Review of STILLNESS: DAILY GIFTS OF SOLITUDE, by
by Ted Rueter
spent 97 days in solitary confinement in the snow-covered
Tusas Mountains of northern New Mexico, in order to spend "quiet alone-time"
and to live "deliberatively." He was the winter caretaker of a ranch with no
electricity, a wood stove for heat, and a short wave radio for emergencies.
STILLNESS: DAILY GIFTS OF SOLITUDE is "part memoir, part adventure story,
part spiritual reflection, and part self-help." Mahler offers suggestions on
how--"without running off to the wilderness"-- individuals can incorporate
solitude and silence into their daily lives.
Prior to his
escape to the woods, Mahler was a freelance journalist and
teacher, reporting on the mass media and celebrities ("subjects that no
longer engaged me"). Each day, he was stuck in "a brain-numbing commute on
the Santa Monica Freeway." Yearning for "long, unstructured days to reflect
on my life and the changes I might make as I move forward," he fled to a
ranch on the Tucas range, "an extension of the San Juan Mountains of the
Southern Rockies, about thirty miles south of Colorado and fifth miles west
of Taos." Mahler was eight miles from the nearest paved road and five miles
from the closest neighbor.
refuge from "our consumption-oriented society, driven by a
fast-paced economy." He asks if readers are "ready to join me in a softer,
less frantic way of life, an existence that's simpler, yet offers more?"
One way to find
stillness is to "stop to listen--really listen" to your
immediate environment. Mahler found that although he lives in a small,
non-industrial city, "my neighborhood is awash in sounds I neither make nor
desire: wailing sirens, buzzing saws, clattering garbage trucks, thumping
boom boxes, and ringing school bells."
sojourn to the mountains, Maher made occasional trips to the
outside world. The first thing he noticed was "how much agitated activity
and seductive distraction we encounter in the course of a typical day. On
the way back to town, my employer stopped at a gas station mini-market
shortly after leaving the ranch, and I felt overwhelmed to the point of
paralysis by the products on display, the blaring radio, the exhaust fumes,
and the ill-humored purposelessness of the constant stream of customers."
All this noise
and overstimulation is not good for the human body,
psyche, or soul. Mahler quotes Jochen Schact, a biological chemist at the
University of Michigan, who states that "our ears are not made for a noisy
world." He also quotes psychiatrist Anthony Storr, who states is his book,
SOLITUDE: A RETURN TO THE SELF, that "some development of the capacity to be
alone is necessary if the brain is to function at its best and if the
individual is to fulfill his or her highest potential." Mahler notes that
"for thousands of years, the spiritual leaders of all great religious
traditions have advocated regular internals of slowing down or stopping,"
and that "Jesus set an example by retreating to wilderness areas to pray and
has numerous sublime benefits. Quiet alone-time can improve
general health, slow down the aging process, improve sleep, generate a
greater sense of contentment, increase productivity, strengthen the immune
system, and create greater happiness.
very simple, daily steps to create more quiet time, such
as turning off the telephone, putting a "do not disturb" sign on your door,
working when your colleagues are not there, leaving a few minutes early for
your next appointment, closing your eyes and taking deep breaths, getting
away from the computer, and taking regular walks. He also recommends yoga
by quoting from Herman Melville that "silence is the
only voice of our God." Mahler asserts that "we must cease making our own
noise if we hope to achieve fully the quiet wisdom of nature and the deep
truths within our hearts. If we continue to surround ourselves with
distracting noise and push ourselves through constant movement, we will
inevitably keep craving their opposite. This hunger is for a silent
sanctuary that affords us the priceless gift of looking at our lives in the
relief of stillness, knowing that simplicity is the real wealth and solitude
is good company. It is as accessible as the next moment, as simple as being
Published in HOPEDANCE, November/ December 2003