There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself —
— Emily Dickinson
Many of us may sense that we are afflicted with a basic deprivation. Through constraints of time and stress, we may find ourselves separated—as if by a glass wall—from nature, from others, and even from the silent enchantment of our own being.
In our distraction, we may have forgotten how fundamentally nourishing silence is to our souls. We may even disparage the contemplative impulse as a commitment to an utterly impractical calling. With little sense of eternity, we cannot imagine ourselves wasting time on a retreat.
Yet silence beckons when we gaze upon a loved one or a mountain until our concerns begin to vanish, our desires and ego thin to nothing, and our sense of where we end and our loved one or the mountain begins dissolves.
Retreat centers are finite infinities, sites of both private and collective solitudes. They open to us our infinite, most intimate universe: our soul. They nourish our visions. They shelter the most intimate textures of inmost silence. They allow us to dream and transcend in peace. Their nooks and corners offer themselves as centers of simplicity in dwelling. Sequestered securely within their folds, we experience the primitiveness of refuge. We feel safe to open to pure Being.
Amid the silence haunting oaken woods may await a chapel, a meditation cove, a yoga space, a teahouse. Here countless multitudes have gathered together in individual or centralized solitude. And if they tremble at all here, it is a shivering with Spirit.
In recent years, the number of our shelters of infinity has become more finite. San Lorenzo relinquished its retreat center functions. As did the two St. Mary’s. Mount Calvary, alone, continues hosting seekers. La Casa de Maria is in the planning stage of its reemergence.
These seemingly insignificant nooks and corners of our communities enhance all our lives. Even if we never visit them: unseen, they visit and protect us.
For they have been there for whoever had been without hope. For whoever had lost everything. For whoever was overflowing with praise. For whoever sought to dialog authentically with others. For whoever was seeking a vision. For whoever had loved each other so dearly that they sought to be joined together in holy union.
The tranquility of these sites proceeds from the peace souls have felt within themselves. An ancient yoga scripture observes that within the vicinity of a settled mind, hostile tendencies fall away. After all, in Nature, internally coherent systems repel incoherent influences. This is called the Meissner effect. The brain wave coherence of contemplatives produces a field effect. Brain wave coherence is also found in the EEG signatures of breastfeeding infants. This field extends beyond the contemplative just as a gravitational field extends beyond a planetary body. The field produces protective influences far outside the whole region. This wave of tranquility does not speak to us in the words of any particular creed. It speaks with us through silence. That silence is ourselves. Our very selves. Our souls.
Silence bestows upon us a blessed distance from the demands of the world. Community leaders gain the ability to comprehensively weigh the whole of a situation and to discover the importance of what before had seemed but insignificant detail. Individual hearts cease to strive toward things. The world—suddenly and mysteriously before our wondering eyes—unveils its eternal enchantment. We begin again to view even the simplest of things with fresh vision.
Contemplative silence transcends thought, allowing us to dwell outside time and space and think outside the box. This is how in the 1980s Michael Murphy’s Esalen Institute was able to accomplish what two nations’ politicians, spies, think tanks, and well-wishers could not: to get Soviets and Americans talking and relating to one another and to achieve the first strategic nuclear arms reduction accord.
Silence harmonizes thinking with the environment’s maximally evolutionary needs. Thus, the contemplative impulse is for action. For a heart given to timeless contemplation, the urgent demands of time begin to deepen and enliven silence, so that silence and activity, timelessness and time, begin to bow toward each other, to lose their boundaries, and to blend together into one evolutionary impulse of being.
Our community would do well to support our remaining retreats, which provide sacred spaces to protect and nourish our deepest souls. Even thinking just of ourselves, we find that in these sheltered niches resides our own highest good.
James N. Powell, who holds a master’s degree in religious studies from UCSB, is currently editing a translation of a Kashmiri treatise on 112 modes of meditation. See modeindigo.blogspot.com