Our luminous “Alone and Together” issue is now appearing everywhere like a beautiful new spring bird. And not surprisingly, I have been reflecting about the connection between solitude and community. At times, it feels like THE theme—the very key to life. There is a fascinating article in the issue, on the poet Rilke, who longed for solitude so he could draw close to the source of things. Exhausted from my editorial labors, I streamed “Merton: A Film Biography,” the other evening. I was struck by scenes that depicted how communal the life is in the Trappist monastery Gethsemani. Young Thomas Merton entered the monastery seeking a place apart “to entertain silence in the heart and listen for the voice of God – to pray for (my) own discovery.” And yet for years, he was rarely alone.
In pictures from his ordination, Merton glows with youth and happiness–in spite of an extremely Spartan life and striking lack of privacy. The monks sleep in little cubicles and otherwise seem to do everything collectively and under the watch of the abbott. And this seems to be the source of the freedom and simplicity and radiates from Merton. In the community of the monastery, he sheds a skin of separation.
It reminded me of what can happen briefly on retreat. There is a wearing down of the ego and its relentless insistence on making us special (if only by being especially bad at kitchen work). There comes a point when we let go of the story of ourselves, when we let go of our fear of what others think and of being no one and all the rest. Seeking solitude, we find ourselves in community. Letting go of ourselves, we may find our way to deeper feeling of connection with life.
Living apart from ordinary society as a monk, Merton found his way to the heart of life. In bustling downtown Louisviille, Kentucky, Merton had an epiphany. He saw himself in every passing stranger’s face. He was not separate from them, nor they from him. Merton went on seeking solitude. He was the first Trappist monk to be given permission to live in a little hermitage, away from the communal life of his brothers. And yet from that place of solitude, Merton reflected and wrote on the burning issues of the day. He travelled the world from that place, and he never lost that recognition of our common humanity.
There is a stillness under the noise of the world and our own thoughts. There is a kind of solitude that not a flight from others but a way of being with ourselves—the whole of our experience, excluding nothing. How precious it is in this pressured age to unplug and drop out and tune in to the experience of being fully present for a time—if only for the space of a prayer or a meditation or a walk. Retreating for a time, we may find our way home to our humanity.
Seemingly worldly people can harbor a secret monasticism. In Merton’s case, certainly being a writer is a monastic calling—even his famous excess, the girls and parties and time spent in the bars around Columbia University were ways of sending up flares: find me, God. And most adolescents are seekers. Most hide pure hearts under what they hope are tough and worldly exteriors. Most are seeking a way to be alone among others. Last time, I alluded to a high school boyfriend who liked to dress in black and act all dark and mysterious. There was actually a group of us who tried to give off a whiff of outlaw or underground—who tried to be psychedelic seekers. We would gather often in the attic room of a boy who liked to call himself “Shiva Gonzo” (which gives you some indication of his major influences). We would sit there by the light of candles shaped like dripping skulls, listening to Led Zepplin and Spirit and similar music, trying to find our way to the source.
A dozen years ago, I interviewed Ram Dass for a magazine. We warmed to each other and wound up spending hours laughing and talking. I told him I felt I had bonded with him—specifically with his book Be Here Now– years before. I described being in an attic room in a house in Northern New York with a crowd of psychedelic seekers that included a boy named Shiva Gonzo. But all the while, I felt a connection to his purifying pilgrimage to India and his meeting with the extraordinary guru who saw through his social exterior—who showed him his true self. “If I had a nickel for everyone who has said that to me,” Ram Dass laughed, banging his hand on the arm of his wheel chair (a little more on this encounter to come).
It strikes me now that I was a lamb in protective wolf’s clothing. The dripping skull candles were really votive candles. I was looking for a place of solitude—a place (in Merton’s words) “to entertain silence in the heart and listen for the voice of God – to pray for your own discovery.”
18 thoughts on “Alone With Others”
Hi, paragraph 6: “Last time, I alluded to a high school boyfriend who like to dress in black and act all dark and mysterious” — “like” should be “liked”?
Fixed! Thanks for telling me.
As you probably know the two that have had the greatest influence on me concerning society and solitude (alone with others) are Gurdjieff and Simone Weil. they have helped me to appreciate the Christian concept of being in the world but not of it.
I know it isn’t a popular or politically correct concept but I have come to believe that society itself is the Great Beast spoken of in Revelations and by Plato as well as Simone Weil. it is a harsh concept but if Gurdjieff is right and we are as described in the Armenian tale of the “Magician’s Sheep” mentioned in ISM as being part of the sheep herd being led to slaughter through hypnosis, then I cannot see any reason to look at society as an idol. It seems far more beneficial for those who truly are in the world but not of it to become open to the reality of the human condition itself described by Plato as if in a cave.
What makes Simone so valuable as the “New Saint” is her valuation of the mind. It is what awakens a person to the conscious path of freedom from the Beast rather than the natural emotional inclination to become a greater part of it and acquiring the captive “feeling” of prestige from it.
Unfortunately such ideas will never be discussed other than in private. The Beast frowns on thinking about other than what celebrates it and the modern New Age tendency is to condemn the mind as an obstacle to the good feelings of self justification including the justifications supplied by the Beast through the belief that it represents human reality. From an article on Simone:
Thus society itself is the Great Beast, not some particular product of society, not even the state, the mode of production, the capitalist class, or any other social product. The weight of humanity is a heavy and ponderous gravity, a force but a contrived force to which the individual remains oblivious.
As long as one accepts the “totem,” and subordinates all values to the collective, the contrived dichotomy of good and evil will trap individuals in fear. But the solution to the dilemma Weil depicts is not Nietzsche’s transcendence of morality but a simple perception of the nature of society, of the nature of the “Great Beast.”
