” Inside me I am rock, desert rock and shadow. Inside me there is quiet, almost silence. I turn my back on the world to retreat to the cave within listening to the desert stirrings of my mind. …I seek a cleft in the rock like an animal, a gopher or marmet. I retreat from the clamour and business that surrounds me with a great weariness and longing for the dark, I seek a cleft in the rock with my back to the world.”
I wrote that in my diary earlier this year. Sometimes I feel the same way especially as autumn unfolds. When I think of rock I often think of sandstone, deserts, gorges – a gorge I walked through on the island of Crete some years ago. For some reason rock and clefts in rock have a certain meaning for me. Perhaps it is a need to retreat, hide, seek shelter from the world for a bit.
There’s something special about rock and solitude. I think of a chapter in the book Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert by Terry Tempest Williams. She writes about walking barefoot in the Utah desert to Druid Arch and feels akin to the rock:
“I wonder what it means to be human and why, at this particular moment, rock seems more accessible and yielding than my own species.”
I googled rock cleft and disovered that there is a spiritual meaning to it in the Bible. According to Exodus 33 Moses hid himself in a rock cleft, a place of refuge, from the full face of the “Almighty” and this has come to mean he was in the body of Christ. I’m neither religious nor Christian but this is interesting nevertheless. Another website mentions that the “cleft of rock” represents the falsities of faith, the material superficialities. In a nutshell I think it means one needs to have internal faith and not rely on the external trappings of faith. Whatever it may mean universally, for me it probably means I need to turn within.
Back in late October 2014 I did a solitary retreat in the Catalonian hills at a place called Ecodharma. Now I find myself questioning my desire to retreat.
I was alone and wanted to be alone with nature. I stayed in a little hut submerged in trees, the dwarf oaks of that mountainous part of Spain. It resided in shadow and looked out pensively with a cautious eye of shade. It was very basic. I was curious to know how I’d find being alone with just the basic necessities. I tried to settle myself, find a routine to anchor my days but still allowing my thoughts to drift. I took to wandering and found a rocky ledge beneath the pink cliffs overlooking the valley that I called Yoga Rock as it was where I did yoga beneath the sun. Each day I took out my sketch pad and binoculars and sat there, lost in thought, vacant as the valley air. In the cabin I would write at the table and look out on the woods, glimpsing the blue valley beyond. As night fell outside, fast and black, the sky and stars were masked by the silohetted trees and there were no lights in the valley; I felt very alone but very tranquil.
Now I wonder whether solitude and this sparse natural place are what I needed and wanted or something else. To be somewhere far from home and away from stress, perhaps yes, but to be alone? And with nature? I wonder; sometimes there’s a stigma to retreating from people. Perhaps I needed people with whom I had a sense of belonging, or perhaps I needed to completely turn my back on the world.
At the cabin I sat inside beside the roaring woodburner and closed my eyes. It felt good to be still and enclosed – contained. Inside me there was a terrain of rock, valley, cave and garden. I needed to follow the path within. I went to this solitary retreat in Spain to be with nature in the hills, to try the Buddhist way, but learnt that my way is not the way of emptiness and void although Buddhists say they go to “take refuge”. Nature too is not enough. And sometimes the need for solitude and darkness is more than just the urge to hibernate in winter.
I found the cave within. I recognized that I needed to retreat inside myself, to journey into the places within, the seams and tiers of memory and imagination and then embrace the stirrings of creativity. Perhaps I needed to access something deep in my psyche like early humans did as they travelled deep inside caves to create art and perhaps commune with spirits and ancestors, deep in the earth’s womb.
It may not be the same for others, everyone is on a different journey, but I imagine each person needs at some point, a resting place, a place from which they can re-emerge back into the world refreshed. I retreat for many reasons – I can’t be a smiling, capable person in the world all the time. There needs to be both light and darkness in life, both company and solitude and time away from what can seem like a hard unfeeling world.
The last threads of summer will loosen like the dry bark of the skeletal trees at the solitary retreat once more. The land will not be sleeping yet, a restlessness will stir below the surface before the slow decline into the somnolent months of autumn and winter. Solitude is interesting, but as I now feel the same draw earthwards as autumn gets underway, I think, how about doing the opposite and finding people to celebrate with? To go within or stay without, to seek peace and inner journeying or outward celebration, listening to one’s heart is a fine balance.