This month's Missal takes a look at the practice of the solitary spiritual retreat, or isolation. This method of self-discovery has been practiced in one form or another for centuries, from the monks in their quiet cells to the Tibetans in their secluded caves. In today's society with its hurried pace and inescapable technology, this practice of spending time in silence and peace is even more important for those seeking contact with the inner self. If, as Jesus once said, the Kingdom of Heaven is within, we would be well served to begin earnestly looking in that direction. While books, teachers and the Internet can show us where others have gone before, and give us invaluable contacts, only we ourselves can make the inward journey.
There are several pointers to help one in making time spent alone productive, and more than just a relaxing break for the pressures of daily life. The most important is to have a reason for your quest, to have a pressing question. Before I had come in contact with the technique of isolation I intuitively knew that the best way to answer important questions was to go off alone, and find the answer myself, in myself. Later, after meeting others who had seen the value in this, the process was confirmed. This need not be only the big questions, such as "Who am I?, What is life all about?" but could also be about life's problems: " Why do I have difficulty with the people at work?" , "How did my marriage become so messed up? "Who are these people called my parents/kids?" The answers are found within, and can best be heard in quiet and silence.
I've heard it said that spending time alone is a cop-out, that it's simply a personality defense being taken as a spiritual endeavor, and this certainly can be the case, if it weren't for the question. Without a pressing question, and the focus required in bringing it to the forefront, time alone could be just a vacation from social pressure. I've seen this first hand, for my biggest problem in isolation was that I liked it, a lot. I would become very comfortable, and had to fight to keep the focus on the task at hand, and not drift into the pleasure of a tension-free environment. One way to keep this focus is to bring a few good books, ones that will keep our head in the right place. We can read a bit once in awhile to bring our head back to the problem and remind us of why we're there.
Another problem I've observed is that of fear. Some are afraid to leave society and its distractions, and thus cannot spend the time alone necessary for the mind to relax and focus on inner questions. They might have problems they're avoiding, or place more value on other's thinking than their own, and thus can't stay in the quiet long enough to produce results. One thing for certain, if you have one of the above predilections, you will come face-to-face with it in isolation or retreat, and hopefully thus become more aware.
"The spiritual experiences that people have are a result of looking inside themselves." - Richard Rose
" Facing the unknown takes a lot of personal quiet and divorcement from the world around you. I studied this very carefully. It is the bridge between the inner and outer man. - It takes hundreds of hours of facing the unknown to get the unknown to yield one little insight, one little piece at a time. " - Jim Burns
We must also be comfortable. We need to spend our time in contemplation, not lost in the distraction of basic survival and fighting the elements. Moderation here is the key. While we do not want the distractions of cell phones and television, we also don't need to spend our time and energy trying to stay warm and dry, or fend off the the local wildlife and the curious. Too much frugality and we lose our time and energy, and so the same with too much distraction.
Fasting and celibacy are useful tools we can incorporate into our retreat, too. Fasting is a great way to shock the system and return to a quieter frame of mind, with less ritual, while abstinence saves our energy and helps turn ourhead away from the habitual draw of nature. If fasting has not been practiced before, it may be best to take it easy until you see how your system will react, and gain a bit of experience with it first. While fasting may be incorporated into the retreat to jumpstart the process and help restore our inner vitality, we shouldn't make asceticism itself the point. We're not going to get any deep thinking done, or clear our receptive mechanism in order to strengthen the intuition, if we are spending our time passed out under the desk. Moderation once more is key, especially until we become accustomed to fasting's effects.
If the brain and belly are burning clean
with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
The fog clears, and new energy makes you
run up the steps in front of you.
When you're full of food and drink, an ugly metal
statue sits where your sprit should. When you fast,
good habits gather like friends who want to help.
from Fasting, by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
Most of the people I know that have practiced isolations have started out slowly, with perhaps three days and nights at first, then have gone on to retreats of three weeks or so two or more times a year. Whether it's for three days or a month, don't let temptation lead you into stopping early. Even if you're having trouble remembering why you planned the retreat in the first place, or feel it's no longer productive, sticking it out may have unseen benefits, even months later. Of course, there's no use staying if you're too ill or in real danger. The most difficult thing for me was to stay focused on the search and not be distracted by the beauty of the place and the slow passing of time. Staying focused was paramount.
