Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows.
--Henry David Thoreau
The trouble with those of us in the West is that we're always busy, always doing, always on the go. True, we're alone a great deal of the time, but even when we're by ourselves we're busy. Indeed, our society proclaims that being busy is a virtue, and we feel vaguely guilty when we're not.
There is a need for more time for solitude, a time for contemplation and meditation, when the mind is quiescent and feelings are at ease. Getting to that time is one of the principal aims of timeshifting.
Yet we're afraid of solitude because we're afraid of the feelings that will rise before we can be at ease, afraid to confront who we are when stripped of our "doing" nature. I'm a doctor, a father, a lecturer, always in one role or another--yet who am I without all of this?
And so, when we're alone, we straighten the house, pay the bills, cook the dinner, watch television, surround ourselves with the canned noise of a radio or Walkman; in effect, we are seeking companionship even when there is no other human being around.
There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. When we're alone, we can be in any sort of mood, happy or sad, angry or calm; but loneliness invariably hurts--and so, quite naturally, we run from it.
How many times, for instance, have we entered someone's house when a television set is on although there is no one in the room watching it? Why, when we're alone, do we talk aloud to ourselves or suddenly pick up the phone to call a friend?
We feel a need to be surrounded by people, by activity; to entrain with another's rhythm--anything but solitude, for that's where loneliness lurks.
I remember vividly a time when my life was full of emotional turmoil and I could not turn to family for solace since they were part of the problem. I didn't turn to friends, either, because I did not want them to know there was a problem.
So I stayed by myself in a small cabin on the shore of a lake near the Omega property. One morning, after a troubled sleep, I sat in a chair on the porch, looking at the still water, and was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness. I was sure that nobody loved me or cared whether I lived or died, that I was naked, defenseless. I was certain that nobody would ever visit me again.
My initial urge was to get out of the chair and do something-- anything--to relieve the pain. But I forced myself to sit where I was and I opened myself up to the feeling. My feeling of loneliness shifted to that of rage and then to sadness, all uncomfortable and painful. I can still feel the enormous effort it took to stay with those feelings--and their profound effect.
I noticed an oak tree on the shore of the lake and focused my attention on it, all the while awash in feeling. I remember thinking that the oak tree didn't seem lonely where it stood, it was just playing out its part in the world as an oak tree. It seemed majestic, a beautiful solitary figure against the horizon.
Suddenly I felt myself like that oak, solitary, alone, simply being myself, with an immense feeling of freedom--I no longer felt lonely, merely alone.
I had reached the depth of my feeling, and when I did, it vanished. I had merged with the rhythm of nature, with the almost motionless rhythm of the oak.
I could feel a shifting of time.
It was a profound experience, one I recall in those moments that again bring up the fear of being alone. It has changed my relationship with simply being by myself, with whatever comes up, just being, without anything to do.
From time to time, all of us, like Garbo, "want to be alone." What a relief, we think, to get away from the spouse and kids, or from work, or even from well-meaning friends, and have some time to ourselves. How happy we are if we can take a solitary shower, shut ourselves in our workroom, stay indoors when the rest of the family is frolicking outside, eat a meal by ourselves, or go on a business trip and spend the night alone. No noise. No interruptions. No obligations. Peace: It's wonderful!
If we can somehow manage to find a long-term period of solitude, a strange thing happens: We get lonely or afraid, and we wish we were securely back with our family, or our friends, or our coworkers. Their "sins" are forgotten (or at least forgiven); we actually miss them!
All of this is about our resistance to being in the present, for in the present we experience this emotional discomfort, and then we want to be busy in our common environs with others. But we miss the present when we are with them, for they are the means of avoiding our discomfort. Other people provide our escape.
A client named Joan tells me that when she retired, friends hoped "she'd be able to keep busy." Indeed, so ingrained was the sentiment that when it turned out she was not busy, and that she was enjoying it, she felt anxious, as though she had somehow transgressed.
"You're going to feel bad if you're not busy," she was warned, and when she felt good she imagined there was something wrong with her. She was responding to what she was "supposed" to feel, not her authentic feeling. Society (and tradition, family, doctors, ministers, government) is always telling us what our response should be, and we are somehow queasy if our genuine response is something altogether different.
A tennis-loving friend quit his corporate job to go into business for himself. He could structure his own hours, and he promised himself that when it was time for the U.S. Open, he would watch it all on television and do his work in the early mornings and late evenings.
At noon on the first day of last year's Open, he found himself suddenly jumping from his couch, overcome by guilt. "I should be doing something else," he thought. "I should be working."
He was laughing at himself when he told me the story.
"Would you have felt guilty if you had actually been at the matches," I asked him, "instead of just watching them on television?
He paused, considering. "Absolutely not."
"When you listen to music at home, do you find you can sit through an entire symphony?"
"Rarely, if ever."
"But if you're at a concert?"
"No trouble at all. A symphony and a concerto, with enormous pleasure."
It was, I told him, a matter of entrainment. When he was alone, he was entrained with society's inculcated rhythm, and his guilt was society's reprimand for "wasting time."
But when he was at the tennis stadium or concert hall, he was entraining not only with the sport or the music, but also with the audience, all of whom (having paid their good money for the event) were "permitted" to enjoy themselves, and therefore so was he.
The same event. The same "free" time. Yet in one instance anxiety, in the other, pleasure.
Society allows us to go to a game or a concert with others, but frowns when we watch or listen by ourselves.
