This year I have completed several silent retreats as I write my third novel The Painter. I completed two on-line retreats, one totally silent retreat for a week on the beautiful estate of Minsteracres in Northumberland, headed off to Monte Oliveto for a retreat in a monastery near Sienna in Italy and still have one more to complete this year – a retreat near Bruges in Brussels in September. In the past my love of silent retreats took me to Los Angeles, Tucson, Houston, Albuquerque and Chicago. I have after several retreats participated in “sweat lodges” run by a Sioux Master. They were an amazing experience intensified by the preceding week of silence. The sweat lodge is designed as a spiritual tradition to help you face death and to go beyond the thinking mind. It takes you into the depths of silence in a scary way. After four hours in a dark claustrophobic tent with glowing orange rocks throwing out intense heat - you have a taste of death. When you emerge into the daylight you feel born in a different way from the birth you experienced as a baby. You are conscious of the air touching your skin and your breathing. It fills you with awe which somehow is lost as we become accustomed to treading the earth. You are filled with a sense of wonder.
Why do I feel this helps me as a writer? After all I live in Mallorca. It is a very peaceful place to live. I listen to the frogs croaking at four in the morning, followed by the birds singing at five and am only interrupted by my big cat Ulysses jumping on my head to be let out typically around four when the frogs waken up. You might think I could sit in silence without the expense and hassle of catching a plane to arrive at a venue where you don’t talk for a week.
Silence with others is different from silence alone. In the silence with others I feel the connection with strangers who don’t speak to one another but who share the mystery of life. It is remarkable how much you see in another person when you don’t talk to them but share space with them for a week. Silence teaches me as a writer to appreciate the emergence of a thought or an image as something special. When I work with thoughts, images, emotion, dialogue, characters, plot – it’s like a recipe – but one that no-one else can create. It is unique. You hope that the reader will get it and like it but you don’t write for that – you write because words are bubbling up in you wanting to be expressed on a page or a screen. Like a parent with a child you have to honour them and order them. Otherwise they lose their potential to be known in context. Children grow and develop with greater sanity when they are introduced to the importance of selflessness and connection with others. Words and images are like that - they want to have meaning and be connected to other thoughts. Silence allows me as a writer to sink into the space between the full stop and the next sentence and to appreciate where creativity comes from – an emptiness that is full of everything – the “nada” of Saint John of the Cross – the “sunyata” or emptiness of Buddhism.