“The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds” ~ Thomas Merton.
Feeding the head, if it’s not regulated, leads to a negative state of overload. It is the childish dream of acquisition without conflict; ‘I wanna do what I want’, taken on a mental level. If you let an animal, the animal part of your self, just do what it wants, it will eat and eat until it gets sick. It will never have time to process and digest, never get needed exercise or sharpen its wits through the trials of the hunt. It ends up fat, sick, and obsessed. The same with feeding the head. If we do nothing but read books, watch YouTube videos, even attend retreats and talks, but never actually exercise our mind through concerted actions, discipline it through reason, and rest it through silence, it too becomes fat and lazy.
We get caught in a downwardspiral, tending to blame everything on outer circumstances: “why can’t I do what I want, why won’t they let me do what I want, if I could do what I want I’d be happy”. If there is no reason or restraint put into action to exercise the mind and lend experience rather than ever fulfilled desire, we become bloated and sick, and place the blame for our discomfort on others and the world.
This is where isolations, or solitary retreats, come into play. If you can go into isolation, even small periods of ‘tech fasting’ during the week where you’re not putting information into your head nonstop, your mind can digest and comprehend. Otherwise, the imagination takes over and the mind gets fat and lazy, lost in the fog of information overload. You’ll have little chance for true realizations. You’ll instead be miserable; mentally constipated. And if you’re miserable, you’ll be always looking to be happy. See how this leads into a downward spiral: “I need to do what I want, don’t you understand that I’m miserable, why can’t I do what I want?” You’re not deprived, but exactly the opposite. You’re obsessed, craving more and more, and down the slippery slope you go.
If you can fast the mind through solitary retreats, no books to read, no YouTube videos to watch, no teachers to listen to, no friends to pump you up, then you can let the mind become lean and free. Even short quiet periods during the week, such as going for a walk around the block, without looking at your phone, can work wonders. You’ll think better, you’ll open the door for resolution. This is why solitary retreats can be so valuable, especially nowadays when our minds have become arrogant and obsessed through constant exposure to the internet, ‘smart’ phones, and their ceaseless stream of meaningless information. Take a walk, and watch your head rather than stuff it. Go on a solitary retreat and fast your mind, let it get slim and trim, and perhaps something meaningful will slip through.
One fine day in the spring of 1997-8 or so, I was hiking out of Trough Springs Canyon. I had made the trip to the creek in the bottom, taken my weekly shower in the rarity of flowing water in the otherwise dry desert, and was walking up the thousand feet of elevation gain to my truck back at the trailhead. The past week or two had been spent in solitary retreat, fasting and reading, sitting in the desert’s immense silence. The exercise of hiking provided a break in the routine; I was in good spirits as I trudged up the narrow canyon through the large rocks.
The end of the ridge I would soon be walking on came into view above and to my left. From the perspective of being down below the sheer cliffs it took on the appearance of a peak, a glimmering tower of red sandstone set against a stark blue desert sky. I couldn’t stop looking up at it; it began to capture my attention in a strange way. After a few glances, I stopped at a switchback and turned towards it, and was hit with a beauty I have rarely seen. The peak hadn’t changed, but in that instant something in me was open and unguarded, and I couldn’t turn my head from the view. I gazed in awe at the rock, and could not believe it to be so maddeningly beautiful.
The view had somehow opened me up. I don’t want to sound too poetic, or grandiose, but that’s what happened. My heart began to ache, both figuratively and physically. My chest was in agony, and I thought of William Blake’s words, “…portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.” I could not hold the beauty, it was too much for my heart to bear. So it broke.
I do not wish you to think I’m exaggerating. It happened so fast and unannounced that I had no time to stop it, something I probably would have done if I could have. But the process had begun, and all I could do was drop to my knees on the rocky trail and weep. I had wept tears before: when my father died and I realized what his life had been like, for him. And when my dreams of the secluded life on the Zen Master’s ashram had been dashed from a good dose of reality. But this time it was somehow different. I was not weeping for the loss of something, or from the shock of hitherto unseen truths; I was simply allowing the beauty of my own true existence, reflected in the desert peak, to become apparent and real. I could now accept it, even though my mind could not believe it.
