Saturday, June 25, 2005

Silence is golden

This is adapted from the The Observer, Sunday June 12, 2005.

When Greta Garbo said: 'I want to be alone', it sounded like a spoilt joke. Nowadays, tap the word 'retreat' into Google and an astonishing number of options appear: Christian, Buddhist, Zen, Sufi, New Age. The desire to find peace and solitude, according to the British Retreat Association, has never been so strong.

Why the need to get away from it all? And why now more than ever? According to Will Hutton, chief executive at the Work Foundation, research shows that for many people the message is: 'I don't want to give my all to employers. I want some part of me that's mine.' They want flexible hours - and time out. Hutton believes there is a growing number looking for 'inner calm'. He thinks it significant that hits on the foundation's website on work/life balance have more than quadrupled in two years.

Adam Phillips, the pyschoanalyst and writer, is not surprised by the growing popularity of retreats: 'People are aware of having too many external stimuli. What do you hear when you stop listening? The question is about whether anyone has an internal world any more.'

Mobile phones make us incessantly - often pointlessly - available. (How would Wordsworth have got on wandering lonely as a cloud with a mobile ringing in his pocket?) We are noise junkies, equipped to communicate 24/7. Not surprisingly, the British Retreat Association is extending its annuual National Quiet Day to cover the whole of next weekend.

I have been amazed to discover how many people I know have been on retreats but never mentioned them. Retreats are not like summer holidays. They are not a subject for small talk. Besides, silence resists words. One of my friends summed up a general feeling: 'We are endlessly reactive. Even people whose lives seem very successful are asking, "Where is the silence in this? Where is the space to confront mortality or who you are?"'

Caitlin is a full-time mother of three boys (aged three to 10). With the prospect of seven weeks of summer holidays ahead in sole charge of them, she knew what she needed. She needed it in the way that you suddenly need to throw open a window in an airless room. She told her husband: 'I have got to have five days to myself.' She had been getting really bad tempered. 'I was starting to crave being on my own in an almost obsessive way. Time alone is important. People are scared to take it or feel it is self-indulgent. It didn't feel self-indulgent to me at all. It felt like a priority - and it wasn't that I was cracking up.'

She took 'five squeezed-out days' in Cornwall. It was the first time she had been on her own for more than 10 years. How did it get to 10 years? she wondered as she travelled down to Cornwall. She resolved not to talk to anyone (except buying tickets etc). She rented a cottage with a view of the sea, 'a beautiful little spot that I came upon'. And she chose to do things that might have been unpopular with her family. She hired a bike (her husband hates cycling). She read for hours. She went for long walks along the coast. She did not bother to cook. She ate fruit and yoghurt. She got up when it suited her.

Before she left, she was apprehensive: 'Who am I under all this chaos?' She need not have worried. She loved the sense that 'no one knew where I was; it was very liberating'.
She switched off her mobile. There was no television. She was rejuvenated, although: 'I didn't feel like some wisp of a lass. I felt mature - I am nearly 40 - cycling uphill. I didn't care what people thought. The neighbours were curious. I was polite to them, but I wasn't about to chat. I felt this was more important than going away with my husband. I have a happy, loving family life but I didn't miss them at all. I didn't feel in the least bit guilty; I felt I deserved it.'

Adam Phillips says that the hope [in retreats] is that 'silence is unmediated contact with the self that brings you closer to authenticity'. He thinks: 'Words are often a way of not listening, talking a part of one's armour.' For many people, retreat is to do with 'a disillusionment about the value of communication, despair about relationship'.

[...]When I lay down, realising that absolutely nothing was required of me, that I was not about to be interrupted, I felt an unexpected wave of relief and tears sprang to my eyes.

I found a swing that hung from a tree among the rhodedendrons at the furthest margin of the garden. I sat on it, feeling unburdened, unreal, light as a child. I thought about haste. Does it help you get more done? I spent the afternoon looking out on a wild orchard. It was wonderful to feel that no one knew where I was. Wordsworth could have prepared me for it:

When from our better selves we have too long/ Been parted by the hurrying world,
and droop/ Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,/ How gracious, how
benign, is solitude.

I closed my eyes. When I opened them, it did not immediately strike me that there was an absolute suitability in what I was staring at. It was hiking gradually towards the long grass, its shell as queerly tilted as an ill-advisedly chosen hat. A snail.

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