“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving.” Bell Hooks
This time, after jumping in my car, no maps were necessary as I navigated my way towards New Mellerary Abbey for the 10th time since 2011. Maybe I had gone enough times to know my way, maybe something beyond myself was helping to guide me, or maybe there was nothing mystical to the experience other than the way I chose to view it.
As soon as I arrived and settled in my room, that familiar piercing silence rang in my ears. I slowly meandered to the guest library to borrow 10 books: a handful of familiar authors, half of which I’d read, half I hadn’t. I skimmed through the pamphlet the monastery gives you upon your arrival – scanning for any new rules or suggestions for my time there, nothing new. I busied myself seeing if there might be wifi, navigating where I might have cell service and doing everything but precisely what I came there for.
This is nothing new. I go to get away from everything I chase as soon as I arrive because I live in a society that tells me I should never be alone. I live in a society that tells me I should always be connected, I should always be doing something, and even in being there for a retreat – I should have something to “show” for my time there. Alas, I know better. Every second of my aimless searching and grasping only reiterates to me just how ingrained these societal shoulds are. And, as we all know, when we finally come to terms with being in our solitude the guilt piles up of everything we should and could be doing.
“Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.” Pico Iyer
Solitude’s paradox comes in to play when we realize that, despite what others may say, silence and solitude are some of the most productive things we can give ourselves. Studies* demonstrate just how far we’ve gotten from true productivity (a relative statement as we all define productivity differently). Our fear of boredom (a root of creativity and imagination) has hypnotized us into screen hungry zombies. We wake up and check our emails, our social media, the news, and everything BUT checking in with ourselves; we’ve lost touch with what it means to know who we are. And in this convoluted state, we continue to reach for the quick fixes: the retreats or trips we can’t afford, the social media fast or cleanse, the “less screen time,” a cut back on work, and so on. Then as we emerge once again to be bombarded by society’s expectations alongside the needs of friends and family, we’re left confused. Almost as if an addict fresh off of rehab, our ensuing relapse only deepens us further into our modern day addiction.
“The inner fire is the most important thing humankind possesses.” Edith Sodergran
We’re tired. And the cycle continues as we try to figure out how to marry what we feel is best to what the world seems to need and expect of us: in what situations do we bargain it all and dive in, what places do we let go for good, in what realms can we stick to a practice that allows us to truly and regularly hear ourselves? In the same breath, we’re so concerned that if we let go anywhere we’ll miss something – we won’t have enough money to pay rent, we’ll lose our friends, we can’t go to all the activities, we won’t make enough money to feel okay, or we’ll be off everyone’s radar because we’re no longer “involved enough.” Then, we once again come to the end of our days and moments struck with the reminder that we’ve lost touch with who we are, what we want, and what we’re doing.
“To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.” Oscar Wilde
We’ve become so busy that our days are mapped out to the second, our sleep is forced off rhythm by lack of time, our solitude is planned out to the minute, and we’re expecting ourselves to do it all. Another paradox to explore is that solitude was birthed in community; as we cannot know summer without winter, we lose sight of solitude when we isolate ourselves from community. Do the people around me truly know my needs in and out of solitude? How can we encourage one another to find those crevices of ourselves to love and explore more. How can we truly go away from commitments and people to come back more full of love, understanding, and compassion towards ourselves and others.
“The mystery of love is that it protects and respects the aloneness of the other and creates the free space where he can convert his loneliness into a solitude that can be shared.” Henri Nouwen
Once I finally settled into the rhythms of the monastery, I was able to let go of some of these things society has poisoned me with. I breathed into my time alone – allowing my thoughts, both negative and positive, to arise, listening to the silence, and grappling with those challenges and fears we all face in our silences. I was again reawakened and reopened to my vulnerabilities, my aimless clinging, and my continued awe for the mysteries of life.
I needed no map to navigate my way home, I needed no radio for company. The peace of knowing I at least spent half of my time basking in the solitude reassured me that I was in touch with the natural rhythms of my life, if only just a little. Perhaps there’s something different this time and I’m more open to listening to the solitude; allowing it to speak silence, truth, and rest into my life. Those moments I can finally say okay to letting go of the world in order to deepen my awareness. Those moments I reach for nothing and engage with who I really am. Those moments, I listen.
Studies and articles on silence, boredom, solitude, etc. Many thanks to these authors for their inspiration and dedication to the topic: