“People look for retreats for themselves, in the country,
by the coast, or in the hills…There is nowhere that a
person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free
retreat than in his own mind…So constantly give
yourself this retreat, and renew yourself…”
- Marcus Aurelius - Meditations
The room was dark and quiet, so still, I could hear the beating of my heart – air moved in and out of my lungs in concert, creating a kind of rhythmic harmony. Had it been my first visit, it might have been unnerving – the first time it was – but after so many years, it was a place of comfort.
It took a little time to adjust but as my irises widened, the familiar colorless furnishings began to take shape. It has always been this way. I suppose were there more light I would have been able to distinguish the colors, but in fact, I never had. It didn’t matter.
I looked at the large chest with a glass front. The familiar bowl of grain and walking stick within. Ancient and antique they were, yet timeless. The lid of the chest had intricately carved figures. Even in the darkness, they were beautiful and compelling. God, I love this place.
Having entered through the curtained door, I moved to the comfortable chair on one side of a table in front of the chest. Taking a seat and closing my eyes, I listened to the continued pump and bellow of my heart and lungs. The listening room…the sanctuary…the place where I submit and find solace.
Finding it took help…
When I separated from the U.S. Army in 1971, I moved to Toronto, Canada, the city of my birth. Civilian life seemed alien and disconnected, after three years of the military structure.
Drifting in a sea of low-level angst, I applied to the Canadian Department of Transport to be an air traffic controller, my military job. The process would take a couple of months, so between wandering the streets of Toronto and playing basketball at the city YMCA, my days were reasonably empty — heart unsettled.
One afternoon, at a small bookstore in the Yorkville area of the city, a book caught my eye. Psycho-Cybernetics: A New Way to GET MORE LIVING OUT OF LIFE. The author, a plastic surgeon by the name of Maxwell Maltz.
“Get more living out of life,’ eh? Other than the military, I had spent twenty-four years with no intentional drive whatsoever. Maybe this would help ‘…slip a rudder under the ship.’
A new thing…
Maltz discovered over his years of practice that changing people's appearance often did not change their self-perception. Making them look better did not always make them feel better about themselves. My introspective engines were relatively idle in those years, so I didn't understand much of that.
What did catch my attention, however, was a process of mental visualization Maltz described. This was something about which I knew nothing. He suggested one might create progressively quieting exercises to bring internal peace.
With time on my hands and more than a little unsettled, I dug in. Following Maltz’s instructions, I closed my eyes and tried to visualize a journey.
This wasn’t an experiment reflected in Robert Frost’s words of the “…yellow wood…” It was not just a road "…less traveled…" it was, in fact, a road never traveled! In the beginning, there was not much there. But in the end, I discovered that creating deliberate mental images would make “…all the difference.” It was a start – probing that road would take time.
The first meaningful adventure was bumpy. Sitting on the floor in my room, eyes closed, I journeyed through the home of my youth in Euclid, Ohio. Entering the house and passing into the living room, it was up a two-landing flight of stairs to a narrow hallway to the second floor. From there, through a door, another flight of stairs to a dimly lit attic where I had spent hours investigating boxes and suitcases in the musty smell in this dimly lit and mysterious place.
Just getting to the attic undistracted took several tries.
Eventually, I modified the attic space into a large room with a comfortable, easy chair and a bay window overlooking the northern end of Lake Joseph in Muskoka, Ontario. The view, from the edge of a two-hundred-foot cliff, stretched across open water and rugged shoreline. The sky was blue with tufted clouds drifting over the crystal-clear water. I sat in that chair, feet up, absorbing all that I could see.
The more the practice, the greater the detail. As time passed, I could feel the strokes of gentle winds against my cheeks…even the subtle scent of the pine forest so much a part of my youth and early adulthood. I no longer needed to move through the house but could enter directly into the attic. It was refreshing…an epiphany…a revelation!
You teach, you learn…
In the 1980s, while teaching at a small university in Missouri, a colleague and I formed a small health and wellness consulting group – group, meaning two of us.
One of our offerings, thanks to Max, was a series of twenty to thirty-minute, guided imagery, relaxation audiotapes. Up to this time, I only knew my attic.
Necessity is the mother of invention! To make a series of tapes, there needed to be more stories. I 'found them' in the attic in that easy chair. As narratives emerged, I sketched them out, then put them on tape. They were recorded in a darkened studio, eyes closed. As the tracks were laid down, I immersed myself in the mental imagery I was describing.
These stories were not just for people using them to relax, but new journeys for me to explore in my own experiences. The attic never slipped away, but there was a richness in the emerging storylines.
This blog began at the deepest part of my quieting process. It is intimate…sacred. I don't talk much about this and have only, on rare occasions, shared it.
Usually, I can enter directly into the chamber. But there are occasions when my mind is too cluttered to step from the maddening crowd directly into the quiet place. Sometimes, I need to take a long way home.
Close my eyes...breathe in...breathe out...breathe in…breath out…
It is a brightly lit day. I'm in the midst of a carnival, a tumultuous sea of humanity, people talking, laughing, eating, drinking and bumping into one another. They are irritating.
At the edge of the crowd is a wall, consisting of fifteen-foot sections of white cloth attached to ten-foot-high pillars, masking what is inside. Following the wall, pushing my way through the crowds, I round a corner to find an entrance.
Just inside the entryway, several men are cooking for the food stalls on the outside. They talk as they work, but it is noticeably quieter than outside. Looking past them, is an open area, at the end of which lies a building.
Taking off my shoes, and moving toward the enclosure, the men’s voices drifting away, a calm begins taking hold. The grass is soft and cool. Half-way to the structure is a small pool of clear water. Pausing to rinse my face, hands, and feet, I breathe deeply feeling a growing sense of gratitude with each breath.
Approaching the structure, a man stands at the door and welcomes me in. The room, or better said chamber, is lit by a large candlestick to my left. A subtle odor of incense hanging in the air - it is comforting. The walls and ceiling are covered with textured cloth. A closer look shows they are embroidered with intricate images of ethereal creatures.
There is another man standing against the wall across from the entrance. Smiling, he pulls back a covering to reveal a second room gesturing for me to enter.
This is the darkest and quietest place of all. Often when I take the seat at the table, I am visited by people I have known and loved. We seldom speak, but the communication is so intimate, it is beyond my ability to describe. Other times, it is a solitary experience with just the breath and beating of my heart.
It not clear how it happens, but it is always clear when it is time to leave. As I slowly retrace my steps my mind feels so clear, not even the bustling crowds are bothersome.
The end is the beginning…
The off-chance discovery of Maltz’s book in that small bookstore in Yorkville, so many years ago, changed my life. It provided a platform of self-discovery that by now has blossomed in ways I would never have imagined.
It seemed that at a time in our history when so much is unknown, accompanied by rising fear, that Marcus Aurelius’ words about retreating to one’s own mind are timeless and relevant.