My passion for solitude started very early. I was always walking away from home. At the age of four, I loved to explore the creek with the pussy willow trees behind the house. At six, I would roam all alone through the steep forested hills behind the zoo, enchanted by the roar of the lions and the chatter of the monkeys.
When I was eight and then living in the country, I would take off on day-long expeditions through the bush and across the miles of Sahara-sized sanddunes to the ocean beach beyond. I would wistfully watch the sun descend over the dangerous surf – Australia was out there somewhere – and straggle home in the twilight.
I am amazed when I think back on how much freedom my parents gave me to explore, and I now wonder about the shepherded children I see in Perth. It seems they are not allowed to walk anywhere unaccompanied, if they walk at all, until they reach voting age. That would have been an insufferable horror for me that no electronic gadgets and social activities could have assuaged.
I am certain that my appetite for solitude is no indulgence. It is also an instinct, a guiding light and a defining element of my character. I always need at least a few minutes on my own, here and there, during the day. I’ve usually travelled and lived alone, and in my work I am what the government calls a ‘sole trader’.
I feel psychically malnourished if I don’t get the amount of solitude that I need. I may need more than most, but I don’t think this instinct is exclusive to me. In this 24/7 electronic world, a certain amount of quiet time alone, even if it seems selfish and antisocial and boring, could still be a biological necessity for us all.
It can be hard to see solitude as having any value. We may be doing virtually nothing when we are on our own, not even enjoying ourselves. In fact solitude is characterised by negations: no people, nothing to do, nothing to think about, just being, temporarily free of the pressures of time. Yet these ‘negative’ conditions can gradually lead an inner silence and clarity of thought that would be quite impossible in company.
Many of us instinctively seek out opportunities to be alone. We may walk around the park, ‘thinking things through’; or engage in solitary activities like gardening or exercise or music; or idly sit and stare into space. We may lie in bed before dawn, enjoying the half asleep, half dreaming state before we have to get up.
Some people use long holidays or extended travel to unclutter their minds. I travelled in Asia for three years when I was young and, as much as I could, I deliberately discarded the English language, western culture and my past during that time.
I also gravitated towards more formal ways of cultivating solitude. In 1984, this culminated in a seven month retreat, mostly alone in a small hut high in the mountains. Although connected to a Buddhist retreat centre, the place was very remote. I only caught sight of people on Wednesdays when I picked up my supplies. That was also the night that I stayed with my girlfriend in the adjacent hut.
I had been seeking this kind of extreme solitude all my life and it was even more magical and rewarding than I had hoped for. Yet my burning question was ‘Do I want still more of this? Shall I take the next step and become a monk?’ I often thought of the words of William Blake who said ‘You don’t know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.’ That retreat made it perfectly obvious to me that I didn’t want solitude at all costs. I wasn’t going to become a monk.
Stephanie Dowrick has eloquently argued that we need both solitude and intimacy, even within a single day at different times. Although a monk is supposed to deny it, even he needs people and some kind of love. Stephanie says the ideal is to oscillate as skilfully as we can between these two opposing poles, acknowledging the importance of both. The monastic life however, is all about clinging to one pole and criticising the other.
Nonetheless I participated in many retreats through the ’80s and ’90s, both alone and formally, and I observed how positive this experience could be for others. It didn’t matter if the teacher was mediocre, the tradition was moribund or the meditation practices were rigid. A retreat could still send people home glowing with inspiration.
When I started to teach meditation myself, I led about forty retreats, mostly of seven days duration. (I have now stopped doing them because of ‘duty of care’ issues.) My key concerns were: what really makes for a good retreat? What are the active ingredients and what is just padding? Are the good mental states dependent on a particular setting, or can they be cultivated anywhere?
Many people would say that a good retreat depends on factors such as an inspiring teacher, a time-tested spiritual tradition, a unique and powerful meditation practice or a sanctified place far from the madding crowd. I could see that none of these really mattered much in the long run.
As I saw it, the active ingredients were solitude, silence (no talking), stillness (just sitting and watching one’s mental activity), a lack of stimulation (no books or TV or random human contact), and sufficient time with nothing to do. Those factors are quite enough to allow one’s deep intelligence to emerge. A retreat is special only because it enforces those requirements against our natural tendency to dither. Everything else, even the presence of an ‘enlightened’ master, is just encouragement at best.
Most valuable is the inner silence we start to find on a retreat. Most people are engaged in an everlasting conversation, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If we are not talking to others, we talk to ourselves. Even when alone, we keep the verbal brain circuitry active by listening to the radio or the TV. The inner noise can reach migraine or panic intensity, or it may subside out of exhaustion but, like chain-smoking, it is very hard to abandon it for long.
If we stop talking, however, first to others and then to ourselves, and refrain from the stimuli of media, we start to have moments, and then minutes, of inner silence. The words literally stop. At first there seems nothing at all. Then, out of the emptiness, a delicate inner world gradually emerges.
Although the parts of the brain that process language shut down, other parts become more active. Sensations become luminous. Feelings become remarkably acute and subtle. Our thoughts, such as they are, become more visceral and visual and intuitive. We feel both detached from, and at one with, our experience in that particular moment.
Words tend to compress our minds into an urgent bundle of ‘must-dos’, the black hole of our compulsions. The wordless zone of inner silence, however, feels as still and expansive as outer space. Perhaps its most extraordinary aspect is that it can take place in an instant. It can occur with effortless perfection between picking up a cup and putting it to the lips.
Inner silence is both miraculous and utterly mundane. We feel both tranquil and utterly alive. Nor are these factors reliant on a particular time or place. Once we know how, we can easily make solitude a part of every day. Two minutes totally alone and silent is better than a week in Bali, thinking about the whole world. You can easily buy a holiday in Bali and get nothing out of it. However, two minutes of total silence is Paradise.
It is also endlessly repeatable and free. Silence may seem a million miles away. In fact, it always here, waiting for us, just beyond our fingertips. If I hadn’t discovered how to find it, I would probably be very stressed, very sick or dead by now.
© Perth Meditation Centre 2007