What does solitude mean to you? Albert Einstein once said: ĎI live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.í
In his latest book Simon Parke, author of The Beautiful Life and One-Minute Mindfulness describes solitude as the active path to inner silence and takes us on an enthralling journey there. In a world of haste and distraction he commends the way of stillness and withdrawal where we can Ďrecover the power of aloneí.
ĎItís a journey to our selves and a place we can call our own,í he says. ĎItís here, away from the crowd that we reconnect with our inner knowing - so different to our outer knowing.í
A capacity for silence is what distinguishes us as humans, yet many of us fear to go there. But there is nothing to fear in solitude and everything to gain. If you want to be still but wonder how, this book is the perfect friend.
About the author
Simon Parke was a priest in the Church of England for 20 years and is now a freelance writer. His most recent books are The One-Minute Mystic, Shelf Life, and The Enneagram: A Private Session with the Worldís Greatest Psychologist. He is also the author of The Beautiful Life. and The One Minute Mystic. Simon runs, leads retreats, meets with people looking for a new way in their life, and follows the beautiful game.
15. Love and Hate
What barriers to love have I erected?
In the growing of love, there is no better garden than the garden of solitude. Itís best nurtured, however, not by flowery thoughts but in the removal of hatred from our lives.
Thatís not very romantic!
ĎHell is other people,í said Jean-Paul Sartre.
Other people are hell only when we are hell to ourselves. When we accept ourselves then others canít bring hell to our door.
You mean how I regard others depends on how I regard myself?
Undoubtedly. But we understand Sartreís words; itís hard not to hate people, though some find it hard to admit.
How do you mean?
Some will deny what they feel because they think itís sinful. Perhaps strong angry feelings were not allowed inside them as children and so they continue to deny them now. ĎYou ought not to hate people, so I donít,í they say.
I think a lot of people deny their true feelings for just that reason.
Itís called Ďa hardening of the oughteriesí and it has consequences. Perhaps they bury their hate deep down inside where in time it becomes depression.
You think so?
Others rationalise their dark feelings and give them another name Ė a name which makes them appear honourable. They say something like: ĎI have no particular feelings about Jim one way or another - I just find his behaviour very disappointing.í
Oh, I recognise that! A friend of mine will say she was saddened by something, disappointed by something, bemused Ė anything instead of using the word Ďangryí! She can never use that word.
Emotionally, she is still the little girl who received the message that anger is wrong; that she ought not to be angry. She will struggle to admit to it now.
So what do we do?
Probably the best approach to hatred is to acknowledge it honestly. We acknowledge that we hate our parents, son, boss, colleague, golf partner or whoever Ė and then give up.
This may sound defeatist and it is. But if we want to love more and hate less then itís best that we give up the fight, put down our sword, rest our aching arm and admit we can fight no more. Reluctantly, we accept that the hatred will stay with us until we die, so what is the point in continuing the struggle?
I canít believe Iím hearing this.
Itís strange but help often comes when we admit defeat, when we finally raise the white flag.
Itís when we can deny our feelings no longer and can fight our feelings no longer that assistance arrives. It comes like a knight on horseback to scoop the frightened child to safety from the barking dogs and snarling bears of our unmanageable feelings.
You could try giving up now.
Can we get on to love now?
Iím talking about hate when Iím supposed to be reflecting on love, but thereís a reason for this. Love is best nurtured not by the flowery construction of sweet thoughts but the steady dismantlement of hatred in our lives.
Youíve said that.
And itís still true. The quality of love in a person is not measured by their relationship with their husband, wife, partner, children or dad; itís measured by the absence of hatred for the world.
Iím not sure many will agree with you there.
Itís the strangerís love. As the anonymous writer of The Cloud of Unknowing says, ĎThe perfect worker has no special regard for any particular person whether relative or stranger, friend or foe. He thinks of them all alike as his kinsmen and none as strangers. He sees all as friends and none as enemies.í
Thatís certainly different. Most love I see is pretty tribal and possessive.
Whereas with this love there is no pay-off. Thereís no ĎYou scratch my back Iíll scratch yours.í This love exists freely and without boundaries in the world and is given free of charge, whether itís to the man reading our electricity metre, our mother or the local Imam.
As Herman Hesse said: ĎThe only thing of importance to me is being able to love the world without looking down on it, without hating it and myself Ė being able to regard it and myself and all beings with love, admiration and reverence.í
Now thatís ambition for you.
