The Solitude Project

A Quest for Solitude

Exploring solitude became the quest of a member of the MCWRET interfaith community whose lifetime professional career had been working with groups – academic, corporate and local – as a professor and consultant. An unexpected heart attack at fifty-three helped produce the spark that led to this quest.

The challenge of this Project is to do this exploration in a metropolitan setting rather than in isolation, in the midst of everyday suburban life rather than once a week or going on retreat or moving away.

The writings in this section provide a window into one person’s experience of exploring solitude, an example of an individual on a personal quest. An individual’s story of a quest is never just their story; it is universal.

Previously, a few of these writings were privately circulated simply to share with a few close people to let them know what was going on. Drawing attention to the project and circulating the writings more widely felt contrary to the spirit of the Solitude Project, much less giving lectures and workshops about it.

The internet, however, changed the equation and it became possible to contribute to individuals in communities around the globe. The hope is to encourage others to explore solitude on their own and to seek balance with their own communities.

In this section of the Solitude Project you will find several short writings that have grown from this project. These writings are shared here in the spirit of someone on a personal quest. Thoreau reminds us that we are all river travelers, finding our own ways. Carl Rogers tells us, “What is most deeply personal, is also most universal.”

In these writings you will hear the subjective voice of solitude, and hopefully an encouragement to continue with your own quest.

The first set of these articles tell how the Solitude Project began in a time of desperation and ambiguity. The setting and place of the story are described here along with a glimpse of a first personal experience of solitude.

● Listening to the River tells the story of the birth of the Solitude Project.

● The Life of a Babbling Brook takes place in the natural setting of the Project.

● The Velvet Garden relates the first experience of solitude.

Additional writings will be placed here periodically.

Listening to the River

The Quest Begins

Painting by Frederick Kensett: “Shrewsbury River, NJ 1859”

The waters of the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers converge at the eastern point of Firstlight Mountain. Fed by higher streams, the two rivers struggle for eight miles through tides, sandbars, marshes and hidden barges to find their way into Sandy Hook Bay. There they join the waters of larger rivers like the mighty Hudson which has worked its way through three hundred miles of turns and bends in its ancient journey from distant mountains. They all merge peacefully into the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

A DEEP RIVER flows within each of us.  There is a quiet side of our nature that thrives in the clear waters of solitude, muddied so easily by suburban life and a dedication to community and good causes.  Like many of us, listening to this river led me on a quest – a journey to discover and realize something deep within.

Ten years ago I began paying attention to my own unrelenting attraction to solitude. I was approaching Hwan-gap, my 60th birthday as they call it in Korea – the beginning of a new lifetime. Like a river flowing to the sea, I felt swept forward by strong currents of seeking solitude and deeply frustrated when I was deprived of it.  I soon found myself on an intense quest to understand and experience solitude and stillness.

Of course, I was eager to learn how others experienced this profound state of solitude.  Who were the people who really knew about it from their own direct experience?  These often turned out to be monks, artists, poets and wilderness writers – people who had actually spent time there.  One desperate afternoon I rearranged all the books in the house, trying intuitively to find the ones that could help me see through the thick fog of ambiguity about what I was doing.

The direction I seemed to be going felt very ambiguous and unclear and seemed contrary to so much I believed. One icy January morning, I sat alone in my car at Sandy Hook watching the moment of first light with the bright morning sun lighting up the coastal mountain where I live. I was trying to make some sense of my work by arranging scattered bits of writings and journal entries into a loose-leaf notebook.

I felt the intensity of the sun’s glare and my own frustration. Suddenly I sensed that I had begun some sort of journey.

I began to look for ways to deepen my own experience of solitude.  I invigorated my old practices of meditation and writing, and I discovered how they felt different in a natural quiet setting. These became my essential doorways into solitude.  I began to do the things that had been only at the margin of my life.

I found myself paying closer attention to the mountainside-seacoast natural environment where I lived: I began a daily practice of writing short descriptions of my surroundings. I soon realized how inadequate my academic style of writing was for understanding or describing the interior and exterior landscapes of solitude. My experience called for a more descriptive, poetic, mythic way of writing.

