Solitude


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There is no denying about the importance of Silence and Solitude in one’s life. For me, they have always provided an appropriate environment to learn and understand a few things deeply. Drawing from that experience, I strongly feel one should actively seek some amount of "silent time" in one’s life. Is it difficult for a person leading a married life, to carve out spaces of silence? Not necessarily. I remember reading a book by Anne D.LeClaire, in which the author writes about her experience of remaining completely silent on the first and third Mondays of every month. Anne explains that this simple practice brought tremendous amount of calmness in her family life. The family members unknowingly start giving importance to "pauses", the "pauses" that actually make the sentence meaningful, the "pauses" that make the music enjoyable, the "pauses" that make our lives meaningful. Indeed many have written about the transformative experience of silence. But how many of us consciously seek silence and more importantly incorporate in our daily lives ? In the hubbub of our lives and in our over-enthusiasm for acquiring/reaching/grabbing something that is primarily externally gratifying, we often turn our back on "silence" and consequently deny or at least partly deny those experiences that are internally gratifying.

I picked up this book almost 2 months ago. For various reasons, it remained in my inventory for quite some without me having a peaceful go at it. In mid-December 2015, after living in Mumbai for 6.5 years, I decided to leave Mumbai for personal reasons. I had spent the first few weeks of December shipping most of my stuff and vacating the rented flat. Those weeks were undeniably very exhausting as I had a ton of books that had to be sorted, categorized and shipped to different places. Once I had shipped everything, the house was literally empty. Except for a few clothes of mine, and my Sitar, the house was totally empty and silent. For some reason, I felt totally liberating in that empty and silent house. In that context, I set out to read this book. In this post, I will briefly summarize the main points from the book.

Introduction

The author starts off by talking about the excessive importance we give to material comforts and affective concerns

In our daily lives many of us spend most of our time looking for comforts-material comforts and affective comforts-in order to merely survive. That takes all our time. These are what we might call the daily concerns. We are preoccupied with our daily concerns: how to have enough money, food, shelter, and other material things. We also have affective concerns: whether or not some particular person loves us, whether or not our job is secure. We worry all day because of those kinds of questions. We may be trying to find a relationship that is good enough to endure, one that is not too difficult. We’re looking for something to rely on.

We may be spending 99.9 percent of our time worrying about these daily concerns-material comforts and affective concerns-and that is understandable, because we need to have our basic needs met to feel safe. But many of us worry far, far beyond having our needs met. We are physically safe, our hunger is satisfied, we have a roof over our heads, and we have a loving family; and still we can worry constantly.

The deepest concern in you, as in many of us, is one you may not have perceived, one you may not have heard. Every one of us has an ultimate concern that has nothing to do with material or affective concerns. What do we want to do with our life? That is the question. We are here, but why are we here? Who are we, each of us individually? What do we want to do with our life? These are questions that we don’t typically have (or make) the time to answer.

These are not just philosophical questions. If we’re not able to answer them, then we don’t have peace-and we don’t have joy, because no joy is possible without some peace. Many of us feel we can never answer these questions. But with mindfulness, you can hear their response yourself, when you have some silence within.

What we all need is "silence" to tune in to ourselves.

A Steady diet of noise

This chapter is mainly about realizing the kind of noise that pervades our minds. Cows, goats and buffalo chew their food, swallow it, then regurgitate and rechew it multiple times. We may not be cows or buffalo, but we ruminate just the same on our thoughts – unfortunately, primarily negative thoughts. We eat them, and then we bring them up to chew again and again, like a cow chewing its cud. The author calls this incessant noise, NST (Non Stop Thinking) Radio Station. Unconsciously many of us are constantly listening to NST and do not take time out to truly listen to what our heart needs. To understand the kind of thoughts that we constantly consume via NST, the author classifies them as follows :

