I wanted to complete my series on the three ‘S’s which I reflected on through my sabbatical (Silence, Solitude and Simplicity), but to write briefly – and simply – as a very small offering in the midst of all this.
And my sense is that simplicity is not necessarily about having less things and doing less stuff but about being fully present with all of my being to whatever is here, whatever is now.
And then – simply – the need for many of those ‘more things’ and ‘extra stuff’ very often falls away as I sense the utter richness and wonder of just this – just what is here and now in this moment.
Many have written about this. But it is, of course (just like Silence and Solitude) a practice – something which needs to be cultivated over time.
So here is my intention through this period: as often as possible, to stop and to notice and to be fully present to just what is here – however much or however little, whether filled with joy or with sorrow – and to see how often the moment is transformed as I discover that actually in some mysterious way each moment is in fact enough.
Solitude is not primarily about being alone (although it can be cultivated in this way) but about the stillness which comes from being at ease with oneself.
Last month I offered some reflections on Silence which was the first of three ‘S’s which guided my recent sabbatical/retreat. This month, then, some thoughts on Solitude.
And just as with Silence, the word Solitude can have both positive and negative connotations for us depending on our current situation and experience. So, first let me define some terms and acknowledge the negative by suggesting three related words which might be helpful here: Aloneness, Loneliness and Solitude.
Aloneness, I would suggest, is the neutral term which simply defines a situation: I am physically on my own in this moment. Loneliness, then, suggests the painful aspect of not wanting this to be the case and the suffering which comes with that. And finally, Solitude being the kind of aloneness which carries with it a sense of strength, steadiness and ease with oneself.
Henri Nouwen, in his classic spiritual guide, ‘Reaching Out’, talks about there being a path which can take us from loneliness to solitude. And that this is, in fact, an essential part of our spiritual journey. So this, it seems to me, might be of enormous value to the many who find themselves unwillingly alone much more than normal during the current pandemic lock-down. But, how can loneliness be transformed into solitude?
Well, this question requires a book rather than a blog but I hope just a few pointers might have some value – the first being as already stated: that the journey from loneliness to solitude might actually be possible. This thought alone might bring a degree of hope and purpose for us in the midst of our aloneness.
The second is to recognise, as with Silence, the role of our intention in the art of being alone. In other words, to recognise that aloneness can feel very different depending on whether it feels forced upon an unwilling participant, or is freely chosen with some sense of purpose and intention in mind. The struggle doesn’t end there by any means but it is a huge thing to recognise the role of intention and how this could be a starting point for our journey towards the more positive aspects of Solitude.
So, whether you are someone who tends to be very at ease on your own (or even prefers it) or whether you feel you hate it and spend most of your energy trying to avoid it (neither type being at an advantage in the journey towards Solitude, in my view), then actually making the choice to be alone for, perhaps initially, just small parts of the day would be a key place to start. This could be done through meditation practice. But it could just as well be done while clearing the kitchen, cooking a meal or going for a solo walk. The key is not what I do but that I deliberately decide to do it alone. Even if I am one of those who feels they have no choice but to be alone, then the business of bringing intention can help us as we choose to move towards the whole experience of aloneness rather than a sense of putting up with it or distracting myself from it. For there are riches here which will only emerge through my somehow finding a sense of having a choice – a sense of agency.
And then, as ever with a mindfulness based practice, I simply pay attention to what is here – how it feels, what happens in my mind, in my body and in my emotions, whether I find myself liking it or not in this moment. And also noticing my impulses – both the desire to stay longer than planned and the impulse to end it sooner or avoid it altogether.
I may find, for instance, that the very fact that I have decided to do this – that I have a sense of my own agency here – is what shifts the whole experience from something that might have felt oppressive to something which has a richness and a depth to it.
But it may, on the other hand, be a difficult experience for me. There may be a sense of foreboding, of dark clouds gathering or of feeling a bit lost.
This sort of thing, I suspect, is what many of us might be afraid of in being alone. And indeed we may well be coming close to something which does have a dangerous edge to it. Which is precisely why we humans operate best within some degree of community. We do need others’ comfort, encouragement and perspective. But at the same time we can become dependent in the wrong sort of way on these things coming from others, to the extent that we miss the opportunity also to cultivate a healthy relationship with ourselves – an ease with ourselves. In fact, at worst we can not only become dependent on others but we can end up allowing ourselves to be defined by others and their reactions to and opinions of us. And this is not freedom. And this will not help us when we are alone.
