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.

Pico Iyer
10 September 2012
Ambulance Pico Iyer Soul Retreat Shambhala Sun Lion's Roar Buddhism
Photo by Benjamin Ellis.

Photo by Benjamin Ellis.

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.

A 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.

She 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.

It’s 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.

We 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.

So 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.

But 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 professional wisdom.

But 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 us.

All 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.

You 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.

There 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.

A 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 something larger.

I 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).

And 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).

I 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.

She 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.

But 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.

All 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.

A 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.

Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer is the author of fifteen books, most recently Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, twinned works on living with uncer­tainty and impermanence.