Solitude and Community

I’m beginning to suspect that the quality of a life is defined by how you deal with the gap between what you want and what life gives.   What did I want when I dropped all my work and went off on a retreat last week, agreeing to work in the kitchen all week no less?   I knew the working in the kitchen part would be a challenge, and believe me it was.  I think I went hoping for an insight or two that would help me open more to life, to be more creative.   Yet what I saw took me by surprise.   I realize has to be this way because moments of real insight–of really seeing into life–descend on a person like grace.   You can’t predict such moments because they aren’t on the same level as thought.   They come unexpectedly–and often, maybe especially, when we feel bereft inside.  Blessed are the poor in views and opinions.  They may glimspe a larger world.

One such a moment came to me when I found myself into a bee’s nest of reactions about the food and the cooking and the sense that I was perceived to be falling down in the junior managerial role I was expected to play.   The food was very lovely, and I don’t mean that in a good way.  Too much of it seemed precious, chosen from the pages of magazines, overly complicated, expensive.  The approach to the cooking itself seemed based on a chain-of-command model–and I was just not the first mate the captain expected.   I realized that I wanted to do way more with way less–to not not have all these complicated desserts (after lunch and dinner!)–to just work together and explore.  In a nutshell, my feelings were hurt and I reacted.

Then something happened.  Night after night, I lay sleepless, wondering why I was there.  I meant at a work period in the Catskills.  But Iwas also wondering what my life was for, what my real purpose or role might be.  Did I even have a role?   There came that electrically charged space between doubt and faith,  when it seemed that it was all a mistake, coming here, investing any kind of hope or meaning in life–and then the existential angst of the situation actually opened into a kind of vibrancy and freedom.  I was free from the burden of expectations.

Like someone else who commented here while I was gone, I too feel restive and uncomfortable when people talk too much and too reverently about what THEY say.  As extraordinary as our teachers may be, there comes a moment when we have to find our own next step.

The secret of motorcycle maintenance according to Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—and of living a life that has value—has to do with drawing our attention to the quality of what confronts us here and now. No matter what we are thinking about or doing, according to Pirsig, we can cultivate a double awareness—attentive to our thoughts and the work we are doing, yet sensitive to the quality of what is happening, to what is unknown.  The “dark night” moments I experienced last week were charged with a sense of the unknown.  It was like seeing a glow on the distant horizon.  There is more to know and more to be in this life, than are to be found in our fanciest thoughts and philosophy.

Sometimes life delivers great shocks that give us a taste of what it means to be open to quality, or a new quality.  Sometimes we just volunteer for the kitchen team.  Now I’m going to seem to contradict myself.  I had the incomparable gift of seeing that my perceptions and projections are not reality but I also came away with questions about the form, at least for me.  I have a question about solitude and community.  There is such an emphasis on the need to work together in the Gurdjieff Work, yet I need to know myself in solitude as well.   It seems a bit like breathing in and breathing out, like giving and receiving, like the tides.   At any rate, I feel that certain solitary pursuits like writing and walking lead towards that same unknown.

60 thoughts on “Solitude and Community

  1. @Lewis,

    What drives us back into the cave is a concern for the other beyond our self, another human being. We are all capable of understand the mystery of creation and of forming an intimate relationship with others, with creation. You might say that it is a part of our soul’s DNA, as an image of God, compassion for the other is an innate part of our being, our inter-being with one another.

    As a Christian, I like to think of is as our Christ nature. A Buddhist would call it Buddha nature. In the Anglican tradition I don’t see the following so much as a commandment, but as a statement of who we are as a people, if we have, or share a sacramental spiritual practice (praxis). I would say that you are moved to such a practice and towards relationships that celebrate such practices. They can be a Buddhist practice too, they have their versions of sacraments that bind us together as a people.

    Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith:
    Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with
    all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great
    commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt
    love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments
    hang all the Law and the Prophets.

    These words from the Anglican Rite I, capture it for me as well.

    And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves,
    our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living
    sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all
    others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may
    worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son
    Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction,
    and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and
    we in him.

    The Quakers (Friends) come to mind too, in another sacramental practice.

