By: Rev. David Astor Sensei
We can meditate alone or with others. When attending a Buddhist center we do so with others, and with others we listen to the Sensei delivering a dharma talk. Even within a monastic community the monks generally sit along with others. In fact sitting with others is an entirely different experience than when we sit by ourselves, it is often more intense. A contemplative practice, however, is better done alone in solitude from my personal experience. A contemplative practice is not teaching us to be solitary, that would be absurd. Even for those that have chosen to live a monastic community life, do so with others. Those who wish to be solitary are, as a general rule, expressing their solitary character that is not how the Buddha expressed our human natures to be, especially for us that value engaging the dharma seriously. We are, after all, social selves. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path is about self and others. Stephen Batchelor (A contemporary Buddhist teacher and author) expressed it as “alone with others.”
There are many examples of individuals that can not stand to be alone. It drives them crazy. Our culture and social values provides ample opportunities to enable us to avoid our own company and be with others almost twenty four hours a day. Even when we are in a room alone, we can turn on and tune in to so many modern devices that bring others into our room even if they are digitally represented. Just noise can eliminate being alone, even if it is just in our minds. Being truly alone is hard work in our contemporary 21st century world. It is hard to imagine living a life without society, that would be almost impossible today even if we wanted to. Those who claim they would like to live in solitude and are able to, are often those who depend most on others, even if they are not aware of this simple fact. Their pretense of solitude is only a clear admission of their dependence, another type of illusion. Even another example of suffering perhaps.
Our communities enable us to care more easily for ourselves which gives us the capability to care for others. This is an essential element of what makes us human as advanced sentient beings. Yet, there is great value in taking the time to be alone, both physically and in a contemplative mind-state, in order to create the solitary-environment that can promote experiencing awakened moments. Another aspect when considering the notion of solitude is that of interior solitude. We retreat into our private space so we can activate this “inner observer” that is necessary for a contemplative practice.
An authentic contemplative is not one who simply withdraws from the world. The act of social withdrawal from others can result in personal unsatisfactoriness and a sick kind of solitude without a useful and harmonious outcome. A contemplative practitioner is called not to reject the nature of their human nature, but to transcend it using social interaction with others as a reminder that just living in the material world without “looking up” into silence is a life void of realizing a world that reflects back into our eyes the meaning of the wonder of its universal majesty.
An essential component of this interior solitude is that we practice rigorous self-honesty and not develop a self-centered sense of our importance by “doing” what we think is serious practice. This is our ego talking. We must remember that when we direct our mind toward universal suchness, we our at the same time encountering it as mystery. By nature mystery is just that, a mystery, unknowing. Another essential of this interior practice of solitude is the actualization in which we take responsibility for our own inner life. We face its full mystery as is that of our own universal nature. We take upon ourselves the barely comprehensible task of working our way through the unknowing aspect of our own mystery-ness and become aware of how we and the very Universe we work to comprehend is the reality beyond common knowing. We accomplish this by losing all words and language to express it. What is interesting is that there is nothing particularly special or spectacular about these glimpses of Dharma. Don’t expect “the ultimate answers.” The Universe will always remain a mystery in unfathomable ways. But we can learn to sense a connection that resolves into great doubt that works to sustain our contemplative practice to go further. These become moments when we confront the solitary aspects of our contemplative practice, and by so doing, find we are not alone after all.