Twenty years ago, in search of some change, some shift, some peace and perspective, I found myself onboard the little ferry that runs daily from Ouranoupoli along the rocky hills of the Greek coastline to the dock at Dafni on the peninsula of Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain. To step ashore, two things are needed: permission from the Athonite authorities and manhood. It may seem anachronistic and divisive today, but for more than 1,000 years Athos has been a men-only zone, a precinct set aside for contemplation and seclusion, where all normal social relations are left behind.
As soon as the little boat dropped us few ‘pilgrims’ (a status to which my authorisation papers had elevated me) on the quay – after the commotion of monks arriving, leaving and greeting one another, of luggage and supplies being loaded and unloaded by men in robes and tremendous beards – we set off up a dirt track into the evergreen forest that covered the slopes. Immediately, it seemed, the world went quiet. Under the dappled shade of the trees, a calm, an ease stretched away into the depths of the woods. It felt like the air itself was made of rest – as if this place, hidden away from the world, sanctified by centuries of thought and quiet, had a different atmosphere, which right away caused something inside a person to relax.
To be sure, Mount Athos is a special place, sequestered from the world of commerce and clock time and news, and free of cars, engines, the sound of motors (at least back then). Its dirt tracks are traversed by donkeys and people. And it’s beautiful, with dry hills rising into pine glades carpeted with generations of softened needles under foot and the great rock of mountain itself above, glowing and luminous at sunset.
Something in us knows when we need rest. To turn aside from our routines, to be and do less, is necessary to our wellbeing. All through the ages people have found ways of leaving the demands of life for a while and tending to other things: gardening, strolling, needlework, watercolours, diary-writing. Without activities that give us pause and reflection, a shift in perspective, we can get out of balance and lose our way. But occasionally some of us are called to take it a step further. Usually this has meant going somewhere. Off into the mountains, to an island or desert. Around 2,400 years ago when Siddhartha Gautama (aka the Buddha) famously decided to pursue his noble quest, his search for unshakeable peace of mind, his first step was to leave the palace where he had grown up (which, in spite of its many pleasures, had not provided contentment). Instead, he donned plain robes and headed out with a bowl to beg for his food. In time he made his way into the forests, to isolate himself in remote huts or among the buttress-like roots of giant ficus trees. Here he found the quiet needed to enter deep contemplative absorption, in which he could investigate his true identity. The fruits of that search are still with us, as Buddhist practices such as the cultivation of mindful awareness have spread throughout Asia and beyond, even into mainstream western culture today.
Of all the reasons to travel, there is perhaps none so wholesome as the urge to get away and be alone; to seek a place apart – from life, work, family, worldly commitments. The allure, the promise, the glamour of the open road is, in part, always the idea of some happier sense of who we might be, of a deeper self residing within, just out of sight. Over the brow, down the dusty road, I may become who I really am, I might taste more fully what is now barely a whiff on the wind and know myself completely and find an intrinsic fulfilment.
We may be social creatures, yet there are ways of being alone that are necessary for us to flourish. In spite of its non-utilitarian appearance, seclusion and the inward journey can be of paramount importance. From it have come some of our most cherished cultural inheritances: religions, philosophies and the ethical foundations of our world.
In the late 19th century, a young cavalry officer decided he was sick of his dissipated life as a wealthy Parisian bon vivant and left for the Sahara. Where mountains or forests are not to hand, the desert has been the natural home of contemplatives. Moses, Jesus, the early church fathers in Egypt and Palestine all took themselves into the parched wilderness, where they expanded their visions of what life could be. Père Foucauld (as the young officer would become known) retreated into the Hoggar Mountains, an area of utmost remoteness in southern Algeria, inaccessible and incomparably beautiful, where he built himself a stone hermitage. He inspired the founding of a small Catholic order. One of its later followers, the Italian Carlo Carretto, titled his autobiography I Sought and I Found. In other words, like Foucauld before him, Carretto’s inward search in the vast silence of the desert also had a successful conclusion.
This is one of the aspects of deep seclusion: the bulletins sent back from those who enter it are overwhelmingly positive. ‘You go up de mountain two-three year,’ a rasta musician once told me in Trinidad, ‘is a next man coming back down again.’ Meaning: another man, a changed man. You will become something else, something better. I met him in his bush camp in Trinidad’s Northern Range, living off crabs and fish caught from the rocks, and yams and ‘herb’ grown in his garden, palpably a person at peace with himself.