My heart had been opened, and in an unselfish manner. There was no loss of a loved one, or dashed hopes, but simply the seeing of things objectively, letting the beauty come through before it could be washed clean of its power by the reasoning mind. It flowed through unhindered, unabashed, and unexpected. I no longer had a need to filter perception; to keep my heart safe and secluded from its own treasures. I began to weep not only for the impossible view before me, but at my own heart’s opening. It was free, free of the tight bonds of reason and practicality. Free of the ‘shoulds’, the rules, the restraints. Not free to ‘do what it wants’, to indulge in the childish fantasies of teenage youth, but free to simply be, without correction.
Every time I hike that trail I try to capture with my camera the beauty of what I’ve come to call Heartbreak Peak. The photographs are pale copies, some better, some worse, but the view itself is still astounding. What hits me when I now re-visit that lonely canyon isn’t as much memory, but gratitude. Gratitude that something opened a crack in my heart to let in Grace and Love. That spontaneous breaking of the prison wall that was keeping me locked up as well as secure, allowed the higher part of me to make contact. It forged a connection from the low to the high, from the mundane to the eternal. I can now walk that trail, I try to visit it every year or two, and sing praises to my Self. I was rescued and delivered from the ‘secure’ unconsciousness of a buried heart, to blindingly clear Light and Love.
Now that I’ve had a few years to dwell on the above event, it’s become clearer to me what happened, and why it’s so important for anyone on the spiritual path. My Zen teacher used to take those who could make the trip, to the east coast seashore in hopes of catching that Beauty through a sunrise over the ocean. He had seen before what an effect this could have on the heart, if the person was ready. Maurice Nicoll wrote of Beauty and the Puer Aeternus, how the eternal child is our intermediary between the mundane and the divine, and how Beauty can be a door through which we allow the divine to make contact. Before the above event, the trip to the seashore and the words of the wise were only theories with which I had no real relationship.
If you have the chance to allow Beauty to break you, whether through a sunset, the eyes of a child, or a desert peak, don’t fear. It may seem you’re losing control and it’s too much to bear, and it is. But don’t be afraid, for if you follow Beauty and Love within to your own heart, the Infinite may become your Home.
Isolation is a period of time spent completely alone, cut-off from the world’s distractions, for gaining self-knowledge. People have ventured into deserts, forests, and mountains for thousands of years to escape their fellow men, to find peace, and to find answers to their deepest questions. Such time alone may be an undistracted attempt to delve within in search of the truth of our being. Such time may also be an escape into daydream and fantasy. For me, a few days or weeks alone each year allowed a clearer perspective on the rest of my life and was a time to pursue meditation with full intensity. At the very least, it was an amazing adventure into a tradition few modern people dare to explore. What follows are some suggestions for the process.
First, you need a reason for a stint in isolation — something you wish to think about or investigate. I remember the first time I chose to spend a day alone. I sat on a blanket by the edge of a field. Shortly, I realized I had nothing to focus on. I simply had heard that it was good to spend time alone. My mind wandered from one thought to the next for half a day. Finally, I packed up and went home. Of course, it wasn’t a total waste. You learn something from any experience if you take time to ponder what happened and why. I am trying to save you a few steps, though.
Perhaps explaining more of the benefits will help clarify your reasons for undertaking an isolation. Many people like taking a few minutes at the end or beginning of the day to review and plan. Isolation is an opportunity to review and plan for months or years of your life. Sometimes in my isolations, I reviewed my journals from the past year. This was a priceless opportunity to see how I changed, how I spent or wasted my time, and what my actions said about my priorities. In short, to learn from my history. Next, I planned for the coming year, and developed a strategy for how I wanted to live my life.
