Carl McColman Interviews Cassidy Hall

Read the full interview on Patheos here.

How did you get inspired to create a film about Thomas Merton and his hermitage?

“We live in an age where men manufacture their own truth.” — Thomas Merton, Sermon on The Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Recorded 12/8/1962)

Even aside from politics, our days host an array of their own problems. Many have viewed the life of a monk or hermit to be a departure from the world and its many problems. But I’ve come to see this going away from the world as a way to love it—and its humans—more deeply.

I began reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation sometime back in 2011. This evolved into a Gethsemani Abbey pilgrimage which led to me traveling to the seventeen Trappist/Cistercian monasteries of the US to talk to monks and nuns about silence, solitude, and contemplative life. Somewhere along the way I became more and more interested in Thomas Merton’s work and hermitage years—why would such a brilliant person who has so much to offer the world go away from the world. The joke was on me until I began to read further into his desires for solitude and how this tension and paradox was another way of expression, another way of showing solidarity with the suffering of the world. 

There’s a tension in the contemplative life—a tension that holds a paradox. This tension is intertwined with the pain of the world while meeting said pain in the silence and solitudes of our everyday lives (a paradox to many). This doesn’t make sense to everyone and the contemplative path is certainly not for everyone, but I do sincerely believe aspects of it can benefit the whole world. 

Day of a Stranger is a title taken from one of Thomas Merton’s most beloved essays (May 1965). The essay was published in Latin America as a response to a journalist’s question about what a typical day in the life was like for Merton in his new hermitage home. Unbeknownst to Merton or the journalist that this would be his final home and “Dia de un Extrano,” (Day of a Stranger) was published in Papeles, a journal from Caracas, Venezuela in July of 1966 (also published in The Hudson Review in the summer of 1967).

Other questions answered:

What has surprised you the most about listening to Merton’s old tape recordings?

You were a co-producer of In Pursuit of SilenceHow did working on that film help to shape your creative process for Day of a Stranger?

Why, a half century after he died, does Thomas Merton remain so popular? What do you think is at the heart of his appeal?

Read the full interview on Patheos here.

 

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Encounters with Silence – Thomas Merton’s Hermitage

*This essay will be featured in the upcoming book, Notes on Silence.  Order at www.notesonsilence.com 

“Questions arrive, assume their actuality, and also disappear. In this hour I shall cease to ask them, and silence shall be my answer.” Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas (p. 361)

In May 2016 I was lucky enough to join a group on a brief excursion to Thomas Merton’s former hermitage. In this small cabin set apart from the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton lived out the final four years of his life and monastic vows from 1964 until his untimely death in 1968. The hermitage may have only been a brief chapter in his life given his entrance into the monastery in 1941, but it’s been known to be the birthplace of some of his most transformative and inspiring writings, particularly those writings pertaining to contemplation, social justice, peace, and his vision of unity.

Since I’d been a Merton fan for years prior to this visit, I’d fantasized about the day I might be able to wander upon this particular cabin door. I always imagined Merton would’ve had mixed feelings about these pilgrimages. The precise place he sought for solitude and space was now being trampled on by onlookers and admirers on a regular basis. Though it had been nearly 50 years since Merton had last been within these walls, embarking on this private space seemed like walking in on someone in the middle of their work. It felt like an interruption. It felt as if I was peering into something.

Something of the mystery. Something of the unknown. Something fossilized in the silence.

Alas, I also knew that it was just a space, just a place, and its sacredness and mystical  tenor came from the spaciousness and intention Merton held within it–an inner stance which we’re all capable of, yet few come to know.

With 20 or so of us trekking up to the hermitage, I worked hard to contain my child-like excitement. Grinning along the way, I took note of the distance from the monastery, envisioned the walks Merton may have taken, and considered the steps that led him home. Our group gathered inside and out to hear stories from our guide, a current monk, and poet, who happened to know Merton from their time together at the monastery. Our thoughtful discussion considered the work and writing he created within the hermitage and the inspiration it had in our own lives. 

When it was time to go, the group began to quickly evaporate into the landscape back towards the Abbey. I sensed an opportunity to spend some time in the back rooms, and wandered into the quietude. After a few minutes had passed, I looked to the window to see the last of the group disappearing in the distance and realized I was entirely alone. Giggling with delight, I felt the hermitage sinking into the hush of emptiness, the tiny cabin seemed to be transforming into a stagnant memory of everything it once held. I sat in the silence.