Apparently if we commit ourselves to a contemplative journey, with a bit of luck and the right circumstances, there is a good chance of finding something worth the effort. Whether we call it God, the True Self, Jah, or the Selfless, or simply ‘optimal mental health’, seclusion of all types seems to yield benefits proportional to its depth and duration. The reasons given for this may vary according to tradition, but by and large all forms of deliberate solitude involve some kind of practice, some method for learning to control our unruly minds, so they stop moving endlessly from thought to thought, like a monkey grabbing one branch after another as it swings through the treetops (in one traditional Buddhist simile). Instead, we learn to stand still like a deer, watchful for whatever is arising, silent, attentive and aware.
It can be a wonderful thing to taste this inner stillness. The nervous system goes into its parasympathetic mode, the state of ‘rest and digest’, and we start to see the possibility of an inner fulfilment that is not conditional on outside circumstances. The state of being itself, without any need to do anything at all, can become intrinsically interesting and rewarding. In time it may change our priorities and the way we orient ourselves in life, away from our old agendas of self-protection and self-promotion towards something more generous and open-hearted. At least, that’s the promise.
Once an assignment took me into the Sahara, and on our way south we got marooned by sandstorms in the small city of In Salah, halfway to the Hoggar Mountains. A group of Egyptian doctors generously put us up in their compound. We learned that they were mostly having a hard time, after being lured into Algeria by fat contracts with salaries that turned out to be non-transferable into foreign currency and were therefore virtually useless to them. But one of them glowed with an inner radiance. Each evening, dressed in white robes, he would perform his nightly prayers, then sit at a table in the yard sipping mint tea and playing chess under the soft night sky. He talked about the freedom of being in ‘God’s garden’ – namely the desert. The one place ‘God left bare so He would have somewhere to go by Himself.’ This is the place, he told us, where you meet God, and he gestured around at the hundreds of miles of solitude receding into the night, his shining face surely suggesting that he had indeed encountered something.
The mountains of the Sahara rise like avant-garde architecture; towering rocks of blue shade, jagged blades of burning orange stone, a spectacular show of bare planetary bones. They are enough to excite awe in the most shuttered heart. But you don’t actually have to go so far afield to find inner solitude. A bedroom in an apartment during the daytime will suffice. All it takes is to sit on a cushion or chair and either close the eyes or gaze at a bare wall, letting the mind settle into the oceanic rhythms of the breath.
When Michel de Montaigne gave up public life in the courts of 16th-century France, he secluded himself in a tower on his estate. There, in isolation (more or less: he had two valets, a butler, and his wife and children in the big house nearby), he produced his famous essays, the reflections of a man struggling to understand his mind, his character, himself. Franz Kafka said: ‘You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.’
Some say we come with our own in-built vastness, and if we just settle ourselves enough, we may find that all we seek is already here. This very moment, just as it is, has hidden treasures.
But many of us will go off in search of seclusion regardless.
As soon as I had hiked across the isthmus of Mount Athos to Iviron Monastery all those years ago, I got sick and spent three days in bed. It was marvellous. My room had a lofty ceiling and a wobbly balcony with a view over the vegetable garden down to the rocky coastline. A portly monk brought a tray of lemon rice and mint tea once a day, and every few hours there would be a ringing of bells and the whispering of footfalls in the broad corridor outside as the brothers went to their offices in the chapel. I floated in and out of sleep, sequestered from the demands of the world, feeling strangely safe.
After my recovery, I was walking up the mountain one day when a monk came hurrying towards me, dressed in rags. What had once been robes were tattered strips impregnated with dust hanging from his shoulders. I smelled him some way off, a rich bovine aroma. Plates of what looked like caked mud shook about his head as he approached and I realised it was hair matted into dreadlocks. His face was like hide, grimy with dust, lined with brown sweat trails, and the wild beard covering his chest had become a single bristling sheet of clay.
I stepped aside. He stopped and stared at me, his eyes sparkling like sun on water. They positively shimmered with inner light. It didn’t feel like a person looking at me, more like a bright ocean. I experienced a blast of a sensation like love in my chest and I saw my path in life more clearly. There was something to be found and I knew I had to pursue it – the only way for me was meditation. I had been practising for a decade by then, but my commitment had been faltering. That brilliant light in his eyes was all it took to convince me to resume my daily practice, which has never fallen off (so far).
He looked like an old rasta from the hills of west Jamaica, but I found out later that several monks had been living in caves near the summit for years, and he was likely one of them. Even within the seclusion of Holy Mountain you could find yet deeper solitude. And what it could open up in a human being perhaps only those who are called to try it will ever really know. But it sure looked good.
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