A recent article in the New York Times talked about the value of "solitude" in the workplace, suggesting that the current emphasis on doing everything in "groups" may in fact hinder productivity. Brainstorming, discussion groups, leadership conferences, collaborative experiences - this is the way people do business nowadays, and any person who wants to be alone, think alone or work alone is labeled as a recluse, a loner or an eccentric.
The article went on to report some interesting research about "being alone," suggesting that "in solitude much of the sharpest thinking is done and many of the best ideas are hatched."
The Times' article got me thinking about the practice of solitude on the spiritual journey. In this era of collaboration and groupthink I wonder if the value and importance of "being alone" may be underemphasized or perhaps seen as an inferior practice to activities like going to church, praying together, or doing service projects together? As I see it, there is a place for both.
After spending several years of living in community with his fellow Trappist monks, Thomas Merton requested permission to live alone as a hermit in a little house up in the hills above his Kentucky monastery. Paradoxically, he wanted to live alone because he desired to be in deeper relationship with his brother monks.
Merton's desire to live alone in order to be in relationship is precisely the paradox of any contemplative life. The practice of solitude does not remove the contemplative from the world but immerses him or her into an experience of deeper relationship.
The Buddha sat alone under a Bodhi tree for 40 days and 40 nights, mindful, awake, in the moment, and as he did so he entered into a state of "enlightenment." In his solitude he experienced a deep truth about the relational nature of all beings - there is no isolated self, no different others, everything and everyone is a dynamic relationship. His contemplative "solitude" was a threshold for him to enter into this profound sense of relationship.
In similar fashion, after Thomas Merton moved into his hermitage he wrote many beautiful descriptions in his journal about how his solitude did indeed bring him closer than ever to those brothers in the monastery down the hill. His mindful solitude brought him to a place where his "ego" had literally melted into the world in which he lived.
Merton's later journal articles written just before he died beautifully and powerfully express his experience of "belonging" to everything and everyone - a growing sense of "oneness" with all beings who are all part of each other and all connected in the ONE.
As I think about my own journey, I certainly don't think I need to go off to one of the caves in the mountains above my house and live as a hermit, but I do think the "practice of solitude" is a necessary discipline along the way. My road to "enlightenment," calls me to spend quiet times alone in mindful meditation and contemplation, awake and present in the moment.
I am called to do this not because I am a loner or aloof, or because I want to escape from the world. I do this because I want to embrace the world ever more fully.
Last evening I sat alone in my garden as the sun was setting. The eastern mountains were radiant, glowing in the light as the sun was setting in the west. In my moment of solitude I recalled a Taoist wisdom "saying" that seemed to wonderfully describe something of what I was experiencing:
The birds have vanished into the sky and now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountains and me
until only the mountains remain.