Those who withdraw from the world into a monastic retreat are few nowadays, but those who feel the need of withdrawing into an inward peace of some kind, are many. They can have their peace and have their world too – simply by spiritualizing their life in the world.
The very act of withdrawing into the solitude of your room, your prayer corner or into the peaceful, quiet beauty of any secluded spot to practice mental-quiet, is a symbolic detachment from the active world. The main thing is to seek solitude as much as possible, preferably daily. Avoid the society of too many people, because each person you meet becomes a source of distraction and diversion, unless that person is someone of superior spiritual status.
During the twenty or thirty minutes of retirement in solitude, if used correctly, you are completely withdrawn from the world as any monk in his monastic cell; you need no further renunciation of the world than this because all changes in your outer life will inevitably be made by you under the influence from ‘within’, of which you will slowly become conscious.
However, practice moderation. Don’t become a recluse from life. Keep a balance, a rhythm with worldly life. Enjoy uplifting books, movies, art, plays, friends, but work out in society and daily life what you learnt in your solitude. The calm, peaceful, grounded, centred mind creates its own retreat. Too much asceticism makes people fanatical and unbalanced. Such people force their views on others, like, “Don’t eat meat!”, “Don’t eat fast foods!” They forget to ‘Live and let live’!
The roots of our existence lie in the mind and therefore, in solitude, it is the mind which has to be quietened. In daily living, wherever we go, we take our feelings, thoughts, desires, emotions and mental-conditionings with us. In solitude, these are not allowed to come with us. Mostly, it is our desires that lead to unhappiness when they are not met. St. Jerome once said: “God plus desire equals man. Man minus desire equals God.”
Our daily living takes up so much time and energy that it makes spiritual retreat difficult. Hence, we should simplify our lives, cut down on wants and diminish our cares, so that more time and energy can be found for a divinely-lived leisure. If you find certain social duties standing in your way, then they ought to go. But as far as possible, let them stay, unless these become obstacles. It is impossible to relinquish all social contact. However, it is wise to eliminate the non-essential ones. Let your life be as simple as possible because if your mind is taken up wholly with other things or people, how will you go into daily solitude? The moment you become obsessed by desires to play a part in society, those desires will keep you too busy for quiet thinking and higher study.
You may retreat for any length of time you like, from two minutes to two months or more, but you must go back to daily living and see what you’ve actually attained. Are you more calm? Have your relationships improved? Are you more patient with others? Have you stopped judging others? Even as you improve, try to find the daily rhythm of solitude amidst daily activity.
Thus, you need not retreat into a forest, an ashram, a cave or a hermitage as long as you flee from daily life in your heart in order to live the true spiritual life. The true essential is to surrender yourself to the Highest Power in retreat. Then, you may continue to live and work in this world. We are here to live, not run away from life. It is best to stay where we are, work and do our duties and from time to time, run away into a personal retreat, whenever we feel the need.
In ancient Egyptian mystery-schools, ‘silence’ was taught to new students as a compulsory subject. Only after the pupil learnt how to be silent and still the mind, were they given higher mystic knowledge. They were sent back to normal life everyday to pursue a career, to marry, have children and lead a good life – unless they were ordained for service as clergy. It was believed that the parents should be healed of their own ‘traumas’ (through silence) in order to produce emotionally healed children.
Today, those antique mystery-schools have disappeared and life itself has become our spiritual training system. It trains and teaches us. Life is our modern school. In interacting with all sorts of people, we learn valuable lessons through daily living on today’s battleground of material and economic forces. There’s no reason why we can’t find the kingdom of Heaven here. It’s not necessary to go to a forest, monastery or a mountain to withdraw from the world… but it’s necessary to withdraw from worldly enslavement. This way, the world is your monastery and daily life – your monastic discipline!!