Somehow, this time alone felt less invasive. I no longer felt like I was intruding but instead felt as if I was communing with something beyond the time and space. I entered each of the rooms in their silence— the chapel, the kitchen, the bedroom— and I spent another hour in the living room by the fireplace, desk, and bookshelves.

In the end, there was no mountaintop experience. It was an inspiring space, no doubt, but it was still just a space. It was only what we brought with us as individuals that made the place spectacular. I surfaced from this hermitage experience pondering the implications of seeking mysticism in such a place. While on this particular day it was more about reverence of space, I couldn’t completely eliminate the hope of getting in touch with that mystical encounter of which we are all so desperate for. And, perhaps I did get in touch with it. Perhaps I didn’t. Undoubtedly, I’ll never know. For the mystical encounter is always as undefinable as it is undeniable. The mystical encounter is always as elusive as it is palpable.

As much as I know that even discussing the idea of attainment only pushes me further from it, I can’t help but consider what it means. To go seeking for something which cannot be sought. To go on looking for something which cannot be found. To attempt to do something which cannot be done.

The only proper response I have to the beauty of such a silent space is… I’ll never know.

“…In this hour I shall cease to ask them, and silence shall be my answer.”

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Thomas Merton’s Hermitage, photo by Cassidy Hall

 

 

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The Uncertainty of Silence

(This will be among the many essays featured in the forthcoming book Notes on Silence that I’m co-authoring with Patrick Shen which can be purchased here.)

“…I want to be with those who know secret things
or else alone…” 
Rainer Maria Rilke

I was around 8 years old when I began to have reoccurring dreams about death. With a rush of adrenaline, shocked and relieved to be alive, I’d wake up only remembering I was dead and floating in a white sky-scape of silence. I was alone, lost, and stagnant in limitless space and eternal time. This dream doesn’t sound grim to me anymore, but at 8 this nothingness had me sprinting to my parent’s bed. These dreams created in me a reverence for mystery and a deep longing to know the unknowable, to hold the ungraspable, and to forever chase what can never be met. 

We live in a world that loves to know. We like to intellectualize things, name people, describe experiences, and we covet our ability to share tangible evidence of these ungraspable things. Metaphors, on the other hand, hold meaning for the nameless. Metaphors help us to make sense of the unknowable things. We spend our lives clothing the many mysteries we encounter with metaphors which may not otherwise have any meaning. 

Defining is an interesting tool. It can be both harmful and helpful. We often use names to remain in control. We control our environment by regulating it, containing it, qualifying it. Most often names are used to define in order to make the definer feel more comfortable. Having a sense of knowing or grasping more creates comfort, and comfort makes us feel in control. Yet, I can’t help but contend that a controlled experience always takes us away from a mystical encounter. Holding creates an impossibility of beholding. And as a monk once told me, “Naming the nameless can leave all unrecognizable.”

Naming an encounter by way of our senses implies an unattainable certitude when really the elusive nature of mystery befalls all of our understanding. Silence is unnameable. To say something is or isn’t, to say something has a name or doesn’t, implies a dualistic nature. And in our desperate nature to cling, we are left time and time again barefaced before the mystery silence is. Only when we rid ourselves of this dualistic nature, we begin to see mystery for what it sincerely is. We begin to touch the bottomless depths of something hosting imponderable facets. 

 While working on In Pursuit of Silence, the topic of silence as a spiritual or religious practice came up on a regular basis. Silence is not necessarily spiritual or religious, and yet for some it may be entirely spiritual or religious. Silence is not a stranger to being likened to God in some fashion, yet similarly silence’s markings have been precisely that not of God, at least by concept. Silence holds the tension of absence and presence. Silence lives and breathes in the paradox of mysteries. Silence is infinite in its magnitude while remaining invariably naught. Silence is fully here and fully there, as much as it is nowhere and everywhere. But to create silence into being solely dualistic is to strip silence of its infinite possibility.  

Maggie Ross has named silence as salvation. Others, like Saint John of the Cross, have marred it with a place of darkness and despair. And yet, these implications don’t diminish the capacity of the thinker to associate such an absence, or presence, with silence as it relates to God or otherwise. And, this is the beauty of silence: it finds its way of understanding into each individual mind. 

“One might say I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife…So perhaps I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves.” Thomas Merton, Day of a Stranger 

For me, silence has been a place where I find the divine and I find myself. While my wariness of silence has been potent since my first meeting, I realize this is because of the depths of the unknown to which She has taken me. 

Silence is where I meet myself and my fellow human. 

Silence is where I see my darkest corners and my hidden faults. 

