A Case for Solitary Spaces

We are born into this world alone. Surely there are others around to help midwife us from the solitary wombs of our mothers, where we are closely held for nearly a year. But no one can entirely relate to what we’re experiencing at that moment and the days ahead. It is mostly a solo journey of exploration and finding our place in the world around us.

From time to time I think we are called to return to that solitary space like the womb, to allow ourselves to simply be. Perhaps to take a close look at who we have become, without the voices of others encouraging or judging us. To reflect deeply on what’s guiding our actions and to remember (from the Latin "re-memorari," which literally means to be “mind-ful of”) our original intention. To empty ourselves of all that is not true. To nudge ourselves gently back onto the path, where we think we should be.

The word solitude might conjure up images of loneliness for many, but for introverts, it is what breathes life into us. It is not a privilege to retreat from time to time but an essential need.

My opportunity for solitude came earlier this month. A friend of mine was traveling to India, so I decided to take advantage of her studio cottage that lay empty for another week. It wasn’t the most ideal of times in terms of work, but I managed to press the brakes for a couple of days, and tried to wrap-up all urgent work, unsure of when I would get this chance again. Packed a few pairs of clothes, some groceries, and got dropped off at her place.

It didn’t take very long to settle into her small studio with just the basics. The wet and chilly winter weather made it feel like the perfect time to be indoors. I’m accustomed to silent 10-day meditation retreats with a rigorous schedule (which I wouldn’t trade for anything), but I wanted this one to be different -- to be completely agendaless. Something I haven’t done before. To allow space for things to happen organically. The only guideline was to be alone. Turn off all the distracting gadgets. Practice silence (inner and outer).

There’s nothing that allows you to see the nature of your own mind, like simply sitting down quietly. Meditation ended up becoming an integral part of it. I've been practicing vipassana for some years now, so that naturally became an anchor for the days. Mindful living, cooking, eating, and mindful cleaning became the norm. I noticed the places in my body where I was holding tension, even while doing the simplest of tasks, like washing an oatmeal encrusted pot or making tea. I found myself rushing to clean up after a meal, although there was no reason to hurry. Habits can run quite deep.

On the second night as I lay down to sleep, the body naturally fell into meditation. Surprisingly, I felt a heavy feeling right in the middle of my chest. Like a small disc lodged itself right in the center of it, blocking my energies. A stark reminder that the body is registering everything, even when our response on the surface is fine. The next day, meditation took on a more intense form.

The perspective shifts so quickly, when you're in solitude. Just a day ago, it was hard to justify to myself taking a couple of days off, the events of the world seemed so paramount. And now this seemed to be the most important thing that I could be doing with my time. Although my time was coming to an end, I was simply just not ready to leave yet, so texted N to see if he would be okay if I spent another four days away, and could he cancel all my appointments and take care the urgent responsibilities. He enthusiastically wrote back and encouraged me to continue the retreat, excited that I was taking the time off.

Over the next few days, there was a shedding of many layers. The thoughts that were offensively loud when I arrived were simply just no longer relevant. The small petty questions and worries turned into big ultimate questions. Who am I -- without my current identity, my relationships, my fears, my joys? The mental filters through which I’ve now become accustomed to seeing the world started to fall away, ever so gradually. The ego has such a funny way of creating its own world and its own illusions, then fully abiding in them. The only way to counteract it is, to at least become aware that we’re largely products of our own thoughts. And continue to observe the mind like a jury watching a witness on a trial, attentive but detached from the situation. With a deep understanding that in our own narratives, we’re usually the prosecutor and the judge, so the defense has zero chance.

Solitude has a way of cleansing us of the inessential in our lives. The debris of the actions of others around us gets swept away. We are safely returned to our own authentic imperfect selves, knowing that we can truly only just work on ourselves. (It is a stupendous enough of a task for a lifetime, that there’s no room to criticize the rest of the world.) The loud voices are replaced with a quiet contentment. The weakest parts find themselves strengthened. And I find myself once again ready to take on the world. Even some of the dreams while sleeping point to the larger purpose, the higher-self working its way through I am sure.

