Wild city // Making like a hermit

I go to a retreat center a few times a year. I stay in a hermitage and make like a hermit: no computer, no phone, no TV, no radio, no errands, no contact with the outside world of any kind.

What do I actually do with those days? Very little. Sometimes yoga, but aside from that, I hardly move. I am my own company. I sit and gaze out the window, or stretch out on the bed to daydream and nap.

I have felt a little sheepish about these retreats. In my family we placed a high value on work. When we called someone lazy, we meant it as the worst kind of insult. If you tell my parents you worked hard at your job and earned a raise, you gain their approval. We toiled every day as children, learning practical skills like cooking, housekeeping and gardening. My mother’s motto was, “Busy hands are happy hands.”

I have asked myself why I would need a retreat, given my present lifestyle. My workdays are spent alone at home, writing. I am not under the thrall of electronic devices. At our house we turn off the computer evenings and weekends. I do very little social networking online, and only recently got a cell phone, which I carry only in case of trouble. I knew the number once, but have forgotten it.

My mid-life stressors are not pressing on me right now. My parents, ages 77 and 81, are relatively healthy and living in their own home. Our daughter is deep into the demands of her sophomore year in college and needs us less and less. My husband’s lymphoma has receded; he was diagnosed three years ago and has not yet had to have treatment.

Hermitages are set up for people to do spiritual reading, mediate, listen to inspirational tapes and pray, but I mostly rest. Is that OK, I’ve wondered. It has felt so good that I’ve decided it is. Rest surely is good for the soul. I sit nibbling on snacks, and then raise my binoculars to better see a phoebe perched in a tree just outside my window.

I remember an autumn day on retreat when the most remarkable thing that happened dawn to dusk was when an oak leaf on a tree nearby separated from its node on a branch, fell away, and drifted to the forest floor. I watched it all the way down. That was it.

Ideas for writing do come to me in this quiet time, and I write some, so I guess I’m exaggerating the degree to which I do nothing. But not by much.

In recent visits to a hermitage I’ve been more aware of how these retreats affect my mind. We have so many thoughts flying around our brains all the time. When I sit still, the spinning slows, and the thoughts that have been whizzing by settle out one by one. I notice them, and welcome them.

Of course, there have been days on retreat when oppressive thoughts have taken over (worries about my husband’s health, for example), but I’ve gotten better at sitting with them for awhile and then setting them aside to make room for the stillness.

I am not a stranger to contemplative practices. I’m familiar with Quaker worship, Buddhist meditation, and centering prayer. When I talked to my husband recently about my retreats, he said he thinks what I am doing when I go away is a form of meditation, and he’s probably right, but my approach isn’t as purposeful as most spiritual disciplines. It involves worse posture and more snacks. I focus on enjoying my own company, and on listening to the shallows and depths of my mind and heart.

Remarkable things have happened which suggest I have tapped into a spiritual dimension, no matter how lazily. Time, once I rest a little, feels sweeping and unlimited. I notice changes in my body. My muscles let go their grip. I feel less confined, as if my very cells have more space around them. There are intervals when there is nothing anywhere but quiet delight and peace.

Then the refrigerator kicks in, and the sensation passes.

One night in the hermitage I was lying awake at four in the morning, pondering the nature of sleep. (Nothing, of course, is more likely to keep you awake than trying to understand what sleep is.) Finally I began to nod off, but as I did, I noticed my body dissolve into a cone of light. Then the light faded.

It wasn’t frightening. The transformation felt real. We die to the earth every night, and are reborn every morning. Once a day we are enlightened, and we don’t even know it.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.