Silence is where I meet God. 

Silence is where I can grow and evolve. 

Silence is where I bathe in wonder.

Silence is where I listen. 

I often consider those reoccurring dreams first leading me to a lifelong love affair with the forever unrevealed. I consider the terrified 8 year old worrying her way through life, reaching for something always withheld. To be honest, not much has changed. My worry is now anxiety. My reaching is now a longing. Only now, I sit drenched in wonder as I tirelessly stretch out my arms towards the unknown. Now, I smile in awe as I untiringly attempt to package the mystery in language. 

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Here ends the book, but not the searching. The end of Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain”

 

 

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When Letting Go Is Holding On

“My dishonesty with myself and others hinders the honesty of all humanity, hinders the progress of all people.” Journal entry on 2/12/12

In 2012 I made the decision to let go of some certainty in my life for the sake of exploring something unknown. I quit my job. I quit my salary-paying, insurance-giving job full of security and certainty so I could travel to the seventeen Cistercian monasteries of the United States. As someone who isn’t Catholic, this was a surprise to everyone I knew. I would say that this decision surprised me too, but as I went on doing what I was supposed to do each day, I only felt myself dying a million deaths. It doesn’t surprise me I took on such a drastic measure to keep on living.

So much of my life at the time was wrapped up in what other people thought of me and meeting the expectations meant sticking to the script. Quitting a secure job with a salary and benefits wasn’t just an unwelcome improvisation—it was dangerous one. And thrill seeking was absolutely not a part of those predictable characters’ make up.

Yes, I was open about my sexuality, but only quietly, only where I felt safe. Sure, I was open about my spirituality, but only to the degree that it blended in a room. Yes, I loved my job and the amazing people who crossed my path while working it, but it became mostly an uncomplicated way to pay the bills.

I thought I was “doing all the right things”, but as I did them, I couldn’t shake the nagging; the blatant certainty that there was more to this life and that it wasn’t reserved for the few, and that it might even extend to me. Fitting everywhere but belonging nowhere—it was no longer enough, and something inside me sensed my restlessness could only be calmed by letting go.

Quitting my job to pursue that which was pulling me from the center of my heart made me feel exhilarated in a way that I hadn’t experienced since the beginning of these piling expectations. The monasteries, their silence, their mystery, their unique provision of solitude felt like they could be an exception to the lack of belonging I sensed at every turn. As I gave more and more thought to this longing within me, the unknown abundance of mystery that was before me, a unique way of exploring my interior spaciousness, I knew I had to go.

And when I stepped inside these sacred places, overcome with a sense of belonging, I knew instantly I had not made a mistake. It was in these moments away that the focus sharpened and I could sense my place in the world more clearly. It was a space where the noise of any perceived audience’s approval or disapproval literally and metaphorically cleared from my life and I could hear the voice of my heart instead.

So, I poked my head into seventeen spaces bathed in prayer and talked with monks and nuns about silence, solitude and contemplative life. I didn’t realize until the pilgrimage began that part of this expression of my true-self was bound up in my existential and spiritual curiosity that had been a part of my meandering thoughts since childhood. We further explored topics related to social justice, the true-self, acedia, mental health, and community. My joy and curiosity could not be contained.

This strange pilgrimage was spurred on and then validated by Thomas Merton’s words in New Seeds of Contemplation, “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves… They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. …They wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to have somebody else’s experiences or write somebody else’s poems.”

This idea of spending my life on the things that aren’t of me is something I have had to navigate in my own way. It’s a lesson that is never over once it is over. It certainly isn’t easy for me to be true to myself. I have to learn and then relearn nearly every single day.

I know, for example, that in my writing life there are many topics I’ve avoided for reasons I’d rather not admit. Reasons that ultimately declare the comfort of others and myself as more important than the truth and freedom of all humanity. Reasons that shun my inner spirit and remove dignity from my identity. I learned long ago on my pilgrimage that the danger in not being my true-self had a ripple-effect that was larger than just me. My self-expression, being true to who I was, affected other’s ability to do the same.  After all, we belong to each other. I knew then it was time for a change. It was time to let go of the world’s agenda for my life. And, it’s just as true now as it was then.

“Trust is very much about going beyond the guarantees; engaging into the future that is beyond what is known and seen.” A Monk of Mepkin Abbey

When I arrived home after nearly a half year on the road, I had no extreme revelations or clear-cut certainties to reveal. I only emerged with a new sense of listening to the heart of who am and an openness to the silences and the stillnesses that speak into that true identity. I began to let go of those preconceived notions the world had seared into me for years, I began to let myself unfold and go off script. 

