An ICU for the Soul
When a friend is dealt a heavy emotional blow, PICO IYER suggests to her that silence and stillness might be the best medicine. Sometimes, it seems, you've got to retreat before you can move forward.
retreat house is “An emergency room for the soul,” I had written,
meaning nothing, in a piece I sent to a friend. She had recently lost a
love, and I worried that that sense of loss would seep into other parts
of her life: she’d lost a sense of direction, it might seem, and perhaps
a future. (She was thirty-eight and hadn’t given up on the idea of a
family.) She’d lost the underpinnings that allowed her to flit around
town, knowing she had a relationship to come back to; she’d lost some
self-confidence, I’m sure, though she was bright, charming, and
attractive enough never to be short of admirers.
should go on retreat, I suggested, sensing perhaps that that was what
she was telling herself. Unsolicited, I would be the spokesman for that
little voice inside her that sometimes was hard to hear amid the roar of
traffic in L.A.
—the ringing phone, and the acting gigs that took her
away from a deeper self.
surprising what one comes up with when one’s not thinking (when one’s
not oneself, in other words, but letting something larger speak or move
through one). Almost in spite of myself, I’d said something true. A car
smashes into ours on the intersection of State Street and Carrillo, and
we reflexively go to an emergency room, or to a doctor at the very
least. We may think we’re okay, but many wounds are slow to show up, we
recognize, and what we need is an expert eye that can read what’s
invisible to the layman’s eye.
fall down the stairs, and we decide there’s nothing lost in consulting a
physician. You’ve got to rest, he tells us, even though it doesn’t look
serious. Then we’ve got to make another appointment and remain “under
observation.” To try to do anything now would only risk causing more
grievous injury in the long run.
we dutifully cancel that trip to Italy we’ve planned, inform the
sweetheart that we won’t be able to go to the Green Day concert after
all, and tell ourselves (the most difficult and resistant audience of
all) that we have to take a break and do nothing, as advised. If we try
to hurry our recovery along, or to go about our lives and jobs as if
nothing has happened, the biggest loser will be ourselves.
to whom do we turn when the injury is truly internal—an old friend has
grown bony from cancer, or our boss has just summoned us into his
office? Where we do go when the love of our life sends us an email
headed, “Better now than later”? To friends, to loved ones, to
professional shrinks, to spiritual teachers, perhaps? They all have good
counsel, and the latter two groups may even claim to serve up
we’re back in the office the next day and soldiering on with our tasks,
since nothing seems to be wrong with us on the surface. We can still
smile and take care of the accounts and play the part that’s required of
the while, though, we’re moving further and further from recovery,
deepening the wound we can’t see and can’t assess and, if only we could
realize it, doing ourselves and those we care for a far graver injury in
the long term.
Society, we think, doesn’t have emergency rooms for the heart or ICUs for what earlier cultures might have called the soul.
Or maybe it does.
step into a simple room that’s flooded with light, and the silence
seems to vibrate inside you. Your cellphone, iPod, and laptop are all at
home, which means you can fully sink into the moment and nothing will
shake you out of it. You can read or walk or do nothing at all. You can
hear yourself think, though soon you’ll be as free of your thoughts as
of the appointment book, the itinerary, the road rage you took pains to
leave in the car.
may be a teacher there, a friend, a wise soul who can talk you through
things, but I have never found, as Thoreau or Emerson might have said,
the guide who can hold a candle to silence. A few times in my life very
wise beings, older, more clear-sighted and discernibly more spacious and
seasoned than I, have offered me advice. I’ve always taken it—and
always found, as I told my friend, that ultimately it was the wrong
advice. They were speaking sincerely and honestly from the heart, and
from experience, but their heart wasn’t mine, nor their experience.
friend so often speaks from the personal realm, as many a dispassionate
advisor speaks for the impersonal, passing on proverbs and ancient
wisdom as (certainly tonic and wonderful) aspirins. But with our inner
hurts, maybe the best way is not to listen to any words or ideas at all.
Simply let the silence work on and through you, till you’re part of
go for a walk along the retreat-house road. The sea is stretched out
beside me; the sun is sinking behind the ridge of brown hills. My mind,
rarely free, scampers around like a dog off its leash (Or, best of all,
disappears around a curve to sniff at something and doesn’t come back
for a long, long time).
then, without any movement or choice on my part, I know what to do:
with Susan, and her difficult demands; and with Richard, who is so sick;
and even with that most difficult of all partners, myself. I haven’t
planned or thought anything through; I’ve just listened or opened myself
to something that is beyond me or within me (it hardly matters which).
don’t even have to notice whether there’s a cross on the building above
me, or tatami mats inside, or a statue of a many- armed god, or pure
emptiness. Names and denominations are immaterial. or so I told my
friend, in urging her to give herself the chance to get away for a
while. It was only by leaving her job, her friends, her self that she
could find anything worthwhile to bring back to them,I thought.
took my advice, even though I’d told her that taking advice from anyone
else was what always got me into trouble. I think she was really taking
her own advice, listening, in advance, to something bigger and more
grounded somewhere within.
a job came up, and she left a day and a half late; and she had to drive
six and a half hours through the fog, along the narrow mountain road
above the sea; and it was thick with impenetrable mist when she got to
her cabin; and thirty-six hours later—she had another commitment—she had
to make the whole trip again, back into her life, before she’d had a
chance to sink into the silence.
of which, I thought, in a rare moment of clarity, was proof positive
that she had to go on retreat (for longer, sometime soon). It was the
only way she might be able to step beyond agitation. It was also the
only way she could step into her agitation, in a safe and secluded
place, and see what it meant to be stripped of so much by the sudden
decision of someone she loved. The fog was surely not just literal.
retreat house is an emergency room for the soul, I boringly repeated to
her when she came back, and in its absence, it can be hard to go into
the living room, the drawing room, let alone the bedroom of the self.
These aren’t just casual words; they speak for urgency and that without
which we cannot be ourselves. She knew, I’m sure, as I half did, that I
was really talking to myself.
Iyer has been going on retreat several times a year for more than
twenty-one years. An essayist for Time magazine for even longer, as well
as the author of ten books, Iyer has traveled from Jerusalem to Koyasan
and from Tibet to Central Australia for his work. His latest book is
The Man Within My Head, an examination of kindness, conscience, and
inner conflict in our accelerating world.