Nearly every time I drove off the monastery grounds after my weekly visits I looked wistfully down the hill toward a row of pine trees that sheltered two small hermitage cabins. I toured the sparsely furnished units on my first visit and often imagined staying for a week. I saw myself lying on top of the handmade quilt on the little twin bed every night, or brewing tea in the tiny kitchen, to drink sitting in the solitary chair by the window with nothing in my hands, nothing in my head.
In the beginning, two friends had brought me there to introduce me to the monks and show me the grounds. One friend stood still in the cabin on our tour, much like me, slowly taking in the space with a look of deep serenity, if not longing, on his face. The other friend paced about, pulling back on the curtains, opening and closing the cupboards, observing the lack of indoor facilities. “The two of you are just alike, ” she said. “I can see either one of you coming up here and never wanting to come back out.” Holding onto the door, as though afraid it might close and trap her inside, she laughed. “I wouldn’t last 30 minutes.”
The difference in response to the prospect of a week alone in a remote, rustic cabin is partly a matter of how an introverted person and an extroverted person might view such an opportunity (or catastrophe, as the case may be). But it can also be the often simple fact that being alone can be distressing. As Pico Iyer notes, “Nowhere can be scary, even if it’s a destination you’ve chosen; there’s nowhere to hide there.”
Perhaps part of what makes being alone seem daunting is that we aren’t, really. Even when alone, one is still with oneself. Iyer recalls the thoughts of Emily Dickinson, who was deeply acquainted with solitude. “She knew that you do not have to be a chamber to be haunted, that ‘Ourself behind ourself conceal— / Should startle most.'”
One of the fears we face when we choose to be alone is worrying that our mind, like my friend anxious to get out of the cabin, will hold us captive. Iyer says, “Being locked inside your own head can drive you mad or leave you with a devil who tells you to stay at home and stay at home till you are so trapped inside your thoughts that you can’t step out or summon the power of intention.” He acknowledges that sometimes the search for stillness, the entrance into the inner life, can go the other way: “A life of stillness can sometimes lead not to art but to doubt or dereliction; anyone who longs to see the light is signing on for many long nights alone in the dark.”
When I first began my trips to the monastery, I didn’t know what to expect. I went looking for space, for quiet, and I knew I had found it early on. Even so, I did not have a specific outcome in mind. I spoke little of the experience at the time, and while I wrote reflections following my visits, I did not initially make them public, fearful that to do so would break the spell. Iyer looks to Thomas Merton’s thoughts on expectations: “The way of contemplation is not even a way, and if one follows it, what he finds is nothing. …If you enter it with the set purpose of seeking contemplation, or worse still, happiness, you will find neither. For neither can be found unless it is first in some sense renounced.”
I wonder, along with Merton and Iyer, if part of the key to guarding against that downward spiral of doubt and darkness is to approach the time of stillness empty of expectation.
We’re reading The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere together this month. Are you reading along? Perhaps you would share in the comments about your experience with (or need for) purposefully seeking out stillness. Are you more like me, yearning for some time in the hermitage, or more like my friend, anxious at the thought of days or even hours alone? What stood out to you in the chapters this week?
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Photo by Don Wong, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.