    “The first that enters into the place of your meeting. . . turn in thy mind
    to the light, and wait upon God singly, as if none were present but the
    Lord; and here thou art strong. Then the next that comes in, let them in
    simplicity of heart sit down and turn in to the same light, and wait in
    the spirit; and so all the rest coming in, in the fear of the Lord, sit
    down in pure stillness and silence of all flesh, and wait in the light . . . .
    Those who are brought to a pure still waiting upon God in the spirit,
    are come nearer to the Lord than words are; for God is a spirit, and in
    the spirit is he worshiped”

    . . . . In such a meeting there will be an unwillingness to part asunder, being ready to say in yourselves, it is good to be here; and this is the end of all words and writings—to bring people to the eternal living Word.”

    For the last 350 years, this gathered silence has been the foundation of Quaker worship. The silence of Quaker worship, however, is not an end in itself, but an opportunity for seeking communion with the Sacred.”

    Click to access silence_quaker_worship.pdf

    We are all seeking, and in many different ways, practicing such a communion with the Sacred. We are all moved by the Holy Spirit, who is at work within the world.

    The Holy Spirit, who is unseen, invisible, without form, formless, and yet intimately and personally involved in the life of humankind and moving us to actualize our fullest human potential as caring and compassionate people.


  2. Hi Lewis

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. you wrote,

    “Placing the responsibility for our spiritual destinies on God alone redefines God into a more random presence that I am uncomfortable with – going to the trouble of evolving acorns only to scatter some in such rocky ground that they can’t possibly have a chance.”

    I can only answer this in accordance with how I understand universal laws. I am drawn to Panentheism which suggests that God known by many names such as the Absolute, Tao, Ayn Sof, the “good” etc. is outside the confines of time and space. The universe is the “body of God.”

    The body serves a purpose not in its results but in its continuing processes. The question becomes if the universe is here to serve me or if I am here to serve a universal purpose in relation to the body? As Simone suggests, we either just serve a mechanical necessity or become capable of serving a conscious necessity. From this perspective, I am not all that important.

    The process is the purpose rather than the result. This is the opposite for the West where results are of primary importance. But from the point of view of service to universal purpose, the conscious quality of the process we serve is of primary importance. The conscious quality of the process is determined by what we ARE.

    If man on earth is not all that important, can we expect anything other than what is normal for nature? How many caterpillars grow up to be moths? Isn’t the primary purpose of an acorn to serve as food for the earth or creatures that walk upon it. Only a very few acorns could become oak trees.

    Karma is the natural mechanical result of a universal process. Not understanding universal laws we could consider results of processes wrong or unfair. But IMO it just means that we don’t understand the process.

    Without the help of a personal God, man’s help to awaken comes from higher conscious influences and “grace” which permeates the universe.

    It is easy to feel that something is not right about these acorns having such a small chance of becoming themselves. But the other side of the coin is that the primary purpose of the acorn is to serve in the continuing process of organic life on earth that eats itself and reproduces in order to serve its purpose. From this perspective it is natural for the potential to crush out the spark. It isn’t necessary for man participation in the necessity normal for organic life on earth. It is necessary for conscious evolution.

    Christianity begins with metanoia or the realization of a change in inner direction. Jesus referred to it but even those around him didn’t understand it.

    Luke 13:

    1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

    This is the trouble. Before becoming capable of “choice” a person has to awaken to it. Metanoia, badly translated as repent, just means a change of inner direction that leads to inner growth analogous the kernel of life in the acorn.

    Those awakening to this new direction and becoming aware of the unfortunate state of the human condition naturally feel an objectively moral need to help in awakening to it.

    “The highest destiny of the individual is to serve rather than to rule “- Albert Einstein

    Of course this is absurd for cave life but isn’t it what Jesus chose when being tempted by the Devil?