What about special friends?
Weíll all have special friendships. Buddha had Ananda and Jesus had Mary Magdalene. But if our love becomes squeezed into those at the expense of others, if it becomes preferential or possessive, then it becomes a small and sickly thing. We cherish everyone but possess no one.
So whereís solitude in all this?
In solitude we nurture love by noticing our hostility. Hostility will arise in us as we allow silence in ourselves; petty hatreds will be eager to fill the space.
This is normal?
This is quite normal and our response is always the same: we greet each hatred, each hostile thought, speak with them awhile and then allow them to disperse. As they disperse, love grows in the soil space they leave behind. Itís a love that will extend from our solitude into the world beyond.
Thatís a nice phrase. As Sir Francis Bacon said, ĎLittle do men perceive what solitude is and how far it extendeth. For a crowd is not company and faces are but a gallery of pictures and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.í
16. After Eden
Why do people feel alone?
In the third chapter of Genesis, right at the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures, we find the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Why are you telling me this?
Because I think itís an important story.
Iíve never thought of it as particularly important. And obviously itís a myth. So why does it interest you?
The story describes a change in Adam and Eveís circumstances and it happens after they eat an apple from the Tree of Knowledge.
So what changes?
Everything! Before this event, Adam and Eve are a couple at one with each other and with their God. After the event, they become a couple conscious only of their difference and hiding from God.
How do we know that?
Itís there in the story. Previously, their happy nakedness spoke of their unity with each other in a relationship where nothing was hidden. But afterwards, they become ashamed of their difference and cover their genitals which must now become secret. They hide from each other.
Itís the same with him. Previously they had enjoyed direct communion with God in the garden. But afterwards, they hide from God so he canít find them. ĎWhere are you?í asks God, whoís a bit surprised at their absence as theyíve never gone missing before.
* But as I say, itís a myth!
It may be a myth; but itís a myth with much to say about the human race.
So the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden tells us a primal truth?
Itís telling us that the human race has become separate from itself and the natural order. The story describes the origins of loneliness and the reasons why we fear it.
Even though itís not historically true?
People have strong opinions about that, but itís not important. What matters more than the historical truth is the emotional truth.
This story is emtionally true?
Yes. Somehwere in our distant memory, we, like Adam and Eve, feel evicted from the Garden of Eden, evicted from oneness with our world and cut adrift.
* I can feel some truth in that. But if we want to get back together with everyone, how on earth is solitude going to help?
Do you have time?
I have time, yes.
The human is an unusual mammal.
In what way?
Consider this amazing creature. He is life being aware of itself.
But the miracle of this awareness brings pain as well as delight. Here is a creature aware of itself and others, aware of past and future time, aware of relationships, possibilities, longings and regret; and painfully aware of death, that time is running out.
That is quite a burden.
I agree. So itís small wonder that we have mental health issues. Like Adam in the garden, we panic at such awareness, cover up and hide. Some hide in dependence, becoming clingy; others opt for isolation. But whichever direction we run in, all paths lead to separation Ė separation from others and separation from ourselves.
So our panic leaves us unconscious; surrounded by people maybe, but separate from them and therefore unconscious?
* How can solitude help?
Have you still got time?
Yes, I have time.
Then consider: when we think of our lives, we think of the content.
How do you mean?
This is the stuff we might talk about at the end of the day or chat over on the phone. We perceive our life as our situation, our relationships, our job, our prospects, plans or interests.
Of course. What else could our life be?
These things are not our life.
They are merely the hooks upon which we hang our life. Our life is our consciousness.
Yes, the consciousness you spoke of just now. Our life is not what happens to us but how we perceive what happens to us - or our consciousness.
OK, I think Iím with you.
So for someone or something to enter my life, I have to be conscious of them. Itís this consciousness, this awareness which touches me and is my true life. ĎLife is only real when I am,í as Gurdjieff says.
And the story of the Garden of Eden is about this consciousness - this awareness of others - being damaged?
Exactly. I am not with someone when I sit next to them; I am with them when I am conscious of them. When we cease to be conscious of people, we hide from them in some way, separate from them in some way.
So just being with people isnít the answer to our loneliness?
On one level, other peopleís actions and qualities can touch me, sometimes delightfully. But in another way, they do not. Itís my experience of their actions which touches me, my consciousness of them; and here is the healing and connecting power of solitude.
In solitude, we become more conscious of life and therefore more able both to receive and give?