When the mind starts to take a backseat, our whole being seems to expand far beyond our perceived limitations. We are capable of a great amount of expansion and yet, without deep reflection, our egos can just as easily contract into themselves. This is perhaps why reflective time alone becomes so significant. To not consider life worthy of quiet deliberation would mean that we may be voluntarily handing it over to the inevitable contraction.

In some ways, it truly was returning to the womb for me, and allowing it to nurture me back to my original self. Martin Buber, a Jewish Israeli scholar said it best when he said, “solitude is the place of purification.”


A Time for Reflection and Renewal

The hands of time keep ticking forward without the slightest bit of assistance from us. Still we can’t help but use the passing of days and years as markers, the important moments, and milestones in our lives. Starting with the day that we arrived in this world, to when we started school to the multiple graduations. The day we got our driver’s license and wreaked havoc on unassuming drivers, or said “I do” to someone for the rest of our life. To the usual birthdays and anniversaries. Then there are the special occasions, the holidays, Christmas, New Year’s Eve -- when the whole world is aware of the specialness of the day.

I once tried to figure out how old my grandfather was, he told me he was born during the “harvest season”. Very quickly realizing that I was not going to get an exact day/month/year, I inquired, “but which year?” He excitedly tried to explain that he was born before his sister but after his brother and calculated roughly how far apart they were in age. But still no exact year and he sort of waved it off with his hand. It just didn’t seem important during the time that he was born. There were no birthday parties, no presents, no college admission, no annual health check-ups. All the kids worked on the acres of land owned by the family, grew their own food, made their own clothes, built the family home, slept under the stars, woke up to the sound of the rooster and the first rays of the sun. It was a different time. And a different place. As long as he lived, I don’t believe he ever celebrated his birthday. Life just went on -- without markers. I'm guessing he was somewhere between 78-90. :-)

Though I appreciate the celebratory nature of the holidays, I find something deeply spiritual in days being dictated by seasons instead of mass consumerism. I think many people put too much pressure on holidays and that being the time of the year to spend with family and friends (as oppose to the entire rest of the year). It’s perhaps not surprising to know that there’s a forty-percent increase in suicide attempts immediately after Christmas. It can be easy to lose sight of what is actually being celebrated (in a historical sense).

Winter season brings so many gifts, it can be a beautiful time for growth and renewal. As the nights grow longer, and days shorter, it feels natural to ease into rest and reflection. The past few months I’ve found myself drawn to a ritual that my grandfather would do with my cousins and I when he visited. Every day, right after sunset, as soon as it turned dark -- we would gather together in a room and light a candle and offer a small prayer. It was a marker between the running-around of the day and resting into the coming stillness of the night. We never had to remember to do it. The sun setting would serve as the reminder and send us running home from wherever we were playing. Although I have to admit that at the time we were mostly motivated by the prasad (a sweet sugar-candy and nuts) we would receive at the end of the prayer. 

Once we’d washed up and gathered in one room, I recall being amazed that the small flickering flame would light up all the little faces. It is a beautifully symbolic act that reminds me that when it becomes dark outside, it’s important to keep a candle burning inside.


The Rain Gods

Monsoon. Vipassana Center. Igatpuri, Maharashtra, India (June 2005)

It looks like the Monsoon season has arrived in India with a bang. Seeing Facebook posts filled with the rains, I remembered the first time I had a chance to experience it as an adult. Almost exactly ten years ago, right after a walking pilgrimage. Nipun and I were staying at the Vipassana Center in Igatpuri when it happened. I remember how hot and dry it got right before it, and how people eagerly awaited this season, especially the farmers because the heat was unbearable and the land had completely dried up. Below is a poem that came up for me at the time.

The Rain Gods

Unbearably loud --- not a single leaf stands still,

each one joins the chorus 
as the wind hurriedly rushes through.

The dark clouds hover over
as the drumming starts in a distance.
People gather together, 
to welcome the first rain.
The lightning strikes
as if all the cosmos are assembling for a grand finale.

