Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night”
~ Solsbury Hill, by Peter Gabriel
Solsbury Hill is an Iron Age Hill Fort to the East of the city of Bath in England. From the lyrics of this well known song we know that Peter Gabriel is on the Hill with the darkness of night surrounding him. I imagine him standing up there by himself looking out from the Hill’s peak, shrouded in darkness, anonymous to everything around him, gazing down on the lights of Bath. As you read on in the lyrics there is a sense that he has gone up there to be by himself and reflect. The darkness around him affords him the solitude that he wants.
Gabriel’s song came to me a couple of weeks ago when I went up to the summit of Haleakala, one of the two volcanos that make up the Hawai’ian island of Maui. In an hour and a half you can drive from sea level to the summit of Haleakala at 10,000ft+. For me it is “the other” side of the natural forces of Hawai’i. You sit on the rocks and cliffs that go out into the ocean and you are sitting on a lava flow that centuries ago grew this island, these islands into the what they are today. The size of the volcanoes and the forces that grew the Hawai’ian islands, indeed continues to grow some of them, is humbling.
So that evening on top of Haleakala I could see across to the summits of Kilauea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island. As night fell the lights from that island’s towns became visible 30 miles away across the ʻAlenuihāhā Channel. With the sun down the temperature fell quickly - it was freezing and the wind chill ate through my clothes. People up there for the sunset started to leave to head back down the mountain, and apart from car headlights, discernible figures and objects slowly merged into the darkness. The lights of Maui townships became visible through the cloud, which I was above, and in the sky above the stars and Milky Way slowly revealed themselves. Satellites and pieces of space debris tracked across the sky. Comets burnt up on their passage through our atmosphere. With plenty of clothes and coats on, and a blanket wrapped round me, I just wanted to be up there and take in the experience - the silence, the isolation and detachment of the night, the raw experience of nature in this wild space…but there was also the image that Gabriel created in Solsbury Hill and the reminders that that brought me of similar situations in my own life.
There are times when I find something deeply comforting in being able to look out on the world with a sense of complete anonymity. My introverted nature craves periods alone to rest, recharge and rebuild, but having that sense of anonymity afforded to me by the darkness of the night along with no electronic contact, Haleakala has little or no cell phone service, allows me to go deeper. Standing on the “Hill” that was Haleakala, I was not just shrouded in my blanket but also darkness, and within my secret and unknown presence I could sit and watch the world going on beneath me. For a couple of hours I was apart from it, free to rest in the quietness that the isolation afforded to me.
Looking down on the world I thought of the people heading out and enjoying their Saturday night, it was Halloween, being with the kids (trick-or-treating), others staying at home watching television, reading a book, sharing a dinner party. There were doctors and nurses working in hospitals, chefs and wait staff busy keeping customers fed in restuarants, others keeping us in water and electricty, the police keeping order, the homeless sleeping or watching all this with their own perspective that I can only guess at.
Looking down I could feel the busyness of the world and felt the relief to be away from it. To be able to wander into my own thoughts and musings without fear of being interrupted.
The great spiritual and philosophical traditions hint at the importance of retreat - Jesus’ time alone in the wilderness, Buddha sitting in meditation under the Bodhi tree, Muhammad spending time in silence, prayer and retreat in the caves around Mount Hira. But we do not have to follow any such tradition to take part in and benefit from retreat time.
Retreat time is alone time where we disconnect completely from the outside world for a few hours, days or maybe even weeks. No phone, no electronic communication, no personal communication, no business…no nothing. A place where the noise and worry of everyday life can be allowed to settle, like a glass of muddy water. The noise might still be there in the back ground, but not stirred up by life’s busyness it is given the space to take a rest, and with it afford you rest from it.
The complete disconnection allows you a deeper recharge and rest, and time to reflect on that which you want to. Maybe you are looking for time to be creative, time to just be, or time to just rrreeessstt.
Look for opportunities to build retreat times into your life. Timetabled into your life - twice a year, once a month, for a few hours or few days - will add to their power. You are giving yourself permission to take this time off, and you know so in advance. No last minute frenetic plan making, but more of a wined down towards your retreat. The mind starts to calm down laying a foundation for your time alone. Involve family and friends in your plans for added support before, while you are away and once you get back (you don’t want to walk in the door and be deluged with demands and requests). Also build in a plan for if you do need to be contacted. Then breathe, thank all concerned for their encouragement and head off.
If you take retreat time already, what does it look like? If this is something that you would like to build into your life, what do you need to do to make it happen?