Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas: “Solitude: Shiftings”

NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Solitude” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.

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Solitude: Shiftings

Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder

In solitude, we can inhabit our deepest selves, feel intense spiritual connection, and experience self love. Or we can dwell in their contraries, finding only disconnection, despair, and self-hatred.

Solitude, my refuge as a boy, felt like imprisonment for much of my later life. From my last year in high school and through my 20s, I struggled ceaselessly to avoid it.

I structured my life to reinforce connection. I hitch-hiked across the United States and Canada to force myself to ask strangers for rides and places to stay. I lived with roommates so that I was seldom really alone. I made arrangements to meet friends for meals and a movie even when I could afford neither and was living mainly on brown rice and omelets. I found work as a reporter to force myself to interview strangers, and as a teacher to push myself out of solitude and into connection with my students.

E. M. Forster’s “Only connect!” became my motto, and without frequent connection, particularly intimate connection, I often collapsed into despondency. Solitude became a necessary evil. The time I spent writing, although absorbing, was time subtracted from connection. I became one of the pioneer users of telephone answering machines (in those days, bulky reel-to-reel tape recorders) because I did not want to risk missing a call, an opportunity for connection, while I was out researching a story. My fear was that if I spent too much time by myself, I would revert to an isolated child again, not only alone but also lonely. I had found connection, and I didn’t want solitude to take it away.

Through my 30s and beyond, I became more tolerant of literal time alone, but I still dreaded periods between intimate relationships and tended to stay in them even when it was apparent that the center did not hold. I couldn’t bear the thought of spending weekends only in my own company or scrambling to make plans with friends, each hour of contact like an oasis in a desert of disconnection. Worse, still, was the ever-present sense of having nobody to share my life with, day by day.

I noticed, however, that a different paradigm seemed to apply when I traveled. Although I was not, strictly speaking, “alone” on my hitch-hiking and motorcycling trips, I was only rarely accompanied by a traveling companion, yet only rarely did I feel lonely. In my late 20s and 30s, I took solo train treks through Europe. Most of that time, though when I did encounter people I could seldom even speak their language, I seldom experienced loneliness. Why, I wondered, was solitude not an issue when I was on the road?

More puzzling still was my most extreme period of aloneness, the near-death experience I had in 1993. In the experience itself, though I was isolated even from memories, sensations, and my own identity, I felt more connected than ever before and – beyond any meditation or psychedelic experience, beyond even passionate love – completely whole and at peace. Some of this sense of connection carried through in the months of recovery, when I was often physically isolated but never, somehow, really alone.

Theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich wrote: “Loneliness can be conquered only by those who can bear solitude.” For the last 20 years, I have been attempting to solve the mystery of these exceptions to the loneliness of solitude and thereby, I hope, to achieve connectedness in solitude and in the world outside.

I see now that my fear of solitude was that I’d never be connected again. When I traveled, I knew that I’d eventually meet someone on the road, or I’d stop to visit briefly with a friend along the way. These points of contact were places from which I could launch myself into the unknown with excitement, much as a child with a secure attachment experiences his caregiver as a “home base” from which he can venture forth, knowing there will always be someone to welcome him when he returns.

Over time, the insecure child in me has come to understand that he, too, has places that will always welcome him. Most recently, the Buddhist sangha has become a home base – a place where I know I will always be warmly accepted, and that I can count on when I return from the week’s adventures. I’m also finding activities that combine solitude with connection increasingly appealing: group motorcycle rides, meditating in the sangha, watching movies with friends, being with a partner while each of us does our own activity, occasionally sharing a glance, a comment, a smile, a touch.

Inside each of us is the seed of an empathic connection with everything. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this ever-present interconnectedness “interbeing” and talks about how everything “inter-is” with everything else. Understanding how connection transcends physical separation alters the nature of solitude. Fully embracing interbeing is still a work in progress for me, but as I’ve become increasingly comfortable in my own skin, solitude has become a more quiescent place to be, and “alone” a condition that is no longer lonely.

My friend Susan once remarked, “David, at least when you’re alone, you’re with a good person.” In the near-death experience and its immediate aftermath, I was strongly linked to a Self that was never far away. When I remember Susan’s statement, I smile inwardly to that Self, accept solitude, and feel my heart shift.

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