The Power of Silence by Mary Sharratt


winter-stillness

In darkest midwinter, in the hectic rush of the holiday season and its often anticlimactic aftermath, I find myself craving silence and solitude. I’m in hibernation mode and want to curl up in a cave like a bear and sleep. But our modern culture is all about doingness rather than beingness. About action. And noise. Lots of noise. First the giddy celebrations and consumerist frenzy of the December holidays and then the rigorous Puritanical expectations of New Year’s resolutions. Leaping into a better, more virtuous, and hard-working self with both feet.

But are we going against nature in our mad pursuit of busyness and self improvement in this dark ebb of the year? Why not lie fallow and bask in a day or two of silence, or whatever retreat from the maddening world we can manage? After all, January is a traditional detox month, and silent meditation is the ultimate mental and spiritual detox technique.

Over the holidays, while traveling in the Azores with my husband, I went on a two week social media, internet, and news fast in an attempt to recover from my post US election trauma. Once I returned home, I embraced my silent meditation practice and allowed myself to rest in retreat mode until January 6, the traditional Twelfth Day of Christmas, when Yuletide ends.

I adore silence in this noisy world, but it’s not for everyone. We can so easily find ourselves addicted to our lifetime of distraction, of social media and constant stimulation. In an article in the recent Christmas Double Issue edition of The Economist, an un-bylined correspondent discusses how he booked himself into a retreat at a Buddhist monastery in Myanmar to experience a deep plunge into solitude, meditation, and contemplation. But far from finding nirvana, he found himself struggling with boredom and frankly rattled by this deep dive into introspection.

Around sunset on the second day of his seclusion in speechlessness, your correspondent realised that for all the equanimity offered by Buddhism, the psychological acuity of its founder’s teachings and the hospitality of the Mingaladon monks, he would rather be in one of the cars he could hear passing by on Highway Number 3, wherever it was going, than inside the dhamma hall, where he was supposed to be meditating. Having booked a seven-day retreat, he lasted a bit less than 70 hours. His still, small voice within, he decided on listening to it, was insufferable.

This is what many of us experience. Silent retreats are not for the lighthearted. All our inner gunk, our fears and doubts and regrets, all the submerged and repressed aspects of our psyches, rise to the surface so they can be acknowledged and integrated. Our sleep is haunted by uncanny dreams. This can be unnerving. But as my Yoga teacher says, “Better out than in.” Let the submerged stuff rise. Witness and release it. No need to hold it all inside.

While I’ve never stayed in a Buddhist monastery and can imagine myself finding the ascetic regime with only two meals a day perhaps a bit too spartan, I have deeply enjoyed the silent writing retreats I’ve been on. In the years 2000 and 2008 I was fortunate enough to be a fellow at Hawthornden Castle International Writers Retreat. In Midlothian, Scotland, the castle is set halfway down a glen, a few miles across the River Esk from Rosslyn Chapel of The Da Vinci Code fame. We had no television, no internet connection. We had to go outdoors to get reception on our mobile phones.

In our month long retreat, the six writers in residence had to agree to remain silent from 9:30 am, when breakfast ended, to 6:30 pm, when sherry was served before our communal dinner. Lunch was left outside our rooms in a little basket as not to disturb our creative flow. Maybe it’s an introvert/extrovert thing, but for me this quiet existence was paradise. No artificial noise. The only radios we were allowed had headphones as not to disturb others. Instead I wrote and wrote while listening to the rushing Esk and the rooks in the bare November trees. Owls haunted the forest by night. In this fruitful stillness, I completed my novel, The Real Minerva in 2000 and, in my second retreat in 2008, my novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill. I will forever be grateful for having been gifted with this time out of time, this sacred, nourishing silence.

But on my first retreat, half the writers in residence – ie three out of six – left early because they couldn’t take the silence and isolation. Without the distraction of television and internet, they found themselves literally going crazy. What does it say about our dominant culture if we, like the Economist correspondent, can’t bear to listen to our still, small voice within?

On the opposite end of the scale is modern day feminist mystic, Sara Maitland, who has embraced silence and solitude as a way of life. Emulating the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early Christian tradition, she lives in splendid isolation on the moors of Galloway, Scotland. Her A Book of Silence reveals her quest for transcendent union with the mystery of God. She describes how her life of deep solitude creates a sense of timelessness, of her egoic identity dissolving as it opens up to spirit.

Solitude, as I’ve experienced, is as important for creativity as it is for spirituality. Sara Maitland’s writings remind me of Georgia O’Keeffe’s solitary existence on her remote Ghost Ranch in New Mexico and the visionary artwork that emerged from her ecstatic isolation in nature. In my view, Georgia O’Keeffe was a 20th century Desert Mother.

While most of us probably wouldn’t choose to embrace Sara Maitland or Georgia O’Keeffe’s hermit-like lifestyles, we can give ourselves a twenty minute retreat out of our busy day to drop inside and rest in stillness. Our quiet inner voice has so much to tell us.

winter-silence-poetry

 

mary sharratt

Mary Sharratt’s new novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, drawn from the life Aemilia Bassano Lanier, England’s first professional woman poet, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She is also the author of Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, inspired by one of the most creative women of all time. Visit her website.