I look up at the clouds with folded hands
as the zealous wind envelopes my whole body.
And offer a silent prayer to the Rain Gods.

Thinking of the farmers in far away hilly lands,
who only have work when it rains,
thinking of their little children with empty stomachs,
thinking of the sad grandfather whose cows ran away,
because there wasn’t anything left for them to eat.

The drumming gets louder as everyone impatiently awaits,
the pitter-patter of the first monsoon rain.
I stretch out my hand and feel the first few drops,
anxiously waiting for the showers after such a thunderous show.

But to my dismay everything comes -- to a standstill.
The clouds disseminate as quickly as they had gathered.
The temperamental wind decides to go elsewhere for the day.

Only the faithful drumming in the distance remains.
And the silent prayers,
that have yet to be answered.

But it doesn’t rain tonight,
Or the next day, or the next one after that.
Instead, the sun shines brighter than ever,
As if to take back its crown.

Until five days later,
As I sit quietly in meditation,
I hear a few drops hit the tin roof above,
and then a few more, and then a couple more,
until they all come marching down.

My heart fills with joy.
I could feel the earth being watered,
little seeds will soon start to sprout.
And while I couldn’t hear the drums of the farmers,
I could feel their heartbeats dancing with joy.
The Rain Gods have arrived.

As I sat there smiling in silence,
I knew at least one old grandfather
will be sitting on his porch
wearing the same smile,
thankful that his cows will have to
run away no more,
for there will be plenty for them to eat.


Being Human

Someone broke into our car. They broke a rear window and a small part of my heart. Seeing your private stuff lying all over the parking lot makes you want to yell at someone, or hide and be cautious of every person you come across in the building.

All they took was some change, garage remote, few minor things, and a pair of inexpensive sunglasses that I had just bought. Could it have been worth it for them? Instead of attending a lunch for two friends, who just moved to the area, you spend the afternoon cleaning up shards of glass from the car. Slowly separating what you want to keep from what to toss into the trash bin. You call the auto shops to find out how much the damage would cost, and how quickly they can take a look. When the best price is an hour away and first available appointment a couple of days away, you tell yourselves that it will be fine. The car with the broken window will be safe in your unsafe parking lot. What else is there to take? You empty it of all your scattered belongings and leave it unlocked, so anyone who wants to get in doesn't need to struggle.

Tunnel on the Camino de Santiago, Spain (2010)
As you are cleaning, you can't help wonder what type of a person would do this? Aside from being thoughtless and having no concern for other people’s properties, they would have to be desperate, or possibly homeless. Since there was nothing that was visible in the car, they really took a chance in breaking the window to see what they could find. They also must’ve been really scared because they did it in a hurry, not even bothering to close the doors afterward. As you imagine their life, in all your fury, you try not to curse them in your mind because they probably have it bad enough as it is. You wish you could sit them down and tell them not do this because these things have a way of getting back at us karmically. And if they’re already having issues, they can’t afford any more karmic debt. You hope they come out of their current situation, and almost wish they had stolen some of the good CD’s, maybe the chants -- because they need it more than you do.

You sweep the last pile of glass into a dustpan and pick up a "smile card" that had fallen on the floor from your car. People use these to do random acts of kindness and leave the card behind to ask the recipient to pay-it-forward to others. You stop all your activity because it dawns on you that no one must have ever done a random act of kindness for this person. This person probably does not know how it feels to truly receive something. If they did, they would know the joy that an unexpected kindness brings to the heart. They would also know that it would not feel good to receive an unwarranted unkind act like this. You feel grateful for everyone in your life, and for constantly being wrapped in their love. You wonder how you and your society have contributed to this person who feels the need to break a car window to get some change. You forgive them -- wholeheartedly. You wonder how you can contribute to a world where no one is lacking for what they really need.

