, I believe, no longer comes from the mind but from the heart.

    Eckhart speaks of "gelazenheit" as not only being detached from the world but also being detached from the self. Like a door frame, it is "unmoved" with the constant swinging of the door. The preacher of detachment and silence was a very busy man, teaching, preaching, writing, etc. But to arrive this implies the breakthrough of the soul (union with the Godhead) already. I have sometimes experienced this but it remains to be won most of the time.

    And--I say this not to make you feel better or anything unessential like that--if you wish that you had my dwelling and silence, I tell you that I wish I had your students and your class. You are a philosophy professor, and I am no longer one (the story of which, dear Martin, would be too difficult to explain here). I never dreamed of being alone in these rooms to write and to read; I only wished to teach and throw myself to students. What I could give to have one month with students like yours.

    Such is our fate: you seek for what I have while I long for what is under your nose. And even if continents are between us, I feel your desire as I know that you (now) see mine.

    May we both appreciate such things. And that from thinking (Denken) we may be on our way to thanking (Danken).

    Thank you. You made me think.

    Cheers, Martini. That is a lovely name by the way.

  4. dear yvaughn, I sure don't mind. Had similar experiences early in college. But what I had most fun with in such "group-studying" was preparing for philosophy oral exams with two close friends, talking all night and learning from each other. Actually, I kind of miss that company.


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