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31 replies

  1. another lover of solitude and silence. thank you for sharing your story.

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  2. We Women especially deny our need to be alone, by ourselves. I have been a contemplative all my
    life. Yet I have had a life of working, raising children & caring for a disabled husband. It has taken me too many years to allow myself the luxury of a few hours of silence.
    Your column come at the right time of the year. Whether or not, Winter has forced many of us to remain still, while outside the snow falls. May all who need the quiet to remember who we are, not what we do.
    Blessings.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you Mary. I too have been attempting to write women back into history, that is, mostly women artists, at my website, although I’m using their own self-portraits mostly to do that.

    On Georgia O’Keeffe, she was not as solitary as she may have seemed — she had a number of people who worked for her in New Mexico. I’ve also mentioned that I spent several weeks working with her too, long ago, and when I was employed as a registrar at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and we had a major exhibition of her work. She was very outgoing, and affectionate toward me and to everyone — also a very easy person to dialogue with — she’d take your hand or put her arm around you quite spontaneously. Great, great lady, and her personality just as warm and delightful as her paintings.

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  4. This post speaks to my condition! Thank you. I have been on many silent writing retreats in a hermitage kept by a convent, that is, alas, now no more. I call my home the Happy Hermitage, though I share it with a mate.

    Like many of my fellow citizens, I now feel an intensified call to action, eloquently voiced last night by President Obama, though I am by nature contemplative. If I am to act effectively, I will need to remember to refresh myself in solitude and silence.

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    • “I call my home the Happy Hermitage, though I share it with a mate.” This describes my home life, too! And I also feel the call to action in this increasingly fraught world we’re living in. We need to champion our rights and dignity, now more than ever. As you point out, we need to approach our activism from a strong, centered place. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, Elizabeth.

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  5. “No need to hurry. No need to sparkle.
    No need to be anybody but oneself.”
    ~ Virginia Woolf

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I try not to participate in the noisy winter celebrations. I’ve been one of those silence-loving people for many years. After I finish a day of editing around 2:00, I like to, as I tell people, read with my eyes closed. Occasionally this turns into a nap, but it’s mostly an hour or so of mindfulness meditation. And my cats often help me. Mary, thanks for writing about silence. We need more of it.

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  7. Dominican spirituality talks about walking on two feet – contemplation and action. When I read about Georgia O’Keeffe’s warm welcoming attitude, or Elizabeth Cunningham’s “call to action”, it seems to me the result of their solitude and contemplative spirit. Solitude that doesn’t lead to compassion might be self absorption and totally useless for anyone. Action without thoughtfulness and depth, scurries about becoming sometimes as harmful as what it opposes.

    I keep trying to find the balance!

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    • Wise words! Thanks for reading!

      There was a similar debate between the contemplative path and the action in the world path between the nuns in the novel, “In This House of Brede.” I think the author came to the conclusion that both the cloistered Benedictine nuns and the sisters who chose to go out to India to serve the poor have valid vocations that complement each other.

      I think that true spiritual solitude isn’t self absorption. It demands strong mental health and self examination, which we all need for maturation even if we don’t chose solitude as a path. When we’re alone, we have to face down all the shadowy aspects of ourselves because we have no one else to project them onto. We have to own and integrate all that we are. And this integration gives us greater gifts of love and compassion.

      As you say, we all need to find the balance between action and solitude that’s right for us.

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  8. Thank you so much. I’ve been happy on retreats, but yes, it is a long letting go. Glad I read THIS blog on THIS day though. Blessings.

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  9. I personally cannot survive without periods of silence, and finding a quiet place to live and “be” is getting harder and harder. I used to be able to breathe into the silence of the trees and brook around my home in Western Maine. The owls spoke regularly. Today, gunshots scream through the valley, splitting the synapses in my brain and tormenting my body. I am presently staying in Abiquiu, New Mexico and here “right relationship” with the land sustains me… the wilderness beckons and I am filled with gratitude – although tormented by the thought of leaving Maine permanently, I am committed to moving forward into whatever decision is called for – I just hope I can hear without confusion… although I have no radio or television and would choose this way of being wherever I am, I do have a computer which I use primarily for writing…Silence, for me is the greatest gift Nature gives me…

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  10. This sounds amazing. I would love to try that some time. 😊

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  11. Very intriguing and so true! This time of year with the hustle and bustle of everything it’s so easy to slip into a slump and lose sight of just BEING. Loved your post! I have just launched my own blog on WordPress called Revelations of a Twenty-Something if you have time to check it out! I admire your blogging style and am aiming for a similar approach, so I welcome any feedback!

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  12. Beautifully said. Thank you for sharing.

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  13. So beautifully said and the reason I have come to embrace the time of darkness. Our culture of doingness makes it very hard though to find that quiet space, that quiet time. But the sun sets so early and it’s cold outside (or not) and at least that slows me down from my constant activity.

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  1. Silence. – Perwiraku.

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