Although your heart forgives this person, your mind is cautious and it doesn’t want to be caught off-guard again. As you enter your apartment, you make sure that the door is locked in case they took your address. You get up at night and check it once again. In your sleepiness, you decide that you will get a bolt on your door, so no one can break-in. The next day, you feel dreadful that you had this thought. You will not allow your heart to close-up and become small by something so tiny, and stupid as this. You remind yourself that this is a part of living in downtown, and this is not personal. You walk downstairs to your completely empty car, with a broken window to take it to the shop.

Out of habit, you reach for the small compartment above your head for the sunglasses. To your surprise -- they are there! You do a double-take and feel them a couple of times. How could this be? You try to remember if you could be mistaken. This is just not possible because you had checked three times as you cleaned your car since they were just bought the day before. It was completely empty. And you were so disappointed that they were already gone. Maybe they accidently took some of the smile cards and realized that there was an actual person who might miss those glasses, since that was the only personal item taken. You are relieved to know that they have a conscience. It makes you hopeful for their future. 

You feel that a hand has been extended, and an apology has been made. And you wish you could reach out and give them a hug, for a very long time, and let them know that everything will be all right. Maybe, like all of us, they're just trying, and being human the best that they can.


The Sacredness of Values

Kecak dance performance (also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant)

Uluwatu is an ancient Hindu temple situated on the top of a steep cliff, off the coast of Bali. It’s believed that in the 11th century, a sage from the East who built it attained enlightenment here. The temple is now famous for the Kecak Dance that is performed every evening at sunset.

We were staying about an hour away, but everyone we met insisted that we should make the drive out to see this unforgettable dance. As we arrived, hundreds of others had already descended upon this place. We had a little bit of time to walk around the huge temple sprawled across the beautiful cliff. 70 meters above the Indian Ocean, the view of the sea and the waves hitting the rocks was simply breathtaking and calming.

The cliff at Uluwatu Temple where the Kecak dance is performed
Gradually, we made our way up a dirt path, to the highest point of the cliff, facing the sunset. Here, in an open amphitheater, close to a thousand people had already gathered. In the middle of the circle, was a five-foot platform structure holding a large flame. The Priest, in all white clothing, circled the sacred fire while he prayed. 

As latecomers found seats, the energy with the sun setting behind the stage became quiet and still. Close to a hundred men dressed only in black and white plaid cloth around their waists, came onto the stage and gathered into a circle. As they arrived and for the next ninety minutes, the group chanted, “chak-achak-achak.” Their vocals served as the chorus to the performance, without any other musical instruments. Actors adorned in elaborate costumes, took turns coming onto the stage and performed a small part of Ramayana from the Hindu mythology. In this part, Ravana abducts Sita, and Hanuman, the monkey God, who is a renowned devotee of her husband Ram, sets out to bring her back against all odds. In my limited knowledge of Hinduism, I understand it to be a battle of good versus evil. It was quite an intensely emotional performance. The chorus evoked an energy that was both calming and vivacious. The men’s voices in unison pulled you into the present moment and held the attention fiercely still. It was one of the most beautiful performances I’ve ever seen in-person.

Here's a short clip from the film Baraka, although it can't replace the actual feeling of being there:
After getting back home from Bali it was still on my mind, and I wanted to learn more about its origins. Apparently the dance is based on Sanghyang, a sacred ritual where during the performance, spiritual entities will enter and possess the bodies of the dancers and bring them into a trance-like state. However, in the 1930's, a German painter, Walter spies became interested in this sacred dance that was done in the villages, and worked with a Balinese dancer to create something, “that was both authentic to Balinese traditions but also palatable to Western tourist’s narrow tastes at the time.” After touring internationally with the dance troupe, it became the most popular Balinese dance, that the country is known for.
The Kecak dance was never combined with Ramayana in the villages. It was meant to be a sacred ritual that serves as a way to communicate with God. The part that was especially hard for me was that this was created by a non-native, basically for the purposes of commoditization. Perhaps this would've happened on its own over time, given that Bali is the only place in Indonesia that's eighty-percent Hindu. And there is still beauty to the acapella singing, combined with this particular physical movement that seems to have an interesting gateway to subtle realms. I suppose it is inevitable that time constantly changes things, and what is passed down to us, has been altered at the hands of everyone who has touched it along the way. Theoretically, this is no different than our perceptions about every single religion in the world.
For me, this brings up a question of values. Things are constantly changing, but values guide that transition? If it's about selling the show, it's no longer about inner transformation or connection. How do we maintain the integrity of what we do, and preserve our initial intentions, that often come from a space of deep clarity? These start to change, as more and more people get involved, and as we ourselves change. With ServiceSpace, I’ve always felt that our three key principles have shielded us from deviating too far from our initial motivation to serve. And even if we start to go slightly off, there is enough strength at the core to jolt us back, and course-correct immediately. 