The whole writing process came to feel like cultivating a garden, a kind of spiritual practice that helped me focus and understand.  Writing became more like painting, when I edited I felt more like a sculptor seeking the true shape of uncut granite. The writing, as crude as it was, was the voice growing from the ground of solitude.

Being engaged in a project such as this becomes a spiritual expedition.  I was a pilgrim on a path that required me to be quiet enough to hear the deeper story of the place where I lived and had come from.  I sought to listen and be in communion with my dwelling place, to enter the vast Atlantic seascape where I live. It was in stillness that I learned to listen to the seascape and the mountain, to dig into the ground beneath, and to witness the real challenges of bringing solitude into everyday life. Solitude, I learned, is not so much of an achievement as a practice that is never finished.

I wondered if I should feel guilty about all this. Was I being selfish? What good is this for anyone else but me? I did fewer social events, pulled back from my teaching and consulting. The Solitude Project notebook began to document the continuing story of a quest for solitude on a mountain that had became more and more like a monastery to me as I spent more time here.  The loose-leaf arranged and re-arranged itself to illuminate the path I was on and to show the way ahead.  This writing notebook became a companion, teacher, touchstone, vehicle, Zen garden and meditation pillow in this quest.  It helped focus my attention on the journey.  I learned how others have described similar quests in works as ancient as the Chinese Ox Herding Pictures and as modern as the current methodology of heuristic inquiry.

Thoreau thought of life as a river.  We are river travelers, each of us sojourners following our own currents in the long voyage into the vastness of the great planetary sea.

I feel so grateful to other travelers for personally describing their own experiences of solitude.  The interior landscapes of meditation and solitude are challenging to investigate and convey in words.  There is a limited vocabulary.  Like other travelers, field notes and journals have provided the basis for describing my own experience.  I have been filled with joy to discover the rich writings of Thomas Merton, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Basho, Han-Shan and many other explorers who experienced this deep river and learned to navigate its currents.  I hope that sharing my work will encourage others to rediscover their solitude and ecological relatedness, and to follow the deep channels of their own quests.

RCS, The Solitude Project, May 2009 robertcharlessmithphd@gmail.com

The Life of the Babbling Brook

The Setting of the Solitude Project

THIS COASTAL MOUNTAIN with its twin-lighthouse is often the first sight of land for sailors approaching New York Harbor. It is the highest natural point along the two-thousand mile expanse of the Atlantic Seaboard from Maine to the Yucatan in Mexico.

The People first came here 10,000 years ago to hunt bison. They camped in the mighty oak forests by these streams and estuaries and feasted on oysters. It was from this high place the People watched the first light of the day rising from the revered Great Waters and warming the land. They held Vision Quests on this sacred highlands site and honored the grandfather spirit who lived in these hills.

Springs flowed like endless fountains from the dark inner chambers of the mountain. These were considered holy sites by our ancestors-in-place who led deeply religious everyday lives and understood the world through ancient ritual and symbols.

For thousands of years, the forest creatures and the people shared the same path on their daily visits to the nearby spring. On the banks of this stream, the life stories of countless generations of men and women and children unfolded.

Little did I realize what I would learn from this stream.

Part I: BIRTHPLACE

December 7, 2009 (Two Weeks till Winter) On the Path

Walking up the hillside bluff, with the dull roar of the ocean to my back, I pass a water spout where the ancient Lenni-Lenape People drank and where Henry Hudson’s crew came ashore to fill their wooden water caskets. At the top of the ridge I enter an oak forest filled with the leafy smells of late Autumn. Turning to my left I descend into a bowl-shaped hollow whose contours have been delicately revealed by last night’s dusting of snow.

The Source of Many Mind Creek, the babbling brook near my home, is only a short stroll down this side of the valley. These deep slopes of tall oaks and scrubby mountain laurel form a giant basin that collects much of the rainwater that falls on these hills. From these headwaters, cool fresh water springs forth. It has been purified and stored in the pockets of rock beneath the ridges and hills.