Once you make the commitment to spend a block of time alone, don't forget to watch, to look at the various internal mechanisms before and during that will try to get you to postpone, leave early, or pass away the time in fantasy. If nothing else, you will have made the effort, and become more aware of yourself, and that's a good thing.
"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." - Shawn Nevins
- Related Sites -
Solitary Spiritual Retreat Facilities:
The TAT Foundation guide to hermitages, cabins, and other places for spiritual reflection. This listing of retreat facilities will help you find a place of solitude to spend quiet time in reflection. Places offering only communal meals are included, and noted as such, for consideration of those doing fasting retreats. Places with shared kitchen facilities are included and noted as such. Facilities requiring previous instruction, active guidance or a particular belief-system are not included.
A retreat offers the seeker an opportunity to experience a variety of approaches to communicating with the divine. The retreat environment provides one with time to experience the peace and joy of meditation and contemplation in his quest for the Divine. The simple regularity of prayers, meals, rest and communion offered by spiritual retreats keeps one spiritually and physically healthy." from Find the Divine. - http://www.findthedivine.com/spiritualretreats.html
Tricks and Traps
Trick: Valuing the thinking of others more than our own. We can come to value the thinking of others, our teachers, friends and authority figures, and thus reject our own powers of intuition and discrimination. This may have happened when we were too small to fend for ourselves, and were thus tricked into counting on others to do our thinking for us, even after we became adults.
Trap: Our attention is thus outward turned only, even in matters of self-definition. We look without to find our wisdom, strength and meaning, and move farther away from our inner Self. Any messages coming from within from intuition or conscience are discounted.
Trick: Learn to listen to your own heart, and to watch your own mind. Sometimes called the still small voice within, our own inner self can become a guide if we but listen, and use reason to discriminate between true inner guidance and the voices of fear and desire.
* * * * * *
* * * * * *
Check out the Missal's companion site,
A Double Edged Sword
One of the first steps in seeking our true nature is learning to observe ourselves, finding out who we are. Called self-observation, it's the simple but difficult task of getting to know yourself. To begin to discover, and doubt, your very sense of 'self'. If you as 'self' are observable, what then are you really? Can you separate from what is false in you, and if so, what is left?
This cutting away can be done in two different but complimentary ways, by forging a double edged sword of reason and intuition. One edge is honed through group work and observing our daily lives in social interaction, while the other is sharpened through spiritual retreat or isolation, spending time alone without the distraction of the personality defenses. Through these seemingly opposite but complimentary methods, we can become more aware. Aware of who we are, by cutting away what we are not.
The first way, through friends, group work, and life itself, begins by watching the reactions of others to our actions, by asking our friends questions, and learning not to spin their answers. We can ask them to describe us, and through their eyes see something we were blind to. A group of our fellow seekers can serve as a reminder that we have a commitment to our search for definition, and that daily action must be taken. In this manner our friends become like alarm clocks or wake-up calls to keep us on track. Coupled with consciously facing the daily confrontation that comes from being engaged in life, we use these social tensions to become more aware.
To discover the ego-self and see it for what it is, we may need to be consciously engaged in interaction with life; in the workplace, at home, and in groups of our fellow seekers. These can act as mirrors, mirrors made of friends, held together through tension and compassion, showing us ourselves without the veil of false thinking brought on by fear and desire. Then, life itself becomes our teacher.
The psychologist Maurice Nicoll ran spiritual groups in England for many years, and never grew tired of telling his students of the advantages that come from group work:
“If you work on yourself long enough with increasing understanding, you will reach a higher level, however small, in yourself, and you will know at once that the Work is true. The door into this possibility is self-observation, that is, becoming more conscious of yourself, from what you are taught. One can begin to become more conscious of other people, and not only that, but one’s conception of the world in which one lives begins to change at the same time. The second line of work is extremely useful with regard to attaining more consciousness of ourselves through self-observation. As I said, men and women think they observe themselves already.
So, if you find a friend in the work, you should ask this friend to criticize you. This belongs to the second line. The result may be quite surprising. If you do not get negative, then you will begin to have more consciousness of what you are like. Some illusions of yourself may even be destroyed. But it is strong medicine.” - Maurice Nicoll
To practice confrontation in a group setting can help us begin to question our own thinking and perhaps show us where and how it came into being. This is often a shock, if we are honest. It can enable us to solve the puzzle of who we are by dis-covering our sense of self and how it is manufactured daily through experience. We learn to discriminate between rationalization and thinking, between projecting and observing. Our reason comes to be in the service of our search, rather than in the service of our fantasies.
