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.