  1. Edible food: What we eat affects how we feel. Imagine for a second that you overeat something you like. It is similar to a seizure where you cannot control yourself and give in to it. The immediate feeling after this overdose is usually laziness, boredom and a dull brain. You try concentrating on a thing and you realize it becomes difficult. So, something as elementary as edible food that is necessary for our survival becomes nourishing or toxic, depending on what we consume, how much we consume, and how aware we are of our consumption.
  2. Sensory food: Sensory food is what we take in with our senses and our mind – everything we see, smell, touch, taste and hear. This type of food has a far more influence on how we feel. Some of us are forever open to this external world. All the windows and doors are eternally open to this external world which throws a barrage of sensory stimuli. Most of the sensory food we consume is useless at best, harmful at worst. How often we keep watching a pathetic TV program and still lack the power to shut it off ? We often become paralyzed to sensory foods and become slaves to it. Kids are often introduced video games by parents and then the sensory food that kids derive is so addictive that kids start behaving like the characters in the video game. Imagine a kid who plays a game involving violence; Do you think he will generate calmness and a sense of balance in his mind ? No way. Same is the case with conversations. Suppose you talk to a person who is full of bitterness, envy or craving. During the conversation, you take in the person’s energy of despair. Even though you had no ill-feelings in your mind to begin with, you mind will be infected with such feelings as you begin conversing with such people. One easy way to avoid such a situation is to leave such a company and go else where. If you are in a situation where you are forced to be in such a company for whatever reasons, the next best thing is to be aware of the kind of thoughts the other person is emanating. Awareness makes you immune to the toxic sensory food that you come across in your daily life.
  3. Volition: Our primary intention and motivation is another kind of food. It feeds us and gives us purpose. Like the previous kinds of food, it can be extremely nourishing or extremely toxic based on the kind of intent and motivation levels. So much of the noise around us, whether advertisements, movies, games, music, or conversation, gives us messages about what we should be doing, what we should look like, what success looks like, and who we should be. Because of all this noise, it’s rare that we pay attention to our true desire. We act, but we don’t have the space or quiet to act with intention. If what you are doing is what your heart truly desires, then the associated work becomes a bliss. You don’t have to bother how other people look at your behavior, action and work. As long as you are clear that it is what you truly enjoy and desire, there will be little chance for toxic thoughts to arise. What you truly want to do, is something that is not that easy to figure out, if you are continuously tuned out. It requires some time out from the rat race, a period of solitude that gives you space to understand yourself.
  4. Individual and Collective consciousness: Even if we go on a sensory fast, we still feed our thoughts from our consciousness. The best way to describe this is to think of it has two storeyed building. We are forever planting seeds in the lower storey of the house. The seeds could be pleasant ones or unpleasant ones. These seeds are being watered constantly by us. Which of these seeds we water, is dependent on our individual and collective consciousness. If we are in a toxic environment, automatically, without our notice, we water crappy seeds and they show their colors with vengeance, making us feel unpleasant about it. As they say, even if you take a person to Himalayas, you cannot the take the person away from him. By consciously choosing what and who you surround yourself with, is among the keys to finding more space for joy

The takeaway from this chapter is that, we need to be aware of the kind of foods we are taking in. By being aware, it is likely that toxic foods do not enter us. By being aware, it is likely that we entertain healthy foods in to us, thus turning us in to a peaceful and a wholesome person.

Radio Non Stop Thinking

The antidote to NST is mindfulness. By having mindfulness in all the activities you perform, you will be able to stop the NST radio in your head. Shifting our attention away from our thoughts to what’s really happening in the present moment is a basic practice of mindfulness. We can do it anytime, anywhere, and find more pleasure in life. Whether we’re cooking, working, brushing our teeth, washing our clothes, or eating, we can enjoy this refreshing silencing of our thoughts and our speech. Mindfulness entails finding the inner quietness.

 

Thundering Silence

Many times we consume different kinds of foods mentioned in the previous chapters as a response to the compulsive urge to avoid ourselves. Whenever we try to confront the unpleasant part of us, we know that we should be letting it go. But we hold on to it. Our "knowing that we should let it go" and we actually letting it go, are two vastly different things. The latter requires us to remain silent and go to the very source of it, acknowledge it, appreciate it for whatever it has taught in our life and then let it go. With out this phase of "examining it in silence", we will forever be trying to let it go but never actually letting it go.