“It is the social which throws the color of the absolute over the relative. The remedy is in the idea of relationship. Relationship breaks its way out of the social. It is the monopoly of the individual. Society is the cave. The way out is solitude.”
Alluding to the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic, where reality is seen second-hand as shadows on the wall rather than directly in the light of reality, Weil points to the compelling truth that everything people do or believe is based on a second-hand source: society. As long as individuals substitute society’s view of reality for their own discoveries of reality — so that the relationship to self, others, nature, and the universe is direct, immediate, intuitive, and accountable — the individual will remain oppressed.
“Conscience is deceived by the social. Our supplementary energy (imagination) is to a great extent taken up with the social. It has to be detached from it. That is the most difficult of detachments.”
The most difficult of detachments , yet it can begin, not with action but with reflection.
“Meditation on the social mechanism is in this respect a purification of the first importance. To contemplate the social is as good a way of detachment as to retire from the world. That is why I have not been wrong to rub shoulders with politics or society.”
We have this modern trend to glorify the Beast without realizing we are just a mechanical conditioned part of it which continually changes by adapting to external conditions.
“With others” must be considered in quotations. Does its value come from its being a part of the Beast or from a mutual understanding of being in the world but not of it? How many can really discriminate between the two?
This poem concludes Simone’s essay on “Decreation”
“It is necessary not to be “myself,” still less to be “ourselves.”
The city gives one the feeling of being at home.
We must take the feeling of being at home into exile
We must be rooted in the absence of a place.To uproot oneself socially and vegetatively.
To exile oneself from every earthly country.
To all that to others, from the outside, is a substitute for decreation and results in unreality
For by uprooting oneself one seeks greater reality.”
Of course this is impossible and even repulsive for the great majority. We seem to have a choice. Do we want to be a creature existing as part of the Great Beast and drawing “meaning” from the Beast or willing to do what is necessary to sacrifice this “belonging” for the sake of the potential for human “being?”
It is obvious that this authentic striving is rare but it is inspiring to know that there are and have been those like Simone and of course Mr. Gurdieff who were authentic seekers of truth needing to experience the Pearl of Great Price at the expense of the pleasantries acquired through personal and social justifications. I hate to think what the world would be like now and in the future without their efforts.
Events happen. Deeds are done. There is no “doer” thereof.
When clearly seen, the doors of perception are flung wide open.
The Great Way is not difficult for those with no prefrences.
Complete acceptance of everything, without preferences or rejection, I think this is what Merton aspired to at the end, after his trip to Asia. So do I. Not easy, not to have preferences.
For by uprooting oneself one seeks greater reality.
Find out for yourself who that one, the seeker really is.
When that is discovered, the seeker and the seeking are finished.
Thank you, Joseph. This is true (I think).
Is there a distinction between acceptance and affirmation and is it valuable for those seeking truth to become aware of? I would say yes.
I agree, Nick. There is a distinction between acceptance and affirmation, and it is very useful to know the difference. We are constantly affirming ourselves and what we know, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
This is where the problem of language comes in. For me, affirmation means conscious experience while acceptance implies its denial.
For example the sheep in the Armenian parable Gurdjieff used in ISM to describe the human condition live in acceptance. It is the black sheep that begins to affirm the reality of its condition..
“There is an Eastern tale that speaks about a very rich magician who had a great many sheep. But at the same time this magician was very mean. He did not want to hire shepherds, nor did he want to erect a fence about the pasture where the sheep were grazing. The sheep consequently often wandered into the forest, fell into ravines and so on, and above all, they ran away, for they knew that the magician wanted their flesh and their skins, and this they did not like.
At last the magician found a remedy. He hypnotized his sheep and suggested to them, first of all, that they were immortal and that no harm was being done to them when they were skinned; that on the contrary, it would be very good for them and even pleasant; secondly he suggested that the magician was a good master who loved his flock so much that he was ready to do anything in the world for them; and in the third place, he suggested that if anything at all were going to happen to them, it was not going to happen just then, at any rate not that day, and therefore they had no need to think about it. Further, the magician suggested to his sheep that they were not sheep at all; to some of them he suggested that they were lions, to some that they were eagles, to some that they were men, to others that they were magicians. After this all his cares and worries about the sheep came to an end. They never ran away again, but quietly awaited the time when the magician would require their flesh and skins.”
You’re right, Nick. It’s about language. For me, affirmation means affirming the self. Acceptence is active and conscious–and quite an attainment.
Tracy does “Affirm Thyself” have the same meaning for you as the Socratic axiom “Know Thyself?”
I don’t think it is the same, Nick. Knowing means understanding, which means acceptance. Real acceptance is love…and understanding.
The difference between self love and love of self. That’s a big question. Self love, our opinion of ourselves, is very attractive in comparison to love of self, a potential we are not.. This is one reason Alinsky dedicated his book “Rules for Radicals” to Lucifer who is known for the beauty of the light of self love. Self love (image) sells.
“Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history… the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.”
Love of what we might become, love of our potential for liberation from ego…an idea worth entertaining.
Tracy, one of the best books I ever red on Chritianity is Jacob Needleman’s: “Lost Christianity.” He explains the difference between Christian and secular love. I think you will appreciate it.
They are usually considered the same in these times of secular dominance. I like his description because I feel the distinction with greater clarity. You can read it here beginning with “the question is what is the expression of Christian love toward my neighbor?”
I loved that book when I read it decades ago. I’ll look at it again. We’re going to run an inteview with Needleman in next issue of Parabola, the Unknown.