Pristine water oozes from the moss and roots of a giant oak like a nourishing gift from the mountain. A small wooden footbridge eloquently marks the birthplace. The headwaters gather speed and glisten as they tumble 150 feet down the south side of the deep hollow. Many Mind Creek has begun the journey of its life.

Soon there is a startling sequence of events. The stream loses its focus after ¾ of a mile.. It abruptly takes a hard right turn and starts to flow in a new direction. Then it renounces that mid-course correction by twisting right and heading westward for a half mile. At this point it turns again taking dead aim at the bay and streaming for another half-mile before bursting out onto a sunny beach. It is a dramatic and quirky ride!

The first English settlers noticed the Creek’s eccentric behavior as they built cottages along its path. They observed its dramatic two mile lifespan from mountain source to ocean merging. The stream certainly did keep changing its mind along the way, so they decided to name it Many Mind Creek.

Today I came here to follow up on an ancient conversation between a student monk and a Zen Master. It took place around 870 AD on a path near a Buddhist monastery in a remote mountain area in southeast China.

Monk: Where can I enter Zen?

Master: Can you hear the babbling brook?

Monk: Yes, I can hear it.

Master: Then enter there.

This time of year the monks would have been observing Ango, a two-thousand-year-old annual Buddhist practice. During the rainy season the monks would cease their traditional wandering and settle in for an intense period of study and meditation until the rain stopped. If the monks had lived here, the stillness of winter would have offered them some of the deep sense of vastness and clarity they valued. The creek’s flow would have taught them about change and impermanence. The many-minds of the creek would have reminded them how their own “many-minds” tried to chatter away during the quiet of their zazen meditation practice.

During this Ango I have decided to continue this venerable dialogue to see where it leads. For me, “listening to the babbling brook” means paying attention to the flow of nature. There’s nothing more flowing than water. This place is a natural portal to solitude for me.

These headwaters are a perfect place to listen and enter the flow. The murmuring brook is a sound of silence – you must be very quiet to hear it. Listening is flowing.

Solitude seems to grow well in this season of quiet. In winter, snowy forests become spacious sanctuaries with the stillness of a remote monastery. In this solitude I feel the flow. I must follow the stream.

I fill a clear glass carafe with the cold creek water. I want to take something tangible home as a reminder about the flow during the winter.

January 7 (18th Day of Winter) On the Path

I walk beside the brook as it flows through the quiet winter landscape. Many Mind wanders through a neighborhood thick with homes and backyards. It passes under streets and intersections and gurgles past apartments and businesses and parking lots. At points it sinks into oblivion among tall reeds and old diversion channels. Parts of the creek become visible in winter without the usual thick screen of undergrowth.

It takes less than a half day to walk from the Creek’s source to the finish. Much of this time is spent confronting side streets with dead ends and fences and muddy swamps. Walking is a fragmented experience rather than a flowing whole. At home, my glass vessel holds water from the babbling brook, but not its flow.

January 21 (32nd Day of Winter) At the Headwaters

I return to the Creek’s source once again on this blustery winter morning. My footsteps in the frozen forest echo as I enter the hush of an empty natural amphitheater.

The creek babbles as the blasts of wind roar overhead through the towering branches of the great oaks. Something twirling catches my eye and lands on a small mountain laurel beside the path. It is a feather, a sturdy one whose quill is longer than my hand, probably from one of the fish hawks soaring around this mountain coastline in winter and nesting far above.

I imagine how this rugged feather could sail all the way down to the sunny beach at the mouth of the Creek. What a glorious adventure that would be! Humans just weren’t the right size for taking a trip on this creek in its present state. I impulsively place “Lone Feather” into the stream, as a way to follow the life of Many Mind Creek.

The moment ends abruptly. After only a few yards in the stream, the feather snags in a tiny sand island formed by the exposed roots of a small holly tree. But soon, thanks to the ever-flowing current, it clears its first hurdle. Lone Feather has begun its quest.

Part II: THE MORASS

January 22 (33rd day of Winter) On the Path

It didn’t take long to realize what a harebrained idea it was to send Lone Feather on this convoluted voyage full of diversions, detours and blockages. As it limps along downstream it will be caught in the muddy eddies and marshy grasses, becoming deteriorated and frail.