At such times the first thing to remember is that, since I have chosen to be here alone I can at any stage choose not to be here – to end the aloneness either by initiating conversation with a friend (electronically or face to face) or through some other activity which makes me feel connected with others. Or even by simply engaging in some ‘distracting activity’ just to get me through.
But equally, even though it is uncomfortable for me right now, I can also choose to stay just a bit longer and begin to explore what this experience of being alone is for me. But if I do this, there is one ‘friend’ I will need and that is an attitude towards myself – of friendliness, gentleness and kindness. It might be that there is anxiety, fear, loss or grief lurking behind what initially just seems like an ‘uncomfortable feeling’. In which case kindness and gentleness will absolutely be the qualities I need until I can see more clearly what is here and then respond to it appropriately. In time and with practice, I will gradually learn to move from harsh judgements of myself to gentle compassion which is one aspect of what we might mean by journeying from Loneliness to Solitude – coming to be at ease with myself, whatever my experience is in this moment.
During my own sabbatical I deliberately chose to spend two weeks alone looking after a friend’s smallholding while they were on holiday. I wasn’t quite alone as there were the pigs, ducks and chickens to feed (and talk to) as well as guests to welcome into the self-catering barn nearby. But the vast majority of my days were spent alone – as in, without other humans to talk to.
And I found these two weeks both wonderful and challenging. During the times when I felt untroubled and peaceful there was nothing like it – especially as there was nothing and no one between me and simply being in the midst of nature and sensing myself a part of it. My sense of connectedness with all that was around me deepened considerably especially when I took regular afternoon walks through and around the 60 odd acres of woodland and sat for sometimes 40 minutes in one spot simply ‘being present’ and being aware.
At other times, though, it did feel as though a dark cloud had descended and I felt agitated, uncertain and restless. Normally such moments would send me looking for someone to engage with – to offer me much needed support, encouragement and perspective. But this time I had decided not to do that (i.e. I had decided not even to ‘phone a friend’ if at all possible) and so I would continue to feel quite exposed. Indeed there were moments when I sensed all my thoughts turning negative and going on a downward spiral – but without anyone to break the fall.
During one of these periods I began to feel completely lost and very uncertain even about my decision to spend this time alone: meditation felt like a threat; going for a walk felt too exposing; and I couldn’t concentrate on reading. It all felt quite dark. In the midst of it all, though, I vaguely remembered the principle of kindness. It felt a bit like just a bit of theory to me at that point but I did know how powerful kindness can be – especially how a stranger’s kindness can turn around a mood or even a whole day. So, still struggling to find some enthusiasm, I decided to explore kindness in some way.
Just the thought of kindness wasn’t enough though. I realised I had to do something – to embody a sense of kindness towards myself. I wondered what I could do that I felt I could actually manage. So I went to the kitchen, made myself a warm drink, sat on the porch overlooking the beautiful valley and just drank it all in. And it was important that I was just doing this as a kindness to myself. Like something I might offer a friend who is suffering – but now I was doing it for myself. It felt good.
And, sure enough, something did shift in me and gradually I began to see a bit more clearly what was really happening and what was present. I began to see that behind what had seemed like an impenetrable dark cloud was lurking the presence of some very negative thoughts about myself and my life – thoughts that were secretly plaguing me, undermining my confidence, keeping me locked in. Until they showed themselves up it all simply felt like a ghastly awfulness. But when I finally saw what was there it was still difficult but very much more manageable – and finite – and actually really helpful to see. Because once I had become aware of them I was reminded of something vital we teach in mindfulness, that your thoughts are not facts but may simply be decades old habitual reactions to long past experiences in life – especially experiences of past stress, trauma or suffering.
And, as soon as I remembered this, kindness evolved into compassion and I began to experience more of a sense of caring support and empathy for myself – someone who was suffering – rather than a battle with or against the thoughts or, worse, a harsh judging of myself for having them at all.
An ease, a gentleness and a peace returned – the promised ease-with-myself of Solitude. But now deeper than before because it was somehow based not on avoiding myself and my thoughts but on having chosen to be present to myself, to be with what was here and to find that this was, actually, OK. In fact I was actually OK – after all.
So, two aspects of intentional Solitude, then. There are indeed wonders and joys to be discovered here. But there will also be dark clouds. So it will always good to remember that:
‘the hooded stranger emerging from the mist is not necessarily the bearer of ill’.
So Robert Fisher announces on his posthumous album, Untethered (Willard Grant Conspiracy).