It is very important to give yourself time to be alone doing something you really like, no matter what anybody says. It's okay to not take your kids to the ballgame, okay to not spend each evening with your spouse; okay to skip the family picnic, or to go left when everybody else insists you go right. The point again is to achieve a balance. It's your time. Make sure you give it to yourself, and don't allow interruptions or other activities to take precedence.
Listening to music, taking a hike in nature, reading fiction or poetry, woodworking or quilting, or lying on a lawn in the evening looking at the stars are all activities we can do quietly and alone, as long as we remember to be "present," and not do them just to busy our hands or to escape feeling. Many of us don't know what we like to do by ourselves because we haven't spent enough quiet time alone. When we're alone, we get bored or restless. So it's back to busyness as quickly as possible.
Why is it that time for ourselves is so low on our list of priorities? I think it's because so many of us feel ourselves "unworthy" of this "indulgence"--and society agrees with us. Our parents complain of our "loafing" when we're not engaged in an activity; our bosses scream at us when we stare into space; our spouses criticize us if we're "not there for them."
Where does that leave us when we're alone? Feeling guilty.
Yet Thoreau has eloquently shown us how vital solitude is, and Rilke says, "A good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow."
"I need some space" is an argument often heard in domestic battles; I believe "I need some time" is just as valid, and in many ways less threatening.
Most of us don't know how to use time alone and run from solitude. But care of the self is the groundwork for any relationship, and self-esteem comes not from others but from within.
Solitude takes practice. It requires facing down loneliness and realizing that there is nothing more important you can do. Far from being an "indulgence," quiet, solitary contemplation--"doing nothing"--is as restorative as any elixir. Solitary time leads to health. Without it, time spent with others is less full.
Solitary time is the doorway to our spirituality, when the self opens up to a place both timeless and time-full. The key to finding it is contemplation.
We have discussed the rhythms of time to which we entrain, and the process of expanding the moment. Exploration of feeling and I understanding the self (which is necessary to feeling comfortable with oneself, in solitude or at any time) are best reached through the practice of meditation.
Meditation encourages this expansion and brings us into a more profound experience of the moment, as we entrain to a universal rhythm found deeply within. It requires practice to develop the sense of just being present in the unfolding rhythm of the universe. Often there is concern about "doing it right," but this is usually just the mind creating resistance with thoughts, instead of allowing us to ease into the moment.
Meditation enables each of us, alone, in solitude, to decompress from the societal and individual rhythms that keep us moving so quickly. It is about slowing down until there is really nothing happening, nothing to be doing--just watching the breath rise and fall, watching our thoughts come and go. Experiencing just being, without any need for doing.
Meditation is a difficult task for those of us who are focused on the everyday working of the modern world. We rely on a quick and attentive mind and feel uncomfortable trying to turn off or not react to our thoughts.
So when we begin to meditate, the mind resists and demands our attention. One thought after another arises. We start to think about where we have to be in an hour, and before we realize it, we have developed a whole story line about what will take place, what might go wrong, why we're upset with someone, etc. And all the while we're just sitting, unable to be present because the mind is off in the future, or back in the past. Practice is surely necessary. Time is needed.
Remember that meditation is not about reaching some altered state of consciousness or having visions or becoming someone other than yourself It is simply about being present in this moment.
The Sufis use the word "remembrance" to mean a return to an earlier state of being that is without the rush and judgmental mind that is usually operating. Watch infants when they nurse or play. You can sense their bliss. It comes from simply being present in this moment. Nowhere to go, not trying to be anything else, simply present.
Meditation becomes less difficult if we allow ourselves to relax into the moment, because there is nothing to do. To start, all that's needed is giving yourself some time alone. Simply focusing on the breath as it rises and falls is sufficient. When we react by thinking we're "wasting time" or if we feel bored, we are simply experiencing the entrainment patterns to which we have become habituated.
Give yourself fifteen to twenty minutes each day for meditation. It will significantly affect how you feel. I find that it is like sounding a beautiful tone each morning, which sets up a rhythm that persists throughout the day. Sure, my mind sometimes races or I long to get busy. For me, meditation can be easy; often it's a struggle. Yet I never doubt the worth of the struggle. I am always aware that when I am meditating regularly, the rhythmic pattern of my life flows more smoothly.
Begin meditation on your own simply by sitting in a chair or on a cushion. It's best to sit upright with your back straight so that you stay alert and don't succumb to sleepiness. Simply watch the breath and silently repeat the word "rising" with the in-breath, and the word "falling" with the out-breath. Or you can count each breath until ten, then repeat the process over and over. The method is less important than the commitment to time in your life for stillness.
Don't worry about getting it right. Theresa, whose story I told in Chapter Six, had never heard of meditation, yet her daily ritual of sitting with herself opened a sense of presence and grace that was as deep as any other kind of meditation.
To develop regular meditation practice, it is often helpful to find a group or class that meditates (while meditating, you'll be both alone and with others). The group sets up a rhythmic entrainment field that can support developing this practice.
Meditation is as profound as any teacher, and if you can get comfortable with it, you will find your life dramatically affected, as mine has been.
"Be like a flower," Thich Nhat Hanh advises. "Be there. Smile."
Sit quietly, I tell my class. Breathe deeply. Watch your breath. Count your breath. Experience it. Come home to it. Sit and breathe and let time flow, with no engagement of your mind, no thought--just awareness.
The question "Awareness of what?"--as Ram Dass explains--is the wrong question. Just awareness, the way "mindfulness" means being away from mind.
We're describing being in the present. Let joy and pain and fear and life and death commingle in you, as it does in all presents.
Take your time. Don't run. Impatience signifies denial, boredom signals fear.
You will stop when it is time.