What is the essence of stillness ?

When we release our ideas, thoughts, and concepts, we make space for our true mind. Our true mind is silent of all words and all notions, and is so much vaster than limited mental constructs. Only when the ocean is calm and quiet can we see the moon reflected in it. Silence is ultimately something that comes from the heart, not from any set of conditions outside us. Living from a place of silence doesn’t mean never talking, never engaging or doing things; it simply means that we are not disturbed inside; there isn’t constant internal chatter. If we’re truly silent, then no matter what situation we find ourselves in, we can enjoy the sweet spaciousness of silence.

The chapter’s title is "thunderous silence", a kind of silence that is  opposite to oppressive silence

Suppose you sit outside and pay attention to the sunshine, the beautiful trees, the grass, and the little flowers that are springing up everywhere. If you relax on the grass and breathe quietly, you can hear the sound of the birds, the music of the wind playing in the trees. Even if you are in a city, you can hear the songs of the birds and the wind. If you know how to quiet your churning thoughts, you don’t have to turn to mindless consumption in a futile attempt to escape from uncomfortable feelings. You can just hear a sound, and listen deeply, and enjoy that sound. There is peace and joy in your listening, and your silence is an empowered silence. That kind of
silence is dynamic and constructive. It’s not the kind of silence that represses you. In Buddhism we call this kind of silence thundering silence. It’s very eloquent, and full of energy.

The author ends the chapter with a few simple exercises that one can perform anywhere to renew yourself and energize yourself.

The Power of Stillness

The author says, we rarely notice our breathing patterns and rarely do we enjoy our breathing. Some people carry around a notion that one has to add an additional item, "Meditation" in to their agenda. However it is far easier than that. All one has to do for practicing mindfulness is to reorient yourself and remember your true intention. Quiet, mindful breathing is something you can do at any time. Wherever you are can be a sacred place, if you are there in a relaxed and serene way, following your breathing and keeping your concentration on whatever you’re doing. The simple process of sitting quietly on a regular basis can be profoundly healing. The author offers a simple exercise for beginners; dedicate five minutes every day to walking quietly and mindfully. I guess the proof of the pudding is in the eating. You can try it out and see if it calms down your mind and make you more aware of the thoughts, feelings and NST radio in your head.

Paying Attention

One of the often asked questions involves the relevance of following mindfulness during tasks that are inherently banal. The author says that by practicing mindfulness at all times, it becomes easier to access our "island of self" during the times we actually need it. A related idea is developing the capacity to be alone or being in solitude. There are two dimensions to solitude. The first is to be alone physically. The second is to be able to be yourself and stay centered even in the midst of a group. The former appears easy and latter appears difficult, though it might be appear vice-versa for a different person. Paying attention towards anything necessitates that one is comfortable with solitude, for great technologies, ideas, inventions are a result of paying deep attention on something and then actualizing the imagination in to the real world.

Cultivating Connection

One of the ways to cultivate connection with others is to listen deeply. What does it mean to listen deeply? It basically entails stopping the NST radio, being silent and truly listening to others without forming any judgment. Sometimes if you are lucky, you will befriend a person whose company you can enjoy even without talking. The mere presence of that person who is silent can make your joyful. The author says that two people being together in silence is a very beautiful way to live. Solitude is not found only by being alone in a hut deep in the forest; it is not about cutting ourselves off from civilization. We do not lose ourselves; we do not lose our mindfulness; Taking refuge in our mindful breathing, coming back to the present moment, is to take refuge in the beautiful, serene island that each of us has within. If we carve out little moments of spaciousness in the various activities of our lives for this kind of quiet, we open ourselves up to the ultimate freedom. Whoever be the person you are trying to make connection with,friend or sibling or parent or relative or colleague, spending time in silence together is one of the best ways to forge long lasting relationships.

