The Power of Sitting Together

In his spiritual classic “Thoughts in Solitude,” Thomas Merton wrote:

“When I speak, it is a demand that others remain silent so I alone may be heard. When I am silent, I hear my true self and reach my soul. When I am silent, I hear with a caring heart. Silence teaches us to know reality by respecting it where words have defiled it. If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything because we have said everything before we had anything to say.”

Our sitting in aloneness is our preferential option for solitude. One way to understand solitude is that it is the joyful aspect of being alone. In solitude, I can hear my own voice, represented verbally, in my thoughts and words, but also non-verbally, in the feelings, inclinations, sensations, and inspirations that arise in the spontaneous ground of awareness. In solitude I have not sought escape from the world, but rather retreat, a chance to fall back in order to take stock of my self and my situation, allowing time to heal, if necessary, and respond to the direction of my inner self. In solitude I silence my voice and allow my body to enter into stillness. In solitude I become receptive, curious, ready. In solitude my intention is to return to the world refreshed and renewed, more capable of compassion, with eyes and ears that see with greater clarity.

In contrast is the preferential option for isolation. One way to understand isolation is that it is the painful aspect of being alone. There is pain that arises over and over again in this world, pain that becomes suffering in our rejection of the reality of life. In pain I might seek escape, developing an illusion that in escape the essential pain of living will dissipate, and all will be pleasure. In isolation it is my voice that must be heard above all others, so that my needs will be met, so that my will be done. In isolation my words are useless because they fail to take account of the suffering of others. In isolation my intention is to descend deeper into a way of being based on denial and defensiveness.

To live in solitude is to share in the spiritual journey of others who seek clarity of mind and peace of heart. Living in solitude one accepts life on life’s terms, seeking better insight into the way of things while focusing on relieving the suffering of others. The paradox of living in solitude is that it achieves its highest fruition only when lived in community, side by side with like minded people. When I sit in meditation in my personal space it is with the intention to have an open and caring heart. When I leave the meditation cushion I reenter the world of people and things filled with compassion, better able to see joy and suffering emerging moment to moment. When I sit in meditation in the midst of my spiritual community I share in the collected wisdom and compassion of the group, strengthened by the personal and interpersonal bonds that have formed over the years of sitting together. Sitting in community, breaking open our hearts and minds to one another, sharing a meal and laughter, we become united and sustained.

If you are in isolation find a spiritual community. Find the people who are a part of your natural “spiritual tribe.” Sit alone, and sit with them. Break open your heart; be vulnerable. Silence your voice, bring stillness to your mind and body. Allow wisdom to enter; let compassion emerge.



Finding Wisdom

Once again, the answer can be found in the NY Times!  Here’s a link to a great article to read that was published there on Thursday, March 13, 2014.

I love the title: “The Science of Older and Wiser.”  As I grow older (59 and counting) I’m hoping that I’m at least getting a little wiser.  As I read this article I was struck by the number of attributes of wisdom that connect deeply with the spirit and attitude of mindfulness.  Here are a few examples:

1. “One must take time to gain insights and perspectives from one’s cognitive knowledge to be wise (the reflective dimension of being wise).  Then one can use those insights to understand and help others (the compassionate dimension of being wise).”

2. “Wise people are able to accept reality as it is, with equanimity.”

3. “(Wisdom is) an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life…(There is) general wisdom, the kind that involves understanding life from an observer’s point of view (for example as an advice giver), and personal wisdom, which involves deep insight into one’s own life.”

4. “If you are wise…you’re not only regulating your emotional state, you’re also attending to another person’s emotional state…You’re not focusing so much on what you need and deserve, but on what you can contribute.”

5. “One aspect of wisdom is having a very wide horizon which doesn’t center on ourselves or even on our own group or organization.”

As I reread these quotes they seem to capture the essence of our mindfulness practice.  We sit with our minds calm and focused, accepting everything, curious, not judging, alert yet relaxed.  When these conditions become present, then we are fully present to the moment-to-moment emergence of the mental objects that stream through our minds.  There are moments of great stillness in our sitting, moments when we see with clarity and are able to let go of the illusions we’ve created about ourselves and the world.  From this clarity comes an instinctive compassionate response to our own suffering and the suffering of others (#1, above).  But this compassionate response is only possible if we allow ourselves to accept reality as it is, with equanimity (#2, above).  These insights are not only about our own experience in the world, but also the nature of the world and the people in it (#3, above).  As a result of this clarity, our bodily sensations and perceptions and emotions are no longer “the driver,” but rather simply indications concerning where we can best direct our attention, suggesting the next most skillful response to the unfolding events (#4, above).  In our mindfulness work, the ultimate lesson for each of us is that this existence is not about me; ego-centric living becomes completely non-sensical (#5, above).

Why do we sit?  Why do we work our minds in this way day by day by day?  Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program teaches that mindfulness helps to relieve the body’s stress response, with many beneficial clinical consequences.  I’m in favor of that, of course, but is it enough to sit in order to be less stressed out?  Maybe it is, but there’s a tiny voice in my mind saying “take more, take more.”  Stress reduction may be the roots and stems of mindfulness practice, but the cultivation of wisdom and compassion must surely be the flowering of this eternal plant.  The MBSR program clearly invites its participants to go further, an invitation that reappears in each moment of sitting, as our minds become clear, and insights arise, and compassion emerges.  Perhaps you, too, might here that tiny voice exhorting you to take more as you sit in the stillness of this day and the next.