On the Practice of Solitude...
For me, the work I engage in to understand my thoughts and emotions and to show up mindfully in my relationships and the world is all in pursuit of aligning my interior and exterior life. From that solid foundation of clarity and consistency of self, I can take big risks and speak loudly and forcefully about what matters. When my foundation is strong, I can shake the foundations of the world.
I have been reveling over the last several days in an On Being interview between Krista Tippett and Stephen Batchelor, an author and former Tibetan monk, on the art of solitude. Through their conversation, Batchelor describes eloquently the practice of solitude as a necessary path to inner sovereignty.
He is not advocating for what Tibetan Buddhists call “outer solitude”, being physically alone, but “inner solitude”— the capacity to sit with yourself in the vast, complicated landscape of your own interior world, to understand its contours, and to begin to gain some mastery over how that inner world expresses itself.
Here’s how he describes inner solitude, which resonates so deeply with our conversation here about integrity:
Solitude is something you refine and develop and create. And again, I think crucially, it has to do with refining our ethical intelligence. It has to do with refining our capacity to see where our impulses are coming from, to what extent those impulses are just driven by conditioning and habit and fear, and to what extent we can somehow open up a nonreactive space within us from which we can respond to the world — respond to our own needs, too, but in a way that’s not driven by familiar habit patterns, which are often rooted in attachment and fear and other things. 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.
This is not about not feeling things. It’s about developing enough awareness about our inner thoughts, feelings, and patterns that we have some capacity to choose what we will encourage and feed in ourselves, and what we will put out into the world around us. Batchelor puts it this way:
a better way to render that in English would be to talk of this as a process of emptying — to think of it as a verb. In other words, we empty our minds of our greed and our hatred and our attachment; we don’t empty our minds of generosity and love and wisdom. You have to differentiate, in solitude, what it is that you are letting go of and what it is you are allowing the space for. The problem with anger and hatred and fear and so on is not that they are uncomfortable, unpleasant, and often cause a lot of grief. The other problem is they block us from doing anything else. They literally crowd our minds to such a point that we can’t really even conceive, in that moment, of an alternative response.
Now, I’m no Buddhist. I’m not actually looking to remove my angers or attachments, necessarily. I don’t think that’s possible, or even a reasonable goal, for me, anyway. In my experience, there are actually few folks who are more capable of doing incredible damage than those who are trying to “empty themselves of their anger”. Their identity gets so wrapped up in being “peaceful” that they can’t even admit when they are being anything but. That sort of identification with “emptying” oneself of destructive, consuming emotions is also the basis of all sorts of spiritual bypassing and toxic positivity. No, thank you.
I have known some Buddhists like this (and plenty who weren’t). I’ve also known plenty of non-Buddhists who were so attached to how “good” and “peaceful” and, ironically, “non-attached” they were that they could quite blithely carve a vast swath of destruction all around them. “Spiritual” white folks are particularly prone to this sort of behavior.
So, I don’t try to empty myself of anything. I do, however, work hard to observe my inner life closely enough that I get to choose what I share with the outer world and what I need to just sit with inside myself. Sometimes I’m sitting with it lovingly, trying to understand where a particularly strong emotion is coming from, and sometimes it’s just like keeping a toddler company while she pitches a fit. I don’t punish or judge her, but I’m not gonna let her trash the house either. You know what I’m saying?
This question of solitude is particularly “up” for me at the moment because I am entering into a new, intimate relationship somewhat unexpectedly. Unexpectedly, as in, I wasn’t looking for it. It just showed up, and now I have to figure out how to be in it because, honestly, it seems too good of a thing to pass up, but also? I kind of have other shit to do in my life right now.
The universe really does laugh at me, I swear.
So, this question of solitude feels really important for me to contemplate. I don’t want to be so carried away by the early, intoxicating flush of excitement that I don’t attend to my own creative work and life properly. I also need to handle the whole situation from start to finish with more integrity and inner sovereignty than I have ever managed in the past.
Historically, I have lost myself, abandoned my creative projects, and ignored my instincts, all in pursuit of half-acknowledged dreams and attachments. I have tried in vain to rewrite my own story by enlisting people who were ill-suited to the roles I cast them in. And I have been unknowingly drawn into stories that I wouldn’t have signed up to tell in a million years.
I just don’t have that kind of time anymore.
It is also simply true that, in the presence of other people, I am pulled outside of myself. Some of that is fair and good. We have to attend to other people in order to be in relationship with them— pay attention to their needs, extend ourselves on their behalf. But I tend to get stuck out there, and it gets to the point where I am so disconnected from myself I can’t even think straight.
Did you see the remake of the musical Annie that came out a few years ago? In it, the Daddy Warbucks character lives, instead of in a massive mansion, in a very large, fancy penthouse. The first time Annie visits she asks him, “Does anybody live here with you?” “Nope”, he replies. “You got people that work for you?”, she asks. “Nope”, he replies. “Don’t you get lonely up here by yourself?”, she queries incredulously. “I just like a lot of space around myself”, he responds laconically. “I need plenty of elbow room.”
Of course, in an intimate relationship, there is generally less elbow room. That seems to be kind of the point. But if you’re someone, like me, who really needs a lot of elbow room to create and stay emotionally grounded and healthy, what do you do?
There are actually plenty of folks in long-term, intimate relationships who take the need for elbow room literally and never cohabitate, for instance. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived next door to each other, with a connecting sky bridge between their bedrooms. The physical separation didn’t preclude a tremendous amount of drama in their relationship, but still. There’s a recognition of what Rilke called “two solitudes saluting each other” in this arrangement which I have always appreciated.
Indian author Arundhati Roy and her husband live in separate homes in Delhi. Director Tim Burton and actress Helena Bonham Carter have always lived in separate houses on opposite ends of their country property while raising their two children.
I don’t know if Batchelor, who has been married to his wife for decades, would advocate for separate living arrangements in order to practice solitude. I suspect he would argue that the degree of outer solitude is less important than the cultivation of inner solitude. Though some degree of outer solitude may (or may not) help, it’s somewhat beside the point.
I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t have a grand conclusion. I just know that integrity matters and love matters and so I have to keep trying to figure out how they can coexist, even if they never cohabitate.
If you have thoughts or experiences to share, I’d love to hear your wisdom. And click the heart while you’re at it, would ya?
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