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Review of STILLNESS: DAILY GIFTS OF SOLITUDE, by Richard Mahler
by Ted Rueter

Richard Mahler 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.

Mahler sought 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."

During his 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 reflect."

Slowing down 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.

Mahler suggests 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 and meditation.

Mahler concludes 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 alone."

Published in HOPEDANCE, November/ December 2003

 
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