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.
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.