Hacks

There are many other little hacks that the author dishes out for practicing mindfulness. Some of them are

  1. Digital Nirvana for a day
  2. Try to remain silent during a specific time period of the day or the week. I remember reading a wonderful book, titled, "Listening below the noise", in which the author follows "Silent Monday" ritual in her family. The book goes on to show innumerable benefits of this simple ritual to all her family members
  3. Some tool/gadget that reminds you to concentrate back on the present. In this context, I find Pomodoro technique to be a very effective mechanism to create a sequence of focused and relaxed times.

takeawayTakeaway : 

Irrespective of whether you take "pauses" in your life or not, I think it might be a good thing to take a "pause" and read this book. If not anything, you could find some useful hacks to lead a peaceful life.

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This book can be savored by anyone who loves silence and solitude. Solitude, in most of our lives, visits us when we are least prepared – unexpected work assignment to a different city/country, sudden hospitalization for an extended period of time, death of partner, break up etc. Most of us are ill-prepared to handle the sudden intrusion of solitude. This coupled with our childhood experiences of hyper protective parents questioning us – “Kid, you are very silent. Is everything OK with you?”— creates an unhealthy attitude towards situations where we are silent and alone.

For most part of my life I have lived alone and have enjoyed it. My life has played out in a way such that there have been prolonged periods of solitude, punctuated by skewed mix of necessary & unnecessary interactions with others. Having lived such a life, I think my mind loves anything that celebrates silence and solitude. No wonder that I could not put this book down, even while attending a conference. I took an immense liking to the book that I took every opportunity during the downtime between the talks at the conference, to lose myself in this book. One goes to a conference, not only to listen to what other people are doing in a specific field, but also to socialize. Just silently absorb the content of the talk and reflect on them. Somehow I found a strange kind of comforting feeling sitting amidst a random set of geeks and not talking to anyone. In this context, I remember something from the book Quiet, where Susan Cain says, her well groomed, well laid out office room that she had carefully prepared proved rather ineffective for writing. Instead, Starbucks outlets helped her in writing numerous drafts of the book. She says Starbucks has a unique feature, i.e. it is a place that is constantly buzzing with activity that gives a sense of community feeling and at the same time each one is minding one’s own work.

I read this book out of curiosity of finding out – What does a person who has been staying alone for twenty years got to say about solitude?

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Sara Maitland’s house(a region of Scotland with one of the lowest population densities in Europe)

The author refers to her previous work “The Book on Silence” and says that she had mentioned a few things relevant to “Solitude” in it. She says that she has written this book mainly to expand those thoughts. Indeed silence and solitude healthily coexist. But there are situations where you are in silence without solitude / when you experience solitude without silence. 

Being Alone in the Twenty-first century:

The first part of the book makes a case against the popular notion that seeking aloneness is not a pathological condition. Society tries to brand a person seeking alone time for an extended period of time as “sad, mad or bad”, or all the three at once. For a woman, it is even worse.

In the Middle Ages the word ‘spinster’ was a compliment. A spinster was someone, usually a woman, who could spin well: a woman who could spin well was financially self-sufficient – it was one of the very few ways that mediaeval women could achieve economic independence . The word was generously applied to all women at the point of marriage as a way of saying they came into the relationship freely, from personal choice, not financial desperation. Now it is an insult, because we fear ‘for’ such women – and now men as well – who are probably ‘sociopaths’.

Rebalancing Attitudes towards Solitude

The second part of the book gives a few ideas to strengthen your desire for and reduce your fear of solitude, ways in which you might, in practice, develop your taste for and skill at it. There are many people who actively avoid solitude. The two most common tactics for evading the terror of solitude are both singularly ineffective. The first is denigrating those who do not fear it, especially if they claim to enjoy it , and stereotyping them as ‘miserable’,‘selfish’,‘crazy’ or ‘perverse’ (sad, mad and bad). The second is infinitely extending our social contacts as a sort of insurance policy, which social media makes increasingly possible.

The book contains a set of guidelines that can be helpful in overturning negative views about solitude and developing a positive sense of aloneness and true capacity to enjoy it.