And this is such an arresting phrase – presumably because we know there has never been and never will be an award for silence. Which is the point, I suppose – as with other ‘awards’ referred to in the same song, for ‘chasing rabbits’, for ‘running blind’, for ‘kindness’ and for ‘the moment the breath leaves your lungs’. ‘Chasing rabbits’ is a beautiful song written in the shadow of Fisher’s own dying and celebrating some of the undervalued but quietly beautiful things in life. And echoing Lou Reed, Fisher suggests these are the things which will lead to ‘a perfect day’.
So, yes, silence is undervalued in our contemporary culture, certainly, but what is its value – what good will it do – and how can we practice silence in the midst of ordinary life?
In my recent sabbatical period, I set myself three key intentions, neatly all beginning with ‘S’: Silence, Solitude, Simplicity. So I thought I might offer some reflections on each over the next three months. And although these three ‘S’s are all usually associated with ascetic or spiritual traditions, I want to explore what value they might have in the midst of an ordinary life. So, starting with silence.
Words totally dominate our world today. And it is possible that we are not even fully aware of this, so accustomed are we to every single life experience being accompanied by words – mine or someone else’s. And we know this because even if we do manage to turn off all our devices and sit in the quiet it is not long before we find all the words, and more, resonating around our minds. They’ve got inside us and we find we can’t turn them off even when we want to.
Authentic experience. But words are only one way of engaging with the world and possibly not the richest, the deepest or even the truest. Before any words, there was silence. In fact, all words emerge out of a sort of primordial soup of silence which we might call our authentic experience. Yes, we need words to communicate something of our experience to others but, as the poets, musicians and artists know, words not only change but very often lessen experience. I may have had the most profound, life changing experiential moment. But the moment I try to explain it to you I feel deflated – that’s not it, I feel. And yet how much I want to share it.
And so I return to silence, partly in my despair at ever being able to give words to what is most profound in me but partly because silence is where I engage with my experience most fully, most completely, so that possibly at some point I may find words to express at least some of it.
Silence as subversion. Words are not only inadequate and often reduce experience but also, so often, and especially in these days of so called ‘post truth’, they deceive, they manipulate and they distort – for somebody’s gain and often not yours. Silence can, of course, be collusion (for instance with an unjust status quo) but it can also be a sort of subversive activism: a refusal to accept as normal an oppressive system, agenda or paradigm; a refusal to use the dualistic language of those who hold power; or at very least, a refusal to add fuel to the fire. Instead silence can be a first stage in shifting the paradigm – witnessing to the fact that we need to see differently – from a different perspective. If words are all too often just adding to the confusion, then first stop is silence. And then it might be possible that the kind of words which actually do shift things, communicate authentic experience, contribute to new understandings may emerge in time. This was Jesus’ silence at the height of his trial for sedition. In response to the pernicious questions put to him, his silence ‘spoke’ about something which simply couldn’t be reduced to the language and mindset of his accusers.
An antidote to reactivity. Words are also designed to get us to react. Every item on the news page is designed to trigger us in some way or another. Sometimes for good, very often for bad and always seeking an automatic reaction from us. Mindfulness practice at its heart is teaching us a way of non-reactivity – and instead training us in wise response. And this needs the practice of silence – a deliberate choice not to use words – just for the moment, until my reactivity has calmed and the elusive quality of wisdom has once again emerged.
Listening. Finally, silence teaches us to listen. Not to more words but to that which comes before words and out of which words emerge – to start with, simply the sensations in my own body, the pressure on the soles of my feet, the tingling in my hands. Then to the sound of the birds and the wind in the air. But also to the stirrings in my own heart, to the wounds, joys and longings in yours and, through all this, to the silent yearnings of a universe aching to come into its own.
But all this takes practice. And this is why I want to explore the idea of silence as a practice in the midst of life – just as meditation, music and sport all need practice.
Silence is not the absence of noise – but the space in which noise is transformed into sound.
Silence is not just about stopping talking and turning the radio off (although it may start with that) because it is equally possible to be fully immersed in silence while speaking, listening and fully engaged in life. But rather it is the cultivating of a spaciousness around the words whilst recognizing that words, though of value, are in the end provisional, incomplete and often deceptive. Whereas the authentic experience we may come close to in silence is of eternal and infinite value.
Outer silence. But, yes, as we begin the practice of silence, it will help to stop talking, to turn the off radio and to leave my phone out of hearing in another room. This naturally happens every time we sit in formal meditation but it can also happen at other times as we intentionally take shorter or longer periods to engage with silence. It could be sitting quietly in the kitchen. It could be choosing to have a meal in silence – or even the first 5 minutes of a meal. It could be a silent evening or a silent walk. And the difference between this and the unwanted silence that many who live alone often feel they have far too much of is that this is a chosen silence – an intentional silence. This is a silence that we have decided for and which may, counterintuitively, help us to feel more connected with ourselves and with others, not less.