“I don’t want to stay folded anywhere,because where I am folded, there I am a lie.” Rainer Maria Rilke

All of life is loving as much as it is a constant letting go. Sometimes that letting go is an initial step away from the noisy world into finding out more of who we are. And, sometimes this requires a grieving. A grieving of a narrative we’ve clung to or been told, or grieving a sense of certainty or ownership. But we cannot begin to meet ourselves without this letting go. We cannot begin to reunite with the wholeness of who we are until we strip ourselves of assumptions, predictions, and expectations. We cannot hold on until we truly let go.

“There is in us an instinct for newness, for renewal, for a liberation of creative power. We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves. To be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves.” Thomas Merton, “Christian Humanism” in Love and Living

Cassidy Hall is a writer, photographer, filmmaker with a MA in Professional Counseling. Cassidy’s writing is featured on The Huffington PostPatheos and her website, www.cassidyhall.com. You can find her on twitter @cassidyhall | instagram @casshall | and Facebook cassidyhall77

Cassidy’s forthcoming book, “Notes On Silence,” co-authored with Director Patrick Shen can be pre-ordered here.

Originally posted on The Sick Pilgrim Blog.

 

 

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“Cassidy Hall found silence in an Iowa monastery and brought her discoveries to a new documentary” Des Moines Register

“A cricket chirped in the monastery’s library. That and the swish of a turned page, Thomas Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation,” was about it for sound.

Cassidy Hall stopped on page 81. Merton did not write on the absence of sound on that page but the abyss of solitude in the soul: “You do not find it by traveling but by standing still.”

Hall scrambled to write it down, as if it was a new line she had overlooked while reading the book three years ago when the direction of her life changed, when she took off around the country to seek silence in her soul. She would, in fact, travel great distances to learn how to be still.

Hall, 31, quit her job as a therapist in Ames not long after reading the book. She called the New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, where monks have lived in the Trappist monastery since 1849 in long periods of silence and contemplative prayer. She met Father Alberic Farbolin there and spent long periods talking with him about the infinite possibilities in stillness…”

Read the rest of The Des Moines Register feature article “Ames native goes on quest for silence” by Mike Kilen here.

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Photo by Rachel Mummey of The Des Moines Register

The Voice of the Heart

Listening to the voice of my heart has never come easy for me. I’m usually quick to assume a present feeling is final, an agony is forever, or that all of my questions should have answers and answers NOW. Yet, I know better. And, the more I grow through those fleeting assumptions–the more I find myself truly pausing and listening to the utterances of my heart–the more I’m truly in touch with those parts of myself that so softly speak my own truth.

…Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final…” Rilke, Book of Hours I, 59

I’ve found sacred pauses to buoy up my ability to hear those quiet whispers of myself: from going to monasteries, to turning off my car radio, and even truly sitting still in order to tend to “nothing”. Most recently, I returned from my second visit to Snowmass Monastery in Colorado where through the solitude and silence I was once again brought face to face with that interior whisper of who I am. Though the clarity is never striking or certain, it seems to offer a meeting place with the great unknowns and mysteries that somehow always know more, if even unspoken.

On this occasion to Snowmass Monastery, I arrived for more than just a notation on pilgrimage or for space and time away. I was attending the solemn profession of monastic vows that my friend, Brother Aaron, was about to take. He’d been a monk now for nearly eight years and was ready to make his vows of stability, obedience, and conversion of manners (Trappist/Cistercian Monastic vows*). Though I hadn’t seen him for nearly three and a half years, we’d been in touch via letters nearly every week since our initial meeting in 2013.

Much like all of my monastic trips, I settled in and rested for a moment before taking a familiar saunter into the church and meander around the accessible monastic grounds. Snowmass Monastery’s bookstore was a special stop for me to make, as it was where I’d met Brother Aaron nearly three and a half years ago. There, I sat on a bench, admired the new collection of poetry, and breathed in the beginning of a precious friendship, a sacred space of growth, and a familiarity with knowing I’m right where I should be in this very moment.

Just as I began making my way out of the store, a strangely familiar yet unrecognizable voice called out from the lawn near the bookstore, “Cassidy?” It could only be one person, someone that could know me so well to know my demeanor and recognize me by way of just that. Sure enough, it was Brother Aaron, and I finally received the true to word sign-off on each of his letters, “Big Hug”.

