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