Set A Spell: Reflections on Seclusion by Anne Macquarie
My friend Dixie the Methodist minister has been thinking about the ways we find to carve quiet space for ourselves even in the midst of our sometimes crazy-busy lives. Dixie is from Missouri, only one generation removed from the farm. The women in her family were always working, but sometimes part of that working was to grab a bowl of green beans to snap and “set a spell” on the porch. Maybe chat with whoever was around. Look out at the fields.
These women, like most of us, were hard-working people. But Dixie and I think that quiet times will come out, one way or another. We need them. She’s writing a sermon about it. In my own practice I’ve been thinking about the Buddhist concept of seclusion. Setting a spell is part of my view of what seclusion is, or might be, in a lay life. Not the seclusion of a monastic, but the odd bits and moments when we have time to sit and become temporarily secluded from the world: to meditate, maybe, but also just to have a cup of tea, or start a book then put it down and gaze into space, or sit on a park bench and watch people walk by.
Do you feel a little uncomfortable – a little, well, unproductive when you’re doing those things? I do. But I figure I’ll get over it. I’d like to find out what would happen if those spells lasted a little longer. Here’s one of my favorite bits of poetry, from Wordsworth:
The world is too much with us; late and soon
Getting and spending, we lay waste to our powers
Then this, from the Bhagavad-Gita:
The world is imprisoned by its own activity.
Busy-ness, preoccupation with the affairs of the world stretches us out in a way, distracts us, attenuates us – in fact, “lays waste to our powers, ” to the powers of contemplation, insight, concentration – all those other ways of being human that get buried under busy-ness. We are imprisoned by our own activity, and so much of what else we can be and know is hidden by that activity.
Maybe some of those Missouri farmers also enjoyed a Sabbath day, a day of rest - though they probably had to feed the cows sometime during the day. That’s a lovely concept we’ve mostly left behind, and one also relevant, I think, to lay Buddhist life. But you don’t need to rest from rest, and you don’t need seclusion if you’re already lonely. So maybe the Christian Sabbath, the Buddhist seclusion are, at least to lay practitioners, not so much a way of life as a way of balance.
For a number of years Wendell Barry, who is not only a prominent American poet but a hard-working farmer, wrote a poem every Sabbath day. Here’s one of them:
I go among trees and sit still
All my stirring becomes quiet around me
Like circles in water
My tasks lie in their places
Where I left them
Asleep like cattle
After days of labor
Mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last
And I sing it. As we sing
The day turns, the trees move.