As we made our way back towards the guesthouse, we talked about all the friends and family pouring in from all over the map to see him on his special day. He spoke about how he was deeply moved by this and joyfully overwhelmed with all the love he was encountering. He explored with me the meaning of his choice in vocation, his decision to move forward with vows, and his sense of overflowing love with all those from his life who had come together for this important day. He told me that it seemed, “the closer I get to love in my own heart, the closer love comes to me.” That as he continued to be true and loving towards himself and love in his own life: his calling, his vocation, his personal truth–the overwhelming way in which love came to him left him speechless.

These profound words fastened to my attention throughout my time there and beyond – two weeks later they’re still searing into my being in a way that elevates my curiosity of what it really means to be true to oneself and one’s calling or vocation in life. How can one listen and be true to the heart’s quiet breathings, loud speakings, and miscellaneous messages in-between?

This dear monk has taught me time and time again of the great love we’re all capable of giving and receiving in our own unique ways and through our own unique vocations, but coming around to what that means for me certainly continues to evolve, as it does for each individual. Seeing his world come together in a way that renewed and fortified his own view on this was wondrous. As he was following his truth, listening to his call, exploring his heart – love flowed in from around the world for him, literally and figuratively.

Needless to say, I won’t soon forget seeing the solemn profession of monastic vows by my dear friend Brother Aaron. I can only hope to continue to strive towards those sacred pauses that continue to be a meeting place with the voice of my heart.

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Temescal Gateway Park, photo by Cassidy Hall

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*For more about Cistercian Spirituality, check out author Carl McColman’s Befriending Silence.

The Great Anesthetic of Modern Day Life

(Originally posted on The Huffington Post Blog.)

“The world is like an anesthetic… people are not going beyond the superficial to the meaning of life — they don’t even ask that question because they’re caught up in that anesthetizing process.” A Monk of Holy Trinity Abbey, Utah

I woke up this morning with an overwhelming feeling of being so distant from my own self. While in the midst of a frenzied work month, drained by piles of to-dos, and in an echo-chamber of my own mind; I seem to have lost touch with the precise thing that brought me here. I’m waking up for a city’s premiere of a documentary film I’ve been working on titled In Pursuit of Silence, and yet, I’ve managed to lose touch with my own silence, space, and solitude. I’ve become the precise paradox our film opens our eyes to; I’ve forgotten myself, my own way of being, and the natural spaces around me. Like an anesthetic fog just after surgery, I’ve been going through my days clouded by the demands of modern day life.

 

Anesthesia seems to be an ideal sentiment for describing the world we live in today. We’re consumed by our phones, computers, televisions, technology, work, and busyness itself. So much so that there’s nothing left of us for the solitude, space, and silence for which we were designed. Our days are so marked by modern day life’s measurements of likes, comments, and first place ribbons of who has the most emails — that we come to the day’s end without the depth of sensations we were created to have. Even our allegiance to the word busy seems to fill our mouths like a badge of honor. Our society tells us only a busy life is a successful and productive life, while research and studies continue to quietly tell us otherwise. There’s an undertone that busy is a title, a symbol we’re doing life right, a life worth living — but what if it’s precisely this busy that anesthetizes us from living a genuine life of meaning, a memorable day, and a life true to who we were made to be?

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Socrates

Spreading ourselves too thin is now the law of the land; we insist we’re no longer good enough or doing enough for the people and world around us unless we’re giving more than what we have. And, as we watch our unique passions, desires, and hopes float away — we decide it’s time to take on even more. We cover our original design with layers of modern day life; we convince ourselves that losing ourselves is loving others more. And still, our purest and richest (in love and joy) selves come out in those moments when we’re true to who we are — listening to our creative urges in work and play, saying a hearty yes or empowering no to those around us, and being able to truly interact with our loved ones from a space of wholeness.

“Within you, there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” Hermann Hesse

For some of us, remaining busy is a way to feel sane — to keep us running from what is really going on, to avoid the truth of ourselves. But, what if the truth is actually an easier space to navigate? What if our true selves contain a space where we can see and feel more whole again — perhaps the real world we need to explore is not the world of to-dos and sensory overload but the vast interior world of ourselves. Maybe it’s time to turn off excerpts of our anesthetizing days so that we might feel again, recenter ourselves again, and re-engage with our natural equilibrium.