Inner silence. And whether we are formally meditating or simply sitting quietly, this is our chance to take note of all the reactivity which is going on in our minds. For it will immediately be there. And as we notice the incessant ‘noise’ in our heads, the aim is not to get caught up with it but just to notice it and recognize it for what it is – our automated reactions to everything that is going on; our minds’ ‘running commentary’, if you like, on everything from the most serious news item to the seemingly trivial (though actually not so trivial) matter of my next meal. Focus on breath or body as we do in meditation will be the core for most of us but the point is to begin to connect with the spaciousness of the silence which surrounds and holds the noise. And this is how noise is transformed into sound; reactivity into wise response.
Silence in the midst. And so, as I make my commitment to silence and to making it part of my practice, ever so gradually I begin to notice that the quality of my conversation changes. This is gradual and I have regular setbacks where I realise the conversation I just had was full (on my part) of reactivity, half-truths, mini-deceptions, micro aggressions and blandness. But sometimes, (and even if only sometimes then all this is worth it), I sense a depth, a quietness, an authenticity of shared experience and an integrity to my words and my listening. Yes, this is it, I think. I want more of this!
I usually write a blog about once a month on themes around mindfulness, meditation and living a more mindful life. However I have been deliberately quiet this summer while taking time for what I have termed a ‘sabbatical/retreat’ – a term which both tries to describe the mix of what I have been doing as well as trying to sound reasonably impressive when people ask. So, a few words this month on what this has been about and what is emerging from it.
It was around November last year when I began to realise that, having left my career at least in part so I would be able to stop racing around without a real awareness of what I was racing around for, I was now in danger of doing it again even though I was now self-employed and had more control over my life. So it was then that I decided to take a term off teaching all forms of mindfulness and to give myself the space perhaps to get in touch with something both deeper and wider. ‘Deeper’ would be about connecting more deeply within and ‘wider’ would be about sensing more acutely the context in which I wanted to teach. My time would be spent in meditation, reading and in the simple practical business of living. I would be mostly home based but I would also spend some time in solitude.
So, in terms of ‘deeper’, yes I did feel that I came much closer over time to an awareness of some core patterns of my own thinking and reacting. Some of these were quite challenging for me and at times I felt I was truly ‘facing my demons’. But I never felt I got lost and very much attribute this to my meditation practice which trains us in keeping some degree of perspective as we allow ourselves to experience all that is within. There is a huge difference between getting sucked in or lost in our thought processes and being able to see them happen in real time, however difficult they may be. There were some difficult and unpleasant moments, yes, especially during a two week period I spent alone, but these moments usually came just before I began to recognise what it was that was here. Unlike some brands of cheap furniture, the veneer almost always being worse that the thing itself.
I would like to say more on this in time but just to say for now that my feeling is that something quite deep has shifted in me and that new possibilities seem to be here as a result.
And in terms of ‘wider’ I have had the growing sense that I don’t want to be just teaching mindfulness but I want my teaching to be in the service of some aspect of life which I feel deeply committed to. Mainstream mindfulness has the admirable aim of reducing people’s experience of suffering both physical and mental and I completely support this aspiration and the vital work which is being done here. But for my own part I find my heart is drawn to a wider context than this. Over the years I have been involved in environmental protest, in nature connection, in homelessness and other social issues as well as in spirituality and also find myself deeply moved and disturbed by much of what is going on in the political world these days. But, despite my own privilege, I also feel vulnerable and somewhat anxious when I reflect on these things today. So I do want to engage meaningfully with the world but I also recognise the need for honesty, knowing our limits and support from both personal practice and from community. So, will it be possible to practice and teach mindfulness in a way which relates to these kinds of things? This is my hope – or my wondering. So, to give myself more time to reflect on this and have some conversations and do some planning, I have decided not to set up courses for this autumn but to set my sights on the new year instead.
Looking for a central theme though, I have been wondering about two key aspects which mindfulness is often associated with and which we also find in the spiritual traditions. These are Peace and Awareness. And then I want to add a third word, Engagement.
Peace, in terms of a calmness within, may be absolutely what you need right now to deal with significant anxiety or turmoil. And that is good – mindfulness can support us with this. But even Jesus had an ambiguous relationship with the word, at one point telling his followers that he had not come to bring peace but the sword – and as he turned over the tables of the money-changers in the temple he was not exactly contributing to calmness. Old testament prophets were also known to attack those they considered false prophets for declaring there was peace when in fact there was no peace. This last links with others who have declared that there can be no peace without justice. And finally I am told that the Hebrew word ‘Shalom’ (usually translated ‘peace’) has much more the sense of ‘a wide open space where the people can flourish’. So the term ‘peace’, at least in these traditions, carries a much wider meaning than calmness.