I believe so. In solitude we become reacquainted with our conscious selves, enabling us to connect with people rather than separate from them. If we are conscious, there is no need to hide.
We close with a poem by Hafiz which speaks of both separation and union and has the scent of Eden in its lines:
ĎWhen the words stop and you canít endure the silence,
That reveals your heartís pain,
Or that great wrenching-sweet longing.
That is the time to try and listen to what the belovedís eyes
Have you ever listened for someone?
Iím sitting on some stones on the Greek island of Rhodes.
Thatís nice for you.
Iíve turned down the donkey ride and walked up many steps to reach the Acropolis in Lindos.
These particular stones are over 2000 years old. On each one, precise lettering is carved in ancient script; and Iím wondering if I can meet the craftsman who did it.
How are you going to do that?
Letís go back in time. The craftsman with his chisel and hammer in 400 BC probably never imagined his words would be read in 2011 AD; or that his skill would be appreciated so many years and generations down the line.
I suspect not. He probably wasnít thinking much beyond his tea.
And as for an Englishman being here, that would have been quite beyond his understanding. While Rhodians were building this remarkable temple, the English were still in mud huts, a backward people unknown beyond their own front door.
So why are you telling me this?
To begin with, as I sat there, this was the way I was thinking. I felt only a chasm of difference between the craftsman and myself.
Which there is.
But as I began to listen, I could hear his chiselling and could smell his sweat in the heat of the midday sun. Time melted and then it seemed that instead of a chasm of difference, everything linked us together.
Why the change?
This tends to happen when we listen to others, whatever century they lived. We may hear difference to begin with but it tends to become connection.
It may work with history. It doesnít work with those who are still alive.
I think it does.
I remember Jane in Liverpool. When Jane returned to the office after some solitude and a sandwich in the park, she changed her approach to her boss.
So what had been going on?
It had not been a happy morning. Jane was furious with the way her boss had spoken to her that morning and with good reason.
Donít tell me - after some solitude, she decided to let it all go and say nothing?
Not at all. Jane returned from her lunch time solitude very clear what she must do. She still needed to speak to her boss about the way he had treated her. So when they met at 2.30pm she expressed herself very clearly.
Go, Jane, go!
But the difference was this: by allowing her solitude to become listening she spoke calmly because she was not speaking to an enemy.
So who was she speaking to?
She was speaking to someone with whom she now had connection. Sheíd found this connection by allowing her solitude to become listening; listening for the person.
There had been no sense of connection between them at 10.00am.
And how did her boss respond?
He couldnít cope with her words. He turned his sense of shame into denial, accepting no responsibility and told her it was a fuss about nothing.
Frustrating for Jane.
Yes. Itís hard to listen for people when theyíre not listening to themselves. Not even God can relate to an unexamined life.
So what did she do?
Jane breathed in deeply and took herself away to recover. In solitude we allow the non-listening of others to pass through us rather than lodge in us.
What helps listening?
Silence helps listening - both outer silence and inner silence. As Alice Koller describes it, silence is like a cloak she flings over herself and covers herself with:
ĎI surround myself with silence,í she writes. ĎThe silence is within me, permeates my house, reaches beyond the surfaces of the outer walls and into the bordering woods. It is one silence, continuous from within me outward in all directions: above, beneath, forward, rearward, sideward. In the silence I listen, I watch, I sense, I attend, I observe. I require this silence, I search it out.í
A hunter of silence!
As we listen for others in our deepening silence, we may also listen to ourselves with a new honesty.
We donít tend to listen to ourselves very well.
Probably not. We imagine everyone else is the problem so what is there to take note of in ourselves?
Yep, thatís me.
But in the safety of the developing silence, as layers of myth-making dissolve, a listening spirit emerges within us thatís able to hear the emptiness of our boasts and more particularly, the needy soul behind our claims.
As we dismantle our own self-righteousness it creates a space in which we hear more, assume less and find connections with others?
And out of listening comes true obedience.
Thatís not a word I like.
And maybe with good reason. But the English word obedience comes from the Latin word audire, which means to listen. The spiritual life creates a listening space within us out of which obedience to truth and life can grow.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published November 1st 2011
Size: 229 x 152 mm
W. T. Stead: Spiritual Lectures From the Afterlife Ė SPIRITUAL LECTURES Comprising a SERIES OF TWELVE LECTURES on various subjects from W. T. STEAD Read here