 

It seems that even when those small spaces peek up within our days, there is never enough time. Sleep is more important (it often is), my phone is more vibrant, those emails will just add up, and between all the day’s tasks the breaks to breathe are just that — how could anyone expect us to do more than breathe in such moments? And we know that we’re all so beautifully different in these realms: the ways in which we balance ourselves, the different rhythms that agree with us, and what makes sense for each of our lives. Thus, it’s all the more important to tune into our personal ways of being and trust that natural rhythm as we go about our days. The anesthetic fog will come again and again, because it is a part of modern day life — but there’s choice for us somewhere to see beyond that, through that, and let the fog lift.

“At the still point, there the dance is.” T.S. Eliot

When Doing Nothing is Doing Everything

As originally posted on Huffington Post and Patheos:

“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

photoWe’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.

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Studies and articles on silence, boredom, solitude, etc. Many thanks to these authors for their inspiration and dedication to the topic:

Creative Intention

RedwoodsBefore embarking on the winding roads leading to the Redwoods Monastery last weekend, I briefly stopped to rediscover a friendship that has been on pause for 14 years. This dear friend is an artist whose spirit and company can take anyone on an inward exploration. Her words are as striking as her movements and depending on the space from which one encounters them, they can evoke the deepest of emotions and awaken the most tired of travelers.

“When it’s done right, you don’t know who is doing it…”

Among the many things spoken between us, the simple statement that she made above about a piece she created seemed to echo throughout my weekend. This spoke to me about intention, specifically the artist’s intention when it comes to their creative work. Her desire to give the viewer a blank space, an empty room, where one is allowed to project their own experiences and story. This ego-removed-intention struck me as perhaps the place of true artistry, where one most naturally births their creativity for whomever it resonates with.

“Intention is powerful, and the power of its workings remain something of a mystery, though its effects can be profound and wide-ranging.” Maggie Ross, author

Most often, creativity seems to be a modern day paradox that is all about receiving attention amidst the creative project and for the creative output. I believe creativity’s original intention, with the ego removed, has been lost within the chaos. I often catch myself joining this confusion; creating and thinking what will make people turn around to see?, instead of asking myself what is gnawing and nagging at my heart to be spoken? or what is real to and for me?. I’m struck by this need in modern society to be relevant — but remember that relevancy does not transcend — relevancy is a safe box with limits and clarity. I don’t want clarity when I create; there is no certainty in the midst of innovation.

“Our task is not to make an amazing thing called art. Our task is to get a thrill from what we see. When we are moved, we will move others.” Jerry Fresia, painter

Redwoods

Many of us in this creative paradox of today find ourselves wanting to go away, disappear, shut things down, evaporate, and dismiss the sheddings of everyday life. Yet, I wonder, alongside my experiences of this, what does that solve? I’ve tried this a time or two in various ways, ponder I’m maybe even trying this now as I travel to the Redwoods. Yet, I always end up back in this space between wasting my time driving out the influences and realizing that such a fight leaves little to no time for actual creativity. My energy is often given more to pushing life away than to centering myself in the midst of everyday life and moving towards a space with the least possible amount of ego involved (I do believe it’s impossible to remove it all!).

“No matter what the writer may say, the work is always written to someone, for someone, against someone.” Walker Percy, author

Despite my yearning to create uninhibited, I cannot deny the influence of life’s emissions: television, marketing, music, likes, shares, comments, notoriety, people of influence, and so on. I spend the majority of my time in creativity with someone else in mind, with society in mind. It seems I’m more often than not creating for someone else or to someone else as opposed to creating from an authentic space that organically flourishes. Creating from an ego-removed-intention invites me daily to embark on what things I am to speak to, let go of, express, and offer (noting that often this offering is just for me and/or simply a part of my own journey).

“As soon as I am taking my focus off my own finite being and pointing my lens out, I’m still filtering my work through my own experience.” Joe Henry, musician

As I said goodbye to the Redwoods and carried on into my everyday world, I couldn’t help but circulate my car’s atmosphere with the words and mysteries that arose. The untouched radio, the open road, the words unveiling nothing and everything; I was opened once again to the vastness of the mysteries, happily carrying more answerless questions, open to continually letting go of what myself and others think — open to what I am to create.

It seems my roughest edges are most often the precise things I need to embrace and love as opposed to rid myself of. The fight against society’s influences is ultimately a fight against myself. The daily encounters that make me cringe are a part of me and the artist that I am. But, perhaps it isn’t a fight and only a greater opportunity for love. A chance to love more from my position as a fellow human that is among and a part of all our brokenness. After all, art comes from a raw and naked place; the artist is vulnerable, unclothed, and sensitive. Perhaps this is the purest of spaces to create from; perhaps this is the space of ego-removed-intention.
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Originally posted on my HuffPost Blog