The Quest for Solitude and Silence
Hubert Robert, A Hermit Praying in the Ruins of a Roman Temple, c. 1760
From Literary Review:
One withdraws to a religious, or religious-adjacent, retreat to have one’s ‘physical, emotional or spiritual integrity restored’, he notes. Therefore integrity in one’s mentors is key: ‘Any whiff of exploitation or inauthenticity and the deal is off.’ Unfortunately, the spiritual wellness industry is notoriously full of sharks. At California’s famous Esalen Institute, he meets tech tycoons and real-estate brokers searching for meaning in expensive, jargon-filled courses; at an ashram in India, one visitor derides the instructors as ‘spiritual leeches’ taking advantage of other people’s credulity.
Segnit is at his most withering when describing the embrace of mindfulness and meditation by the corporate world. Their effectiveness in reducing stress and anxiety improves staff retention and productivity, but their use in this way is a ‘distortion’ of Buddhist values and they work only by inducing ‘a level of passivity in the workforce’. A practice ‘designed to demonstrate the transience of all material things’ has been co-opted in ‘service of the profit motive’.
He learns to quiet his flailing mind, to accept and coexist with physical discomfort, and to let go of ego. He allows his boundaries to dissolve, to let time slip by unremarked. And yet there is a problem at the heart of this book: this cosmic blankness, after the first ecstatic glimpses, becomes more and more difficult to impart or to render on the page.
Time after time, Segnit meets the most skilled practitioners, the most enlightened minds on the planet, and time after time they fail to find the words. Early on we are introduced to Sister Nectaria, an elderly nun who has lived at a remote monastery on a Greek island since the age of eleven. She is, says Segnit, ‘a living, breathing, invocation of god’. But she finds his questions irritating, or invasive, or beside the point. Later, we meet Tenzin Palmo, a British woman formerly known as Diane Perry who spent twelve years meditating alone in a cave in the Himalayas. ‘I hardly remember any of it,’ she insists. ‘At the time it seemed very ordinary.’
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, God exists beyond knowledge and can only be described in terms of what He isn’t. This is apophasis, Segnit tells us, ‘the language of the unsayable’. Meditation, mindfulness and the deepest forms of prayer appear to exist beyond knowledge, too – or at least beyond words. For what is more uncommunicable than the voiding of thought?