How do we maintain the values? I think the answer is the same whether it's at an organizational level or at a personal level. We have to live those values deeply, in our day-to-day lives without compromise if we want them to be present at least for tomorrow. As a well-known Buddhist teacher, Master Hsuan Hua used to say, "Off by an inch in the beginning, off by ten thousand miles at the end." In that sense, I guess that we are always at the beginning.


Letting the Mud Settle

In ancient Greece, they had two words for time, Kairos and Kronos. Kronos was the rational word for the chronological time as we know it. Viewed as masculine, it kept a steady track of clocks, dates, and calendars. Kairos, however, a more feminine view of time, was used to describe the "quality" of time. Whenever we are doing something we love and are completely absorbed in it, we are out of the ordinary time, and in the Kairos time.

All time is certainly not born equal. I have been noticing my own inclinations towards different forms of time. In some ways, have been feeling so busy, to the point of feeling overwhelmed that I wish I could hit the pause button on everything. Meanwhile, in other ways, things that I really love seem to find their way into my day: making time for a friend, a relaxed cup of tea with the hubby, reading a few pages of a book I love.

Photo: Ian Barber
This got me thinking more about time as a concept in our culture, especially the pace at which we’re going now. All the things that were suppose to free our time, like email, (yes, that’s what we were told when "electronic"-mail first came out), social media and smartphones have slowly taken over our lives by commanding our attention, constantly. We are probably the last generation that knows how life was like pre-internet, pre-caller-id, pre-online tv. I know deep down that many of us are moving at a pace that feels unnatural and is probably faster than any of our ancestors. However, we may not be aware of the true impact that this will have on our well-being for a long time to come.

Recently, I had a couple of days in Bali to do nothing. And I recall sitting at the beach early one morning, watching the surfers and the waves -- and feeling like I’m missing something. There’s something my mind felt needed my attention. Something other than what I was already enjoying. In some sense, I had “fully arrived” and could actually take the day off, but my mind, however, had its own patterns to uphold. It was much easier to have constant activity than -- to actually do nothing.

The Italians have a beautiful phrase, that I don’t think Americans have an equivalent for, “Dolce far Niente,” the sweetness of doing nothing. Not just Italy but all over Europe and Asia, you can see people sitting outside of Cafes, on the streets, parks, just looking out and being with themselves. This is something that seems to be a part of every culture in the past. Imagine the hunters waiting for their prey, the farmers working their farms at the pace of the seasons, the fisherman waiting for the fish. The "sweetness of doing nothing" was automatically built into their days because they didn’t take out their smartphones every time they had to wait for thirty seconds. They allowed their mind to wander for a bit, and perhaps that allowed it to drift and eventually bring forth to the surface something -- something that was significant to the being.

Perhaps these are the moments when the mud of our mind starts to settle, and a deeper stillness takes over. This space between one activity and the next is where the truths can be more easily revealed, and this is where life makes sense of itself. The graceful silence between the notes makes each note that much more powerful. And maybe, just maybe this opens up the door to what the Greeks were talking about, and we suddenly find ourselves completely absorbed in the sacred Kairos time.



Morning Prayer (Bali, Indonesia)

We must face
the moments
we would rather
prefer to forget.

By confronting
our deepest fears,
we enable our
own metamorphosis
and unearth the
capacity to face
our next discord.

And meet life
at its own edge,
with open arms,
ready to take on
the next big wave.