Solitude is, for me, food and medicine and air. It is not a separation, a removing: it is actually a movement of where there is a possibility to connect more deeply with the inner-space of people. I have always treasured it, but as I grow into my sixth decade, it blooms so much more powerfully within me. It is not merely “being alone,” and it is definitely not “being apart from others.” Solitude is the vein of inner-listening. It’s where my wholeness is most fully revealed to myself.
“The capacity to be alone is the capacity to love. It may look paradoxical to you, but it’s not. It is an existential truth: only those people who are capable of being alone are capable of love, of sharing, of going into the deepest core of another person — without possessing the other, without becoming dependent on the other, without reducing the other to a thing, and without becoming addicted to the other. They allow the other absolute freedom, because they know that if the other leaves, they will be as happy as they are now. Their happiness cannot be taken by the other, because it is not given by the other.”
In his timeless essay, “Self-Reliance” (1841), Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Foreshadowing where this insight would lead, in the development of one of the most significant essays ever written in the English language, Emerson writes several paragraphs later, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” This essay was a revolutionary turning point for me: reading it deeply for the first time in Paris while teaching English and German there in 1988-89, it marked the last bit of Western philosophy I would absorb intellectually before turning with gusto to the practice of Zen — and leaving all the books behind, and gradually the Mahler and the Beethoven as well. Every single line of “Self-Reliance” felt like something my soul had always screamed for, admonitions I had always needed to hear but could not, trapped in dogmatic superstitions for so many years. Emerson’s soul really broke open the cage for me, intellectually but spiritually. “Self-Reliance” (and For while I had already read one Zen book by the time I encountered Emerson’s words, it seemed I needed some affirmation from an intellectual great to confirm that I would be heading in the right direction, were I to go deeper into Zen.
So, how much more these words by Albert Einstein strike open the heart like a similar thunder-bolt of recognition:
Self-reliance, for doing this spiritual work, has been merely the living out of a recognition of being this “lone traveler” who has never belonged to country, home, friends, or even immediate family. “In the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for solitude.”
Except for a seven- or eight-month period when I was about of Providence Zen Center in 1997-98, I have lived outside the United States pretty continuously since 1994. During that time, I have lost all contact with my Yale College classmates and Harvard Divinity School network, and with one of the two significant friendships I had since childhood. (And one of those relationships had zero contact or communication for over 20 years, during the period of my most intensive training and teaching in Asia.) I do not have ongoing relationships with really any of my eight brothers and sisters (or their children), especially in the years since my Mother died. Needless to say, such things as “cousins” and such relations have grown so distant as if almost to inhabit another, pre-verbal phase of some before-life. There is no judgement in this: it is just how things have grown in the years since I decided to “leave home” and enter the monastic path.
I do not feel “American”, except in a cultural sense, in the same way that I do not feel as a “Catholic,” except for some of the cultural and psychological stamps I received from being raised in that worldview. I do not feel allied to any one nation or tribe (except, to be honest, the “tribe” of people who would wake up to their True Nature through meditation).
Einstein’s words, above, capture so perfectly the way I view this life.
Or, as Jesus puts it in Matthew 12: 47-50:
47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Damn, what is this blog becoming?
It started out as a little serendipitous public repository of things I have encountered in practice and training as a monk, which I might like to look at again and offer to others. Things by the Buddha and Mahler and Beethoven and Bassui, Sapolsky and Harris and Dawkins and Zen Master Seung Sahn. Pointers by Schopenhauer and great Cioran that I might like to reflect on again. Beethoven had a daily table-talk book where his very conversations were recorded as his deafness became total. This blog is just supposed to be my own daily table-talk book speaking only to my own practice, and maybe enabling some help for others’ practice if they find it useful. It is a digital collection of helpful quotes and talks that I found helpful for expressing the otherwise-wordless practicing way to others. By having them here in public, there is the sense that maybe someone somewhere seeking some practice could get some benefit from the pointing of one of these teachings. We cannot expect everyone to connect to the intensity of Zen. There are many doorways to the one truth.
So, this blog doesn’t aim to anything high-road. These are just snippets of talks and memes and citations that might spark the interest of someone on the Internet today who is open and seeking the Way, whether they realize it or not consciously. But it is something which begins to create a hunger for more and more exposure, more display. I have to watch that.