  3. Nick,
    My Anglicanism is so ultra-liberal that I have absolutely no problem with pantheism – in fact it makes sense to me that different cultures at different times would be provided withe different relative avatars to help guide them (how many admirers would a French-speaking Simone Weil manage to attract in 12th-century Russia?).
    But I still have trouble with the “blind watchmaker”. Again, perhaps just a remnant of conditioning that I will someday outgrow, I am still struck by the unfathomable beauty and intricacy with which the Universe was created and operates. That man – or any other part of the matrix is in some way unimportant intuitively unexplains more than it explains. I believe, that like a canon, we are in an artistic relationship with God – He serves us AND we serve Him. If THIS process is the purpose, then I agree. The conscious quality IS determined by what we are, and in some small part we help to determine, through the choices we make through the fluxing destiny-paths offered what the process is. However entrancing and useful the analogy is, man is NOT an acorn. The acorn may well fall into rock to serve as food for another, but man has a SPARK, a SOUL to experience metanoia – the thought that a soul would be likewise, after millions of years of evolution, just sown aside is also somewhat insulting. I believe that the Universe is more efficient than that.
    And Nick, never believe that you are of “low importance”. If my own experience is not unique, I suspect that you have had a much further reaching impact in this blog than you are capable of expecting….
    Thank you for your kind and valued comments a couple of days ago — I needed them!!!
    Peace to all,

  4. One of these ultra-liberals eh Lewis, Very suspicious. :) Nah, just kidding. Remember that I am only suggesting ideas that have influenced me. That is not to say they should become meaningful for you.

    First let me say that Panentheism isn’t the same a Pantheism. Where Pantheism suggests that the universe is God, Panentheism asserts that the universe as the body of God and subject to the laws of time and space is within God outside of time and space while the essence of God is within creation.

    John 14:

    9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.

    What is NOW? What happens NOW? We can only define it subjectively as a function of time and space. But suppose NOW is the domain of the Absolute? This means are whole lives are happening within NOW yet our awareness is limited to anticipation of the future and the conditioned past. We just have the possibility of consciously changing our conscious quality within NOW.

    I was using the concept of “importance” in a relative sense. Actually I believe everything is of relative importance both subjectively and objectively. Take the Buddhist parable of the Burning House for example

    It is the same idea as Plato’s Cave. The boys are all caught up in what they believe to be matters of relative importance. They are too involved to realize that the house is burning which is of far greater importance.

    In society a person of importance is judged so by societal standards. Yet the master depicted in the parable of the Burning House is important in the context of a different set of standards. I don’t take it as demeaning to consider myself unimportant. I’m not a big shot by societal standards nor a sage. I’ve just come to realize that it is foolish for one idiot to call another idiot an idiot when we’re all in the burning house.

    I don’t believe we have a soul. Buddhism suggests no soul and Christendom asserts a developed soul. I’ve come to believe that we have the seed of a soul, a seed of something of great importance.

    “Pear seeds grow into pear trees, nut seeds into nut trees, and God-seed into God .” ~ Meister Eckhart

    You seem to be suggesting a soul that has great significance while I see a human soul as a potential. it is an honest difference.

    But in relation to this question of the relationship between community and solitude, I think we can agree that humanity within Plato’s cave or the burning House could be seen as “community.” Those capable of and willing to endure solitude for the sake of impartial understanding have become aware of the human condition as within the burning house and seek a way out for themselves and for community. Yet community must scorn them because they affect their pride. It seems ironic that these strange people that are openly scorned have an influence that is essential not only for developing individuals but society as a whole.

    Well as long as there is good scotch, there is always hope. :)

  5. Nick,
    Wow – it’s been so long since college that I don’t remember if I ever knew, or distinguished between, panentheism and pantheism. This is some deep stuff, and upon first reading I think I see the glimmers of a very important discussion, but I need to read this several times in depth to make a valued response.
    As far as scotch goes, I wish I could indulge, but unfortunately the Depakote I take for my epilepsy prevents that. But after choir practice tonight there will always be comfort food at the great Polish market/deli across the street!!!
    Peace and love,

  6. @Lewis – here is a quick link.

    In Panentheism, God is still viewed as theistic, as the person and force who created creation, and who you can pray to and worship, but who is also outside the universe(s), more than the universe(s), more than the reality we know and understand now.

    Whereas, pantheism is very non-theistic, more universal, more equated with the totality of the universe/creation.

    Panentheism aligns to the JudeoChristian concept of God, while pantheism aligns more to the Buddhist concept of ultimate reality and the unity found there.

    Although, mystics may mix the two concepts. I see God as both and yet more, much more. God is personal and God is also there in the process of creation, in creation, in the continuous act of creation that we are a part of, God is both verb and noun.

    You could also say that they are both, fingers pointing at the moon.

