The most pure and essential aspect of all yoga, spirituality and religion is our relationship with God, the Divine.
God as a person—a person like you and me, with emotions, preferences, loves, beauty and complexities, but also quite unlike you and me.
In my own life at least, how I grow into the living reality of my very own relationship with God defines the health and wealth of my spiritual journey.
One of the most important ways we can come to a full understanding of our relationship with God is by spending a little “alone time” with God. However, in our amped-up, wireless sphere of reality, I think this has become a lost art.
I have always been a solitary person, and I have been feeling this disconnect my entire life. I very much like being alone. I remember as a young lad taking great pleasure in being in a quiet space, staring out the window at the world around me, letting my imagination run naturally, not inhibited by the expectations or presence of others.
I remain very much the same today. I prefer to be alone, and am most comfortable when I’m alone.
Few things in this world have left me feeling more alienated and isolated than being forced into “being social” for the sake of being social. I have always valued my ability to be comfortable on my own, and while I am learning more and more the value of healthy relationships and community, the art of being alone has become more important to me as my spirituality grows and matures.
I think that some of the friction between those who are social and those who are solitary comes from the fact that real solitude, real “alone time,” is something that is not really very well understood. Those who are overtly social may not see the need or value of solitude. Those who are overtly solitary may not choose to ever come out of their “cave” to explain the value of the space they choose to be in, or they may not also understand that value in their own way. They may have instead, as Paul Tillich mentions in his classic The Courage To Be, built castle walls around themselves to protect the neurotic mindsets they carry within.
So what is the value of solitude?
It allows us to dive into the divine reality that is within us, a reality we are largely shut off to because of how externalized we usually are, reaching out to gadgets, gizmos and other unhealthy manifestations in our outer reality (including other people) to find the happiness we really seek.
I think one of the great champions of real solitude, Thomas Merton, sums up this value best in Love and Living:
“Life consists in learning to live on one’s own, spontaneous, freewheeling: to do this one must recognize what is one’s own – be familiar and at home with oneself. This means basically learning who one is, and learning what one has to offer to the contemporary world, and then learning how to make that offering valid.”
He adds from his classic No Man Is An Island:
“…True solitude is selfless. Therefore, it is rich in silence and charity and peace. It finds in itself seemingly inexhaustible resources of good to bestow on other people.
The true solitary must recognize that he is obliged to love other men and even all things created by God… Love is his solitude.
The value of real solitude also comes through as a bulwark against the kinds of conformity which dull the sacred integrity of the individual, the very unique essence in us that God loves and knows personally.”
It is interesting how the insurance of our personal and spiritual integrity through the question of the value of solitude is inherently connected to how we define ourselves socially. It is something that links to traditional definitions of how we may see ourselves as “Americans,” and how those definitions may not be what we think they are, or with what we are comfortable acknowledging.
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, titled “Sartre and Camus in New York,” Andy Martin shares some of Jean-Paul Sartre’s observations of what the traditional American milieu, which still permeates so much of the American attitude and identity, really meant in terms of the question of the integrity of the individual. He writes of Sartre’s experience:
“By February, having been shuttled to and fro across the States, wined, dined and given propaganda tours to industrial installations, he comes to the conclusion in another article, written for Le Figaro, that America is the land of conformism. He finds that beneath its notional attachment to “individualism,” America does not actually trust the solitary individual.
Despite the “liberal economy,” America is an embodiment of a Rousseauist “social contract” in which the general will of the “collectivity” dominates: “Each American is educated by other Americans and he educates others in turn. Everywhere in New York, in colleges and beyond, there are courses in Americanization.” Existentialist anomie is prohibited: America is hyper-normative, producing citizen clones.”
Admittedly this may not be the most nuanced definition of the solitary individual in America, but there is much truth in Sartre’s observations. The person who is solitary understands that there must be a constant push against this unfeeling and impersonal conformity, which exists in both the secular and spiritual realms.
In the bhakti-yoga tradition that I am a part of, and in the Hindu tradition at large, there is a great history of enlightened souls who have understood the value of solitude. The living examples of these great souls stand very much hand-in-hand with great solitaries across the divisions of faith. It is in this spiritual context that solitude is realized to the highest degree, in the somewhat ironic sense that one realizes that we are never alone, that God is always walking with us, within us.
In the holy books of the bhakti tradition, God’s presence within us is described as the presence of the paramatma, or the personal expansion of God which sits in each of our hearts. Indeed, this paramatma is not only within the heart of every living entity, but also every atom in existence.
When we say that the body is a temple of God, this means that literally God is residing within.
God in the form of paramatma is also described as the caitya-guru, or the “teacher within”, who is always trying to guide us back towards the divine loving reality that is our natural state of being.
The oft-used visual analogy is that of two birds on a branch in a large and beautiful tree. One bird is eating the fruits of the tree. Some of these fruits are sweet, and some are sour. The other bird is simply sitting, patiently witnessing the other bird’s actions.
We are the bird eating the fruits of the tree, experiencing the ups and downs of this temporary material world. The other bird is the paramatma, waiting for the moment when we will turn to him/her, and listen to the guidance he/she has to give to help us become unattached from the false tree of material life and attached to the real tree of spiritual life.
Solitude is then a chance for us to turn our attention to God within us, to the loving and guiding hand trying to help us understand who we actually are and where our home really is.
Solitude is the creation of our inner dialogue with God, and our chance for the restoration of the most intimate relationship we can ever have.
All of us, along the whole spectrum of character and nature and personal preference, have the obligation to come towards this intimate relationship, and the obligation to understand the meaning of solitude, each to our own way, to move towards God.
For those of us who are naturally solitary, we must learn to use our time and space in the most meaningful spiritual matter, and we must also learn to communicate and share the jewels we find within. Those who are not naturally solitary must learn that to approach this lost art means to slow down, to feel comfortable with being alone, to learn not to define one’s self-worth entirely on the opinions and expectations of others.
In our spiritual communities, we must learn to respect and encourage the art of being alone with God. Although we can be tremendously busy with our projects and our hopes, our eagerness to build and create, we must tend to the foundation of our spirit.
Insuring the importance of allowing time and space to be with God will help to turn the tides of quarrel and hypocrisy which threaten everything we try to do in our communities. It will help us to understand who we are and why we do what we do, for good and for ill. It will encourage us to become knowing of ourselves and of our ability to communicate.
In times that call for various forms of revolution, this may seem counter-intuitive. The call for solitude may seem like an evasion, but this is a shallow understanding. How can we speak what we need to speak, what we want to speak, for the sake of our future together, on this world and beyond, if we can’t hear our own inner voice, and if we can’t hear the voice of God within us?
Finally, again from Love and Living from Thomas Merton:
“Is it true to say that one goes into solitude to “Get at the root of existence”?
It would be better simply to say that in solitude one is at the root. He who is
alone and is conscious of what his solitude means, finds himself simply in the
ground of life.”
Slow down. Stop. Breathe. Meditate. Listen.
Being alone with God will give us all the strength we need.
Editor: Brianna Bemel
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