Silence, Solitude, Simplicity
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
It was one of those wild winter days that remind one of the children’s book Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day. The temperature had dropped precipitously, and a strong, gusty wind had roared down out of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains, drenching the area in a cold rain. During a break in the precipitation, I set out on one of my daily “yomps”. I prefer the British military term yomping to hiking or sauntering.
Along the way, I halted for long moments to listen to the song of the wind buffeting the treetops in a nearby stand of evergreens. There is no sound more exhilarating than that of wind among treetops. I wondered how often people in our bustling, multi-tasking, high tech world stop to listen to the wind, probably all too few, a sad state of affairs given that silence is vital to the health of the spirit. The Psalmist advises, “Be still and know that I am God,” and Jesus himself often wandered off alone to pray on the shores of Galilee or among the Judaean wastes.
Stillness implies far more than an absence of external noise, as necessary as that is, suggesting another silence, that of turning off the tap, dialing down the volume on the continual deluge of dialogue and monologue, witticisms, resentments, anxieties, frets, worries, regrets and dissatisfactions.
Not wishing to have my inner peace invaded, I have always made it a rule to ignore the clanging phone, the uninvited knock at the door. Uninvited callers are either determined to sell me something or convert me, their efforts leading to exhausted energies and dashed hopes. Shutting down the outer monologue in order to preserve the inner one sometimes requires determination and an iron will.
While pausing in inner and outer silence to watch the wind in the treetops that day, my reverie was pleasantly interrupted by the scree of a large red tail hawk who swooped low over my head and roosted on a lofty branch until his mate arrived to join him in a series of aerial pirouettes. For long minutes, I observed them whirling and pivoting overhead, sending their joyous cries reverberating among the rooftops. Had I been trapped in an overheated room, glued to a computer or TV screen, I would have missed this crystal moment. Inner stillness is a prerequisite for such an experience.
Solitude is not loneliness, not necessarily even alone-ness. One can cultivate inner solitude and be at one with oneself even in a crowd or a traffic jam. And yet, some distance between oneself and the chatter and clatter of one’s fellows is vital over the long haul. Thoreau went to the woods in order to reduce life to its essentials and see what it had to teach. Thomas Merton has much to say on the subject. “Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.”
Anne Morrow Lindberg found the shell of a whelk that had washed ashore on her island retreat to be a perfect symbol of the inner solitude she sought. She had gone there to find herself. If we must find ourselves, then perhaps we have lost ourselves. Hectic, manic, multi-tasking busy-ness is generally the culprit that fosters stress and anxiety and underpins one’s alienation from self. Merton again says, “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?”
Gearing up for a wilderness backpacking adventure serves as a metaphor for life. An item that weighs a few ounces while preparing for the trip will weigh many pounds after a few miles on a rugged backcountry trail. Everyone requires the basics: Food, water, clothing, shelter, fire. Anything else is extraneous. While preparing for a wilderness sojourn on Michigan’s North Manitou Island, after too many years of being mired in civilization, I laid out all my supplies on my patio and found them excessive. There were, of course, necessities, tent, sleeping bag, backpacker’s stove, propane tank, a few extra items of clothing, rations for ten days, stainless steel cup, bowl and spoon (anything that can be eaten can be eaten with a spoon). I eliminated my treasured pair of binoculars as too heavy and my machete, since fires were illegal on that wilderness island anyway. Reduce your gear to the basics. Unnecessary items will drag you down into the nether regions. Whether wandering among western peaks or northern forests, I have known the wisdom of keeping the sticks and pieces of one’s life to a minimum.
What if, I often ask others, one knew that agents of the Gestapo, the KBG, the Inquisition were to arrive at any moment to whisk one off to a darkened dungeon, never to be seen or heard from again? How many electronic devices, how many items of heavy furniture would you burden yourself with on your way out the window?
There were pioneer women who, contemplating the trek along the westward trails to unknown destinations in California or Oregon, refused to heed the advice wiser heads, were unable to imagine a life in the golden West without great-grandfather’s half ton oaken bureau or Aunt Bertha’s collection of antique pickle castors. As overburdened mules and oxen neared the western mountains, those “treasures” were of necessity cast aside to molder away under the onslaught of wind and rain, convenient targets for the arrows of disgruntled Indians.
So it is with attics, garages and basements that serve as repositories for life’s clutter, requiring transportation to the next attic, garage and basement whenever one is required to relocate. In the end, all the junk is passed on to one’s heirs, who, if they are wise, immediately offload it into donation boxes or the local landfill.
To minimize or simplify is an easy task. I was once privileged to move from a three bedroom, three bathroom house into a single room with a single small closet in park ranger quarters. I cast off everything that didn’t fit. Given my almost congenital intolerance for clutter, it was a most liberating experience, and I never missed a single item, not even among the almost 3000 books I parted with. I retained Thoreau, Lindbergh and Merton.
Go forth in silence, solitude and simplicity. What you leave will be superfluous. What you find will be yourself. You will be blessed by the music of the spheres as the wind sings among the treetops. You may even meet a pair of beautiful hawks.