    The point being, that God is more than we can really imagine and know. And yet, God is also personal, God knows us personally, God is a personal experience, God can be known through the sacraments, through prayer, through meditation, through stillness and silence, through a radical trust that all that we need is here in any given moment. God wants to be engaged in our lives, part of our lives, even though God is more than we can begin to imagine.

    And of course, that God is Love. Love is an action, a verb, love may be the sustaining force across all creation. Creation itself, which is still going on, still expanding, is an act of love. And we, God’s creation, are participants in this act of creation, even co-creators in how we help to create reality.

    All our language about God is symbolic language, but they are powerful symbols, symbols that are fingers pointing at the moon.

    When we can begin to let go of these symbols and images, to have a radical trust in a single moment, to be radically open in that moment, to surrender perhaps, or just let it happen, then wonderful things can begin to happen.

    I can equate it to the moment during Eucharist when by opening our hands and hearts to receive the wafer and the wine, we literally receive God. This is mystery beyond all words to tell. It cannot be told, only experienced, because it is a mystery and a sacrament, that goes beyond all words.

  7. Hi Lewis

    I appreciate your willingness to be open minded rather than someone lost in either denial or glorified imagination.

    Are you familiar with the Anglican priest Arthur Peacocke?

    He was a teenage evangelical who became agnostic and furthered Panentheism. He was one of those rare ones that appreciated the unity of science and religion. He provides a good description of Panentheism.

    Panentheism.(24) Classical philosophical theism maintained the ontological distinction between God and creative world that is necessary for any genuine theism by conceiving them to be of different substances, with particular attributes predicated of each. There was a space outside God in which the realm of created substances existed. This substantival way of speaking has become inadequate for it has become increasingly difficult to express the way in which God is present to the world in terms of substances, which by definition cannot be internally present to each other. God can only intervene in the world in such a model. This inadequacy of classical theism is aggravated by the evolutionary perspective which, as we have just seen, requires that natural processes in the world need to be regarded as God’s creative action. In other words, the world is to God, rather as our bodies are to us as personal agents, with the necessary caveat that the ultimate ontology of God as Creator is distinct from that of the world (panentheism, not pantheism). Moreover, this personal model of embodied subjectivity (with that essential caveat) represents better how we are now impelled to understand God’s perennial action in the world as coming from the inside, both in its natural regularities and in any special patterns of events. These three factors-the stronger emphasis on God’s immanence in the world, the stressing (as in the biblical tradition) of God as at least personal, and the need to avoid the use of substance in this context-lead to a panentheistic relation of God and the world. Panentheism is, accordingly, “The belief that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in Him but (as against pantheism) that His Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe”.(25)

    This concept has strong philosophical foundations and is scriptural, as has been carefully argued by P. Clayton (26) -recall Paul’s address at Athens when he says of God that “In him we live and move and have our being.”(27) It is in fact also deeply embedded in the Eastern Christian tradition.

    Panentheism provides a value of loving something greater than ourselves. Pantheism can justify the expression: “I am God”. Consider how Baruch Spinoza, and Simone Weil refer to something greater than ourselves, rather than the greatness of ourselves.

    “… Love towards a thing eternal and infinite feeds the mind wholly with joy, and is itself unmingled with any sadness, wherefore it is greatly to be desired and sought for with all our strength.” – Baruch Spinoza

    “The combination of these two facts – the longing in the depth of the heart for absolute good, and the power, though only latent, of directing attention and love to a reality beyond the world and of receiving good from it – constitutes a link which attaches every man without exception to that other reality. Whoever recognizes that reality recognizes that link. Because of it, he holds every human being without any exception as something sacred to which he is bound to show respect. This is the only possible motive for universal respect towards all human beings.” Simone Weil “Draft for A Statement of Human Obligations” SIMONE WEIL, AN ANTHOLOGY ed. Sian Miles
    The great difficulty as I’ve come to understand it is that we are psychologically attached to the earth and inwardly attracted to the Absolute by whatever name it is called. We reconcile these two directions through imagination so remain as we are turning in circles. Change would require the need, courage, and will to make the efforts to “know thyself” necessary to become free of self justification through imagination so as to become capable of receiving from above and give to below.

    It isn’t easy. Many are called but few are chosen.

    To be or not to be, that is the question.

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