In an essay for Tricycle (Spring 2005) entitled “The Power of Solitude,” author Reggie Ray discusses the efficacy of retreats. He describes not only the lack of familiarity with the practice today but also the fact that
not only has the typical Western person spent little or no time alone, but many of us have an underlying fear of solitude. Possibly driving some of the midsunderstanding of retreat is a deep-seated fear of being alone without distraction, without entertainment, without “work,” without other people around to constantly confirm our sense of self.
Ray notes that Westerners live in a “very extroverted society,” and driven by consumerism and the feeling that unless we are producing in an external and material way, our worth as people is in doubt.
As an example of the long-range efficacy of retreat, Ray cites his own shortcoming in his first retreat in his late twenties. Rather than tranquility and solitude, he discovered that he had “the most agitated, chaotic, neurotic mind” that he could have imagined, and after a week quit in despair. But afterwards, Ray realized a clarity and openness that he had never experienced before. And every year, therefore, he has continued to do a retreat.
A poem by eighth-century Chinese poet Meng Hao-jan speaks of “depths of quiet” that suggest more than silence or equanimity. Meng was a hermit, and like most hermits, the visit to or by a kindred spirit could be satisfying but also disturbing. Returning from a visit to an old friend stirs in Meng Hao-jan a sense of loneliness that disrupts the continuity of his cherished and taken-for-granted “depths of quiet.” Instead, Meng aches for friendship “morning after morning,” so that he must now consciously distract himself with the same routines that he once merged unconsciously into his daily life.
The poem reveals the pathos of solitude and the complexity of the hermit psychology. Contrary to stereotype, the poem suggests that eremitical life is not a series of peak experiences but time and emotion eked out and spread out as if on a table for the soul to contemplate without adornment. The hermit is not invincibly cold-hearted or aloof. After all, some hermits have been married or lived in lavrae near their fellow human beings. The last line of the poem reads:
I should know by now —
sufficient to be nurturing isolate depths of quiet,
to be home again,
my old garden gate closed.
In his book Unattended Sorrow, author Stephen Levine reflects on the role of silence as a form of healing. His entire book is intended to address grief and pain, so silence has a role in this larger process by diffusing sorrow rather than concentrating it in thoughts and sounds, external or of one’s own. Perhaps silence is not to be taken out of the context of Levine’s other recommendations and reflections — about connectedness, about mindfulness, about loving-kindness. But silence is such a powerful tool for discovering a stillness and a contentedness that is the goal in dealing with suffering and sorrow. As the author puts it, in silence
we come to know ourselves and the world around us at a whole new level. All the truths are welcomed and invited within the heart of silence. We sit with the saints and the suicidal in the Sacred Cave of the heart, enveloped in the silence from which all that heals is born.