This gloomy prognosis becomes more troubling when I learn that the Lenni-Lenape called the Creek “Cu-pa-nick-i-nu”, “obstructed stream”. Further explorations downstream reveal a morass of thickets that could clog the flow as effectively as the blockages doctors found in my coronary arteries. Many Mind Creek and I both had some challenges and distractions. My own social claustrophobia helped me know the feeling of being snared by entanglements.

Was it a frivolous waste of time to walk these empty woods, sending an innocent feather down the cluttered stream? Running deep in my veins are the Protestant work ethic and Methodist social activism. But in recent years I have followed my decision to live a life with more solitude and flow. For me this has meant paying closer attention to the nature around me, and having fewer social involvements. This intentional choice has transformed and enriched my life. It has encouraged me to explore our fuller spectrum of connections to our natural surroundings.

January 30 (41st day of Winter) On the Path

During the long winter chill, I have been accompanying Many Mind on its journey to the sea by visiting points along the way. Downstream, the first change of direction brings the creek into grassy marshes full of muddy cul-de-sacks and sad accumulations of litter. Here, in the creek’s middle age, the flow is sluggish and stagnant and full of detours from the flowing current.

At home, the carafe of creek water rests peacefully on my window sill. It gathers into itself the vast background of ocean and sky and delicately glows in blue luminescence.

Part III. LIBERATION

February 15 (57th day of Winter) The Merging Place

This bright winter morning I walk further downstream to where the Great Merging begins. This is the place where Many Mind Creek’s fresh water begins to merge with the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean. We are entering a new reality, where life begins to dramatically change.

It is an ignoble spot. After struggling through the swampy land behind the Foodtown and the dark lifeless channels buried underneath Route 36, Many Mind comes dripping out of a large concrete drain partially clogged by wet leaves and debris. For half a century, a small coal-tar processing plant operated here polluting the stream with contaminants.

But the mood quickly lightens. Two pairs of ducks happily bob around in a sunny stretch between a pair of small wooden bridges. Soon we arrive at the spot on the stream where Lenape families once gathered to cook and eat together, discarding so many oyster shells that the white deposits still remain.

It is a strange Alice in Wonderland world where old rules of reality are turned upside down. New forms of life begin to appear out of the nourishing waters, and some even sit by the stream making croaking sounds.

The flow of the creek reverses direction and falls under the irresistible spell of the inhaling and exhaling tides. With the regularity of monastic bells, a still point is reached four times a day when the currents are temporarily balanced.

Something big is about to happen.

March 20 (last day of winter – 1st day of Spring) Many Mind Creek Beach, 9:30 am

On this small sandy beach Many Mind completes its two mile lifetime of twisting and turning, going forward and reverse. It has grown to fifteen feet wide as it flows out of the tall grasses and enters this sunny space.

This winter I have witnessed the birth, a lifetime of diversions, and now the final moment of Many Mind Creek. The stream has become a living flowing organism to me.

Maybe even Lone Feather will someday complete its voyage, as frayed and worn-out as any of us would be after the long journey downstream. Dead-ends and detours would have distracted us, but the water just keeps flowing and moving us along.

The creek is temporarily swept clear by yesterday’s storm. The downpour in the steep hills to the east has sent rainwater surging downstream while the storm tide has rushed in from the bay.

Many Mind meanders across the beach to become part of the Great Waters again. A soft loitering breeze brings moist warmth to my face and tells me that the creek is becoming rainwater again. It is beginning another cycle of flow from Source to Source.

Namaste, Many Mind Creek. And goodbye, Lone Feather, wherever you are.

March 21st (2nd Day of Spring) Many Mind Beach, 6:47 am

I awake with a vivid scene in my mind. A single feather appears in a blaze of sunlight and a crescendo of fluttering gulls. It flows into an ocean that sparkles like joy itself.

*******************************************

To trace the history of a river or a raindrop…is also to trace the history of the soul.

