Finding Ease in Aloneness
So solitude, the practice of solitude, is the practice of creating an inward autonomy within ourselves, an inward freedom from the power of these overwhelming thoughts and emotions.
Solitude and language
In many languages, English being somewhat the exception, solitude is equivalent, really, to loneliness. La solitude, in French, mainly means being lonely. In English, we have the great advantage of a word that’s relatively value neutral. We don’t think of it as the same as loneliness, but in many ways that it is the site of loneliness; the site, also, of how we can also be at ease and at leisure, as Montaigne puts it, with ourselves.
The art of being alone with yourself
It’s the art of being alone with yourself; in other words, just being in your own company, and not only being OK with that, but also, as you suggest, recognizing that this is the source — this place of just settling is the place you find yourself, for example, if you’re a poet or a painter — that’s where your ideas begin.
That’s where your imagination, your creativity, all start to, as it were, be germinated and then find form. And I think it’s very striking that the artist, the person who spends a lot of time alone in a studio, just with their materials, just with their imagination — that is a dimension of our culture that has learnt these skills, but, of course, with a very specific aim of producing art.
What I think our society is in enormous need of is a training in aloneness, in being alone with oneself, that goes right back to the beginning of one’s education as a human person, particularly in a world that’s lost touch with so many traditional spiritual and contemplative ways of doing this. We need a secular awareness of that sort of, as it were.
Yeah, there’s a paradox at the heart of this solitude, the closer you move into it. And here’s one way you wrote about it: “Solitude is not to be found in a forest; it’s not to be found in a deep state of formless meditation; it’s to be found by learning to dwell in your body, in your senses.” But really, it also — while, on the surface, it’s something that takes us away from others or meets the fact that we are, inherently, away from others, it takes us back outward.
Nirvana is not some Buddhist heaven somewhere, someplace you go to after you die or some deep mystical experience you might, if you’re lucky, land in, one day.
But nirvana as the Buddha defined it is simply the absence of greed, absence of dislike, and absence of egoism. In other words, it is described as a kind of — it’s a solitude in which you’re not being crowded out by your attachments and your fears and your egoistic confusions. That’s what you’re solitary from.
27 years of his life, his most active adult life, in solitude, and yet, he’s the kind of person who, rather than just becoming lonely and depressed, which I suspect would’ve been a very reasonable way of reacting to that incarceration, he saw it as an opportunity. And what he discovers in the silence and the solitude is the power of words and how powerful words are, because this is what he’s been cut off from, is the capacity to be able to speak. And rather than just feel frustrated and limited, he reflects back on how valuable words are in being able to address people’s real needs and concerns. And so he seems to have transformed that imprisonment, at least at one level, into a deeper resource within himself. And I think when he is released from jail, and you hear him speak, there’s a gravity and a maturity and a depth — it almost doesn’t really matter, almost, what he says. There’s something in his tone of voice, something in his whole being that has been nurtured and enriched, it appears, from this long period of enforced solitude and reflection.