Step Outside for Healing
10 January 2016
“Learning, thinking, innovation and maintaining contact with one’s own inner world are all facilitated by solitude.” – Anthony Storr
THE CAPACITY TO BE ALONE
Being alone frightens me.
I imagine it frightens many people.
Not to be confused with being lonely, being alone is to have little more than yourself for company and conversation. No social media to pretend that you’re “talking” to other people; no books to dive into and get lost in; no friends to engage with in idle banter over beers.
Just you to argue with. Just you to criticise. Just you to comfort and understand.
A friend said to me several years ago that she almost went mad during her silent retreat in India. The first few days were the most difficult. She felt her head and very being were ready to explode.
In a book entitled, “Solitude”, which was first published in 1989, psychiatrist Anthony Storr lauds the benefits of solitude and aloneness. To some extent, Storr vindicates artists, inventors and game-changers (to use a more contemporary term) who might be labelled as weird, socially awkward or off-the-wall for their preference for alone time over the clamour of meaningless dinner parties. Legend would have it that even the ancient Greek mathematician, Archimedes, was taking some time out in a bath when he had his “Eureka!” moment. It is no wonder that we have phrases such as “head for the hills”, “sleep on it”, “clear the clutter” and “I need to be alone”.
But, how many of us take heed of these emotional signposts?
This monkey in Rajasthan said so much by doing so little.
Everything that Storr studies in his book has already been tried, tested and advocated by scores of religious ascetics, contemplatives and geniuses of yore. From John the Baptist and the early Benedictines in the deserts to Buddhist monks in the mountains, aloneness has been the prescription for attaining clarity and inner peace.
And at the core of this aloneness is Nature. Whether desert or cave or mountain or valley, Nature surrounds us.
Beatrix Potter’s fairly isolated childhood, her pets and general love for Nature resulted in not only long hours alone, but, and more significantly, her fabulous stories of Peter Rabbit and friends.
I’d like to believe that John Steinbeck is the literary great that he is because he spent a lot of time snowed in on a large estate at Lake Tahoe where he was a caretaker and driving around his beloved USA with his equally beloved Charley, the giant French poodle.
But, it is quite possibly the hermitage of my hero, Thomas Merton, which cements the benefits of stepping outside of myself and my immediate environment for healing; for calm; for that clarity that I so pitifully beg for.
This was the view from the bedroom at Red Barn Inn in Cotati, California. Those are the owner's pet bison grazing. Photo: Marc
My first enforced taste of silence was on a trip to the Isle of Wight with my best friend, J. We’ve been friends since we were seven, which made not talking to each other that much easier. We both knew why we were there and that the silence was very much a part of the experience.
Quarr Abbey had, until then, only been the stuff of fantasy for me. I had read Tony Hendra’s book, “Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul”, and could only imagine the view of the Solent from the walls of the abbey, the echoes of monks chanting in the chapel and animals freely roaming the grounds. My imaginings weren’t far-fetched. The Solent was but a short walk from the abbey – through beautiful woods, no less; the monks did sing beautifully in the main chapel and there were animals on the grounds.
But, the pain of silence was real. I could not speak to J whenever I wanted to. I had no laptop – let alone an Internet connection – to rob me of the much-needed isolation from my life as I knew it. My dragons awoke and swam to the surface, screaming to be dealt with. Hurt that lay buried in abusive relationships; guilt that had been locked away by pride; talent and dreams that were smothered by fear and insecurity. Having a journal to make notes in proved pointless. These dragons needed slaying not saving.
Like my friend in India, my head might have exploded had it not been for the crisp English spring weather, magnificent woods and animals – horses and pigs, in particular. I was roughly into my third day of waking at 5am and observing divine offices and services when I started to quieten down. The calm was like a sedative decisively taking effect; the clarity like finally being able to do a real push-up after weeks of feeble arms and abs shaking in the plank position.
When I did find equilibrium, the silence was refreshing; delicious even. There’s something remarkably liberating about not having to say, “Good morning. How are you?” to someone as a matter of courtesy and not be deemed rude or uneducated.
I left Quarr Abbey practically kicking and screaming. Like some cruel joke, it was now the roar of the city, which I knew lay before me, that frightened me. So, it is more than luck that there are Kingsmead Centre (with its majestic 100-year-old tree) in Singapore and Seven Fountains so close to home in Chiangmai, Thailand, where the silence and care are the same as at Quarr, although instead of large farm animals, there are only resident rabbits to coo at.