You can use isolation for reviewing and planning, or for creating and discovering. Think about the scientist working late at night in his lab, the artist in their retreat, or the Native American on a vision quest. This is isolation as meditation. Eliminating distractions so we can look within and see what arises. For a moment, we put the demands of society on hold. No cell phones, no bills to pay, and no class or job to attend. Just you and the universe — you and life at its simplest. In this case, your reasons may be harder to articulate — taking the form of a feeling or intuition.
Once you realize a reason for isolation, the question becomes how long to spend alone. I’ve spent anywhere from a half a day to thirty days in isolation. I know others who spent up to sixty days. Avoid the thirty-day marathons for your first time. Best to start out too short rather than too long, since the ramifications of extending your time are clearer than those of shortening a stay.
Life is a sticky business, so you’ll need to reserve a block of time and prepare to cut the cords of responsibility. Get your life in order so you won’t worry whether or not your dog is starving while you are supposed to be contemplating the meaning of life. The older you get the harder this becomes, as not only your dog, but your kids also might wind up starving. Few students realize the luxury of time the college age provides. One’s twenties are a window of opportunity for the grand adventure of spiritual seeking.
Where to go is the next consideration. There are numerous spiritual retreats and even a book or two listing them (such as Sanctuaries: The Complete United States). Make sure you will be left alone. It is best to not even see another person for the duration. Having to dine with others, or listen to singing and chanting can be distracting. There are options besides official retreats. Maybe a friend or friend of a friend with land where you could pitch a tent. Parks and National Forests are possibilities. I know people who simply holed up in a cheap motel room for the weekend. What is wrong with using your own home? Many reminders of your life in the everyday world, easy to be disturbed by friends or family, and too many distracting temptations like the television.
Wherever you go, plan to keep your life simple while you are there. Food preparation can become a time-consuming chore or a major distraction. Some people simply choose not to eat. Fasting is worth a try. Over-eating will make you sleepy, as will lack of exercise. The more primitive your housing situation, the more planning it may take to keep things simple — how will you cook, clean, use the toilet? Beware of too broad a focus for your isolation. Don’t plan to read ten books in two days. Or plan to decide on a career, a mate, and to discover the source of thoughts. Plan a major thrust for your isolation time and let all other actions be in support of that goal.
So you found a reason, a place to go, and a plan to make your isolation happen. Now you are there, so what are the unexpected hurdles? Typically, people find reasons to leave. You decide isolation was a stupid idea, or you are not prepared, or now is not the best time, you feel weak or sick, you have too much nervous energy (can’t focus), or there is some emergency at home. My advice is to not shorten you isolation. If you said you would stay a week, stay a week. However, use your best judgement. If you vomit blood once (I’ve seen it happen), don’t panic and leave. If you vomit blood for two days, and are unable to identify and correct the cause, then you’ve got a problem.
Generally, decisions to leave can be negated by changing another aspect of the isolation. Once, I meditated so long that my knees hurt day and night, so I kept changing up my sitting style so I could continue. Another time, a book I thought would be inspiring was a dud, so I used another book. I could have said my knees hurt too much or that the book was uninspiring and I might as well go home. Adapt the details of your plan in mid-stream, if necessary to preserve the whole.
There is knowledge and change that will come from the isolation experience. The answer to your deepest question may not come during isolation and you shouldn’t expect it to. On a long afternoon of the twentieth day of a thirty-day isolation, as you are wishing you could sleep away the rest of time, this will seem solely an exercise in determination. That may be one value, but other values are not realized until far in the future.
Richard Rose gave me the best description of the attitude one should take. He said not to approach isolation as challenging God or the universe for an answer. Don’t draw a circle in the sand and say you won’t come out until you are enlightened. Instead, and this is my interpretation, work as hard as you can and be thankful for whatever happens.
Isolation is an invaluable experience, but even it may outlive its usefulness. Eventually, I felt isolation was no longer useful for me. Perhaps the focus of my isolations had so permeated my everyday life that I was always alone; always looking for an answer even in the midst of an outwardly typical life. Along this line, I do not recommend a cloistered life. Escaping the world through permanent isolation will become another cage from which we must escape.