  • Face the fear
  • Do Something enjoyable alone : Have a balance between work time, maintenance time and leisure time.There is a good deal of anecdotal evidence that doing things alone intensifies the emotional experience; sharing an experience immediately appears to dissipate our emotional responses , as though communicating it drained away the visceral sensation.
  • Explore Reverie
  • Look at Nature
  • Learn something by heart

Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘Daffodils’ would have a very different effect if it ended:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
I have to rise and go and search
On Flickr, Google or YouTube.

The capacity to be creative is profoundly linked to the ability to remember: the word ‘remember’ derives from ‘re-member’, to ‘put the parts back together’. What we have memorized, learned by heart, we have internalized in a very special way. The knowledge is now part of our core self, our identity, and we can access it when we are alone: we are no longer an isolated fragment drifting in a huge void, but linked through these shared shards of culture to a larger, richer world, but without losing our ‘aloneness’. For many people this resource, this well-stocked mental larder, offers food for thought, for coherence, for security, and must be one of the factors that turns ‘isolation’ into creative solitude. This is a kind of cultural engagement that you cannot get from the web or from reading.

  • Going Solo : The author is not suggesting those “extreme adventures” that you can brag about to people around you. But something else. Read the book if you are curious.

The Joys of Solitude

The author writes about a few rewards that people who seek and experienced solitude have found :

  • A deeper consciousness of self: Behind the heavy sounding words, all it means that in solitude you know yourself better. Stripped of human interaction, you tend to be aware of your own feelings, thoughts, moods . How you deal with it is a different matter, but the very fact that you start noticing is itself a reward. People sometimes take all kinds of weird steps to experience conscious solitude in their lives. Here’s one such example of author’s friend, Jill Langford.

About twenty-five years into my marriage, with seven children, I asked my husband for a one-man tent for Christmas. A little taken aback, perhaps, he nonetheless granted my request and bought me a super little army tent or bivouac shell that you honestly couldn’t squeeze two people into. You erect it, quite easily and quickly, crawl in on your belly, then turn over onto your back, clutching a sleeping bag, raise your knees and wriggle your legs, then bottom, then torso into it. Et voilà. You stay in that position till morning, then you do the same in reverse. There is no room to sit up and you’d be a fool not to have a wee before retiring, since the whole procedure is well-nigh impossible in the middle of the night. I use this little tent just whenever I feel the need to take off, alone, for whatever reason. For me, it works like a battery charger when I feel weighed down by the burdens of living in community and am dragging my feet. Actually I don’t use it very much, but knowing it’s there to use if I want to is sometimes enough in itself to bring a spring back into my step.

  • Attunement to Nature: Over and over again individuals report these extraordinary, mystical experiences when they are alone in nature. It never seems to happen if you are with anyone else, perhaps because we all have a deep inhibition against exposing ourselves so nakedly to another, even a beloved other.
  • Relationship with God: If you are an atheist, it could just mean an entity beyond your sensory perception. There is no major religious or spiritual tradition that does not recognize solitude as a part of the necessary practice for revelation, intimacy and knowledge.
  • Creativity: We all have experienced at some point or the other—creativity somehow seems to go up when we are do things alone. We understand things better. We learn and experience things more deeply in solitude. Solitude is a well-established ‘school for genius’, and the outpouring of creativity is one of its promised joys. In learning to be solitary and happy with it, you can prepare yourself for this sort of creativity.
  • Freedom: There are two types of freedom, 1) “freedom from”, 2), ”freedom to”. In our society, the former is increasing becoming possible like freedom from poverty, pain or fear, financial insecurity etc. Solitude is associated with the latter kind of freedom

In The Stations of Solitude, the philosopher Alice Koller defined freedom as ‘Not only having no restraints, but also being self-governing according to laws of your own choosing … where your choices spring from a genuine sense of what your life is and can become.’ In this short passage she moves from ‘no restraints’ (freedom from) to being ‘self-governing’ (freedom to). In order to achieve this second sort of freedom she suggests that you need a ‘genuine sense of what your life is and can become’. That is to say, you need a consciousness of yourself, and we have already seen how solitude enhances and develops that self-awareness which is the first step towards being self-governing.

Being solitary is being alone well : being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others.