The other thing both mindfulness and the spiritual traditions talk about, though, is variously described as ‘seeing’, as ‘spiritual insight’, and particularly in the Buddhist tradition as ‘awareness’ or ‘awakening’. And, although peace within is such a precious thing, it would seem to me that it will only ever be genuine peace if it is also linked with awareness – awareness both of what is within me as well as what is going on around me – and how they relate. And I think it is this aspect of mindfulness teaching which really draws me: mindfulness in the service of waking up to ourselves and to the world; mindfulness in the service of creative engagement with the issues around us; mindfulness in the service of helping us to reflect on just how to live in these times; mindfulness as a way of shifting perspective and then, and only then, deciding how to act.
So, this is as far as I have got and what I will be wondering about through the autumn. I would be interested in thoughts, ideas, connections and others who are thinking along the same lines. And then, hopefully, setting up groups for January – some just basic mindfulness but some exploring how mindfulness can support our engagement in the world. And, yes, for those who have asked, I do hope to be able to offer some on-line stuff if that is the only way. I’ve even got around to buying a web-cam!
This will be my last blog until September or October since I am now beginning a summer of sabbatical/retreat which I had planned for some time.
The idea for this sabbatical came last autumn when I suddenly realised that, having left a fairly frantic career 18 months previously in order to live a different kind of life, I was beginning to move towards the same sort of frantic-ness which had marked my life previously. This was partly due to the natural felt need to get ahead and on top in terms of earning an income but partly, I suspect, simply because that is my long ingrained habit – of getting busy, starting and developing projects and feeling the buzz of activity and the feel good factor of offering something which seems to be so appreciated.
And there is nothing wrong in any of this of course. It was just that I felt I was drifting into the same mental cycle that I was in before when I knew that my longing was to know and experience something different – to more deeply engage with whatever might be behind and beneath all of this. To put it more existentially, who am I when I am not fulfilling a role as ‘teacher’, ‘organiser’, ‘leader’? Or, what is left when all my roles are put to one side and no one ‘sees’ me anymore?
These questions can feel a little scary when I realise that the answer could be – or could feel like – ‘well -nobody and, nothing’ – that perhaps I was only ever the sum of my roles. But on the other hand my sense is that discovering that I am nobody could even be a doorway to a different way of being which feels as though it could have something of a greater lightness and a deeper freedom to it. Something about coming home to myself as a very simple and very ordinary being who wakes, cooks, cleans, breathes, moves – and loves. Is it possible that this could be enough – and that if we all discovered this kind of simplicity of being then we might even start to back-peddle on the amount of the earth’s resources which we otherwise require to help us to feel we are ‘somebody’ in the face of this fear of being ‘nobody’?
And yet I am clearly getting ahead of myself here – because I don’t actually know what will come out of this sabbatical for me yet. And, indeed, that is at least part of the point – not to know or pre-judge, but to see if I can be open to whatever might emerge. And this includes what I might do afterwards. I am assuming I will go back to teaching mindfulness and meditation in some form but I don’t yet know and so am keeping my teaching plans for the autumn fairly loose.
In terms of my intentions, I have suggested elsewhere that my plan is to ‘live simply and to pay attention to the simple business of living’. I’m not going anywhere but will live at home and engage as deeply as I can with all the basic activities of living from day to day with as much awareness, presence, love and creativity as is possible for me. I shall (probably) meditate lots and also (probably) explore all that I am wondering about through reading lots too. And I shall, no doubt, spend a lot of time in our meditation barn.
When my wife asked me what I would be doing I said I would be cultivating three ‘S’s: Silence, Solitude and Simplicity. To which she replied, perhaps sensing the over-earnestness in such a scheme: ‘and what about some Fun, Foolishness and Frivolity? – there you are, three ‘F’s to add to your list!’. Ah, yes, of course, let’s not get too heavy about all this and miss the point completely.
So, fun, frivolity and foolishness, then. (Though the silence, solitude and simplicity will be there too, I think.). But no teaching, writing, organising etc. and discovering that the world will carry on perfectly well without me. And then seeing how the world looks in a few months’ time. And of course, in this case, that will not just be my own inner world but what the world will be like as we emerge from this pandemic.
Nothing is certain. Which, of course, is always the case. It’s just that usually we don’t realise how uncertain everything really is.
So, let’s see what happens …
I wish you all the very best for this period of lock-down and also for whatever emerges for you in the aftermath.