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Solitude: An Inner Journey - 2003-07-03

Many people are missing out on the pleasures of silence amid the bustle of modern life, according to a new book called Stillness: Daily Gifts of Solitude by author Richard Mahler. The travel writer took an inner journey in rural New Mexico to rediscover some ancient wisdom.

Most of us are accustomed to constant stimulation, from the background noise of conversation to the blaring commercials of television and the ringing of cellular phones. Even a quiet lull of a few seconds' duration can be disconcerting.

In radio, it's called dead air time, and a cardinal rule of broadcasting says it should be avoided. Even in conversation, people feel awkward about long pauses.

Writer Richard Mahler, whose previous works include travel guides to rustic vacation sites, says too much stimulation was also a problem in earlier ages. But it is more intense today. He says mystics from China's Lao Tzu to America's Thomas Merton have understood the importance of silence.

"My book is not a spiritual book, it's not a religious book, but I do note that in every major religion or spiritual tradition, especially among prophets, seers, mystics, there is a tradition of withdrawal from the hurly-burly and the clamor that we tend to be submerged in, just to take some time for contemplation and inward-seeking," says Mr. Mahler. "And we're not all Thomas Mertons or Lao Tzus, but this is one of the ways that we discover our own lives and our happiness is by taking some time for personal retreat."

The writer's discovery of solitude came in the U.S. state of New Mexico, at an elevation of 2,700 meters.

"I lived on a very, very remote ranch in conditions that are extremely unusual in the United States now, no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing, no radio, no television, no telephone, no e-mail," he says. "Basically [I had] a wood stove for heat, propane for cooking, an outhouse for bodily functions. And I lived there completely alone for three-and-a-half months.

It was winter, so he spent his time hiking and skiing, watching the wildlife and enjoying the sunsets. The 46-year-old writer also recorded his thoughts on a solar-powered computer.

"I said that this was a mid-life pit stop, so I wrote about my own life, I did a lot of art work, I did pastel drawings, I played a musical instrument," says Mr. Mahler. "So I had plenty to do, but I did it in a very low-tech way."

After 97 days, he re-entered the high tech world of instant communications and it came as a shock. But he doesn't reject innovations like e-mail, palm pilots and cell phones, which he says add convenience to modern life.

"What I came out with, more than anything, was an appreciation for balance, for equilibrium," he says. "And I think I concluded that we are really social animals, that there's a force of nature in human beings that makes us want to interact and have relationships with people, and to be a complete hermit is probably more extreme than human beings are designed for."

But the writer believes the intense interaction of modern life is just as unnatural as permanent isolation, and causes us to lose touch with our inner selves and the natural world around us. "So what I'm advocating in this book is that all of us take at least five or 10 minutes a day just to try to find a little stillness, a little solitude, a little silence in our lives because everything is pushing us away from that," he says.

Richard Mahler's book Stillness: Daily Gifts of Solitude, is published by Red Wheel Books.