Usually our thinking is just a means for us to pump up our sense of self, whether it's in a negative or positive sense. We look for self-pity or loathing to build up the self in a negative manner, and to grandiosity, superiority and judging others to pump it up in the positive sense. We seldom simply look at this self-creation, our individuality-sense, without quickly turning away. But look we must, for we need find out how and why we create this self, what it really is, before we can truly go against it. We learn to be honest, and learn to see things as they are.
If we come to find that our manifest desire is to maintain our sense of identity, we may also begin to question how and why we are engaged in spiritual work. Will we stop our search for truth if it becomes disagreeable or tense? Many so-called seekers will bolt and run when a group begins to reflect the truth about its members.
We alternate this with time spent alone. This also shows us what the ego-self is through the process of triangulation. If we begin to observe the self, it must happen from a vantage point superior to the self. By stalking the self through self-observation, and by getting away from the social survival programs by isolating ourselves from outside influences, the personality or self will slowly shut down. We can then begin to see the difference between what we are in silence and what we are in the noisy pattern of the self, perhaps finding or becoming something which is not the self or personality in the process. When we are free from social pressure, the personality is no longer of use, it ceases to exist so to speak, so what remains? Do you know this part of yourself?
If we take these practical steps to seeing our self through spiritual work, we may be able to find the differences between what are called the outer and inner Man. The outer Man will always be fooling the Inner Man, through using our thinking process to serve emotions of fear and desire. We will always be fooling ourselves as to what we really want, who we are, and how we see ourselves. The outer Man may be constantly coaxing us into distractions, security, money, and power in order to keep us from looking within at what our real questions are. We can thus live a life of constantly deceiving ourselves, with the outer Man and his experiences taken as the real and only world. This outer self may also fool us with the distractions of spiritual work, of avoiding life by hiding in a seekers' self-created dream of illusion, of the bliss and escape to come. Our attention is thus focused outward, on experience and the world. If we find the Inner Man, through our friends and from time spent in silence, we may find our real questions, and therefore find real answers. We will have transcended the trap of fooling ourselves with our dream-stories, our songs of 'self'. The voice of our intuition will have a chance to be heard instead, and to be valued.
The ego-self will fight this switch in value all the way, through our own thinking and misread emotions, even by hiding in a life of seeking, but it's the only way to real truth. With the help of group work to clear our thinking, and time spent alone to sharpen our intuition, we can begin the task of self-observation and of trusting the Inner Self, that still small voice within.
- Quotes of the Month -
" All miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone." - Pascal
" You are in a social circumstance as long as you still remember your last face-to-face confrontation or are under the influence of it. Your entire being is affected. This applies whether the confrontation was verbal or non-verbal. The point is that you have to become aware that as long as you are within eyeshot or earshot, you are constantly being affected by the internal condition of those around you. If they have no idea of their internal turmoil, then it is left for you to deal with - which is how most people get along. " - Jim Burns
" Many stand before the door, but is the solitary ones and those who have become simple who will enter the bridal chamber."
" Jesus said: If those who guide you assert: behold, the Kingdom is in the Heavens, then the birds are closer to it than you; if they say: behold, it is the sea, then the fishes know it already.... The Kingdom: it is within you and it is outside of you. When you know yourself, then you will be known and you will know that you are the children of the Father, the Living One; but if you do not know yourself, you are in the vain and you are vanity."- Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas, saying 75 and 3
" Embracing dispassion and thus desisting from all karmic activity, shying away from society, one should, thereafter, ever meditate upon the Self within oneself, in oneself, by oneself, - be aware of this." - AtmaSakshatkaraPrakaranam
" A spiritual retreat is where the seekers are seeking God. It is where God is seeking the seekers. It is the meeting place." - Sister Louise Dowgiallo
" Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them." - Albert Einstein
" I don't always know what I'm talking about but I know I'm right. " - Muhammad Ali
" Reality is nothing but a collective hunch."- Lily Tomlin
" If I really cared about what people thought of me, I would never leave my room." - Anon
" Did I do anything wrong today, or has the world always been like this and I've been too wrapped up in myself to notice?"
- Arthur Dent (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)
Copyright 2003 - 2005 Robert Fergeson. All Rights Reserved.