– Gretel Ehrlich

RCS, The Solitude Project, May, 2010 robertcharlessmithphd@gmail.com

The Velvet Garden

The Discovery of Solitude

A SWEET APPALACHIAN BREEZE sweeps the scent of green apples up the hillside as dandelions glitter and bright wildflowers dance in the grass. It is the May-time of 1947 and the sun wanders down into the prim little town tucked into a Blue Ridge mountain world of waterfalls, crystalline lakes and craggy peaks. The arched wooden door and amber glass windows mark the tidy short-steepled Methodist church, nestling on the side of the hill. The bulletin board on the sloping church lawn announces “Sunday Service – 11 AM. Sunday Night Prayer Service – 7 PM. Rev. C. Moody Smith. Pastor.“

Inside the white clapboard structure, I am a happy five-year old squirming my way through the hidden passageways of a world that I will soon lose. Invisible, I crawl beneath a long brown pew into a labyrinth of other massive benches that become a forest of fallen logs. Each bench is cushioned and enclosed on both ends like a huge cradle. As I crawl my way up, down, through and under the benches endless forest trails reveal themselves.

I work my way back through the fallen trees to the outer edge of the realm. Climbing up from the floor of the forest I stand on the seat of the back pew, its tall wooden backrest focusing attention on the front of the sanctuary. I am a king surveying my magic kingdom.

Another barefoot journey across the velvety moss of the forest floor brings me upfront to higher ground. The carpeted aisle flows like a deep red river down here to the front of the wooden sanctuary. The stream of burgundy flows on beyond the cushioned kneeling pads past the fence-like railing which separates the log forest from the high clearing. There a tall pair of heavily upholstered chairs face out onto the large open space like twin lighthouses anchored solidly on a hill facing the Ocean.

On the left of this elevated area, I reach to touch the smooth piano keys and delight as round tones fill the air before vanishing into a realm turned golden by sunlight through the stained glass.

A raised altar in the center is adorned with a richly textured altar cloth on which polished metal objects glow softly. The ancient book lays open displaying black and red text and to the side a wall plaque lists hymn numbers. In the middle of the whole elevated altar area, a mighty wooden pulpit rises like a stone castle before a swirling sea.

Faint echoes of a distant barking dog drift in with the lazy warm afternoon air. From the minister’s study comes a murmur of quiet talk and the clatter of a typewriter finishing the Sunday Order of Service. Then the pure silence returns again to this hidden forest. I nest in deep velvet beneath the high canopy of this hidden forest. It is an empty space, full of quietness. Except for the few minister’s children who discover this quiet playground in an empty church sanctuary, this silent domain is hardly known.

On Sundays, the mid-week calm quickly vanishes into a colossal mountain thunderstorm blowing in with blustering winds and sheets of rain from every direction. Squirmy kids in starched Sunday clothes, suited men and ladies in large hats swarm about the place like flocks of chattering birds.

Our voices fill the realm with the mighty hymn “The Church is One Foundation”, making this sturdy building feel even safer. During the moments for “quiet prayer and meditation”, the “storm” subsides. And at communion there is a hush as people walk forward and kneel on the long thick altar cushions, elbows resting on long wooden railings.

My father, calm in flowing black robes moves quietly from one person to the next whispering “this is the body of Christ, this is the blood of Jesus” as he offers a golden plate with square bread cubes and a silver tray holding the delicate thimble sized glasses of grape juice he carefully fills before the service.

During these quiet moments, I am sometimes surprised to open my eyes and find myself in a room full of people. But when the congregation is gone, the spacious emptiness returns.

My life is dawning in a quiet velvet garden. But soon, the silence will be lost, leaving only a trace waiting to be re-discovered.

  RCS, The Solitude Project, May 2009  robertcharlessmithphd@gmail.com 

The Solitude Project

An Experiment in the Ecology of Solitude.  The introduction to the project.

The Ecology of Solitude

Section 1: Map out your solitude.  Find the right balance between your inner nature and your outer concerns.

Continuing the Quest

Section 3: Go here for a number of ways to explore solitude in particular religious, ethical or cultural traditions……