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.”
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.