Solitude and Connection

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

–excerpt from “Nature,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

A recent conversation with a friend sent me digging through the archives to locate a brief essay I wrote years ago entitled, “Why It Is Not A Good Idea To Live Alone,” which was part of an ongoing debate about the merits of solitude, which exist independently of the benefits of healthy regular relationships with others. Since I have been writing about solitude in recent postings, I thought my readers might enjoy this brief look back at, what was then, an earnest attempt to make a case for cohabitation:

“Why It Is Not A Good Idea To Live Alone”

Everything that lives, lives not alone, nor for itself.” –William Blake

Virtually all common human activities have some social aspect in that people generally engage in them together, rather than alone, and mutually influence one another. Throughout human history, in nearly every civilization, the overwhelmingly dominant characteristic arrangement of our species has been found in the many varieties of living together.

The family unit, however loosely arranged or tenuously held together, is the foundation of life among most living creatures on our planet, and the building block of civilized society. Early humans, not restricted by social convention or modern ethical and sociological considerations still instinctively lived together in social groups for protection and survival. Due to the dangers inherent in the world of predatory dominance, a person living alone was virtually non-existent in those ancient epochs. As the human species evolved, with the advent of agriculture and the subsequent development of communities, humans became more diverse in their social arrangements and the nuclear family eventually emerged as the dominant social unit.

Around the third century A.D., the first indications of the eremitic life were discovered in Egypt. From the Greek word, “eremites,” meaning “living in the desert,” the word “hermit” is derived. Known in many cultures, the hermit generally adopts a solitary life out of an impulse to pray or to do penance.

In the fourth century, the eremitic life became known in Western Europe. In order to combine the personal seclusion of individuals with the common experience of religious duties, gradually these hermits formed groups of disciples under a particular spiritual leader. Thus, even the extreme eremitic life eventually gave way to the less rigorous community life that was the basis for monasticism. The early hermits who formed these communities had a group of separate cells called “laura,” to which they could retire after discharging the common life duties, combining the communal with personal solitude.

In modern society, there is a much heralded emphasis on the individual, and a much more flexible attitude toward unorthodox lifestyle choices, resulting in a variety of societal living arrangements. Despite this increased freedom of choice and available options, human evolution has not yet progressed to the point where we do not require close personal relationships that are developed during cohabitation.

The late Leo Buscaglia, Ph. D., former associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, and well-known author of “Loving Each Other,” asserts the vitally important role of relationships:

“Human survival is dependent upon healthy relating. The complex ongoing process of people interacting with others in harmony through each stage of life is the highest and most demanding form of human behavior. As we mature, we become more deeply aware of the devastating effects arising from aloneness.”
Instinctively, we seek out others, even though modern society tells us that strength lies in independence.

Dr. Buscaglia says, “We see ‘need’ as immature, and ‘dependence’ as weakness. We fear commitment in that it may destroy our individuality and our much coveted freedom. In so feeling, we build self-imposed barriers to genuine encounter and the deep unions we so desperately seek.”

It can also be said that while living alone can be challenging, enlightening, and even joyful, humans are by nature social beings. With each close relationship to another person, we are brought closer to ourselves. Without these close ties to other human beings, our development is seriously hindered. Recent studies by a variety of behavioral experts indicate, “…a positive correlation between human concern and togetherness, and human growth and development.”

There is no question that solitude and time to one’s self is vitally important to a balanced individual life, but the prospect of living alone for extended periods and avoiding intimate, long term association with other humans can only be a limiting and potentially harmful lifestyle.

Clearly, it is possible to live alone and to flourish, assuming some form of regular attention to maintaining and developing friendships, and at least some form of interaction with others outside of the home. It is quite another matter, to achieve a balanced life, without some exposure to both close relationships and to opportunities for solitude.

I once wrote about my appreciation for the opportunity to experience solitude, since it forced me to contemplate the importance of a particular memory, which might otherwise have escaped notice:

“I remember hearing the seagulls. Perhaps the natural spring was in a mountain near a beach. There was no other sound aside from the water, the birds, and the music in my soul. With eyes closed, the memory of the experience was fully engaged. It was a moment of repose, of silence, of solitude, forcing me to contemplate a memory of a feeling. I cannot completely or precisely replicate them. They only rise up within me in my solitude. In spite of the difference in time and possibilities, the unknown, the uncertain, the vague, all of it comes together in a moment of solitude. “

Gazing upon someone we love, and sharing the special closeness that can only come from such connections, creates a lovely memory of the experience when it happens. The memory of that experience holds particular pleasure because those aspects which we hold on to, those which mean the most to us, are the parts that we remember. And there are lots of parts–tender embraces and loving glances, but also heartaches and tears, and even profound sadness sometimes. We tend not to want to remember the difficult parts in these special relationships, because they take away from the feelings of joy and fulfillment that we associate with them. Integrating all the different aspects of our lifetime of memories takes time, and requires dedicating deliberate effort in quiet contemplation.

Even as a younger person, who was essentially on his own, I still never felt alone, at least, not in the way that I do now. I think because I am older now, I feel this aloneness more profoundly, while still recognizing and acknowledging the unity of everything that lives. The feeling combined with this recognition suggests the dual nature of all aspects of life, especially to be alone, but also to be one with all life simultaneously. It is a gift. It is a consequence of our humanity–a temporal manifestation of the infinite, the spiritual, and the ineffable. It is a paradox to know for certain that there is unity among all people, all creatures, all parts of the universe, and to feel so desperately, profoundly alone simultaneously.

Walking alone down the street, I am, all at once, completely unified with everything I see and feel and sense, in every way, and yet, distinctly alone, individual, apart. The differences between myself and other living entities is a signal that there is a variety and a number of differences in the way that consciousness manifests in the world. If you go down deep, and when we say “go in deep” or “go inward” we mean not temporally, but spiritually within us–when we do that–it emphasizes both our unification with all life and our inner separateness from it, and the simultaneous recognition of both becomes clearer when we withdraw within.

Here’s to the hope for all those who wish to find a connection to the path that leads away from being alone, that they will find that path, and truly flourish and grow into a fullness of life underway.

All Heaven and Earth Are Still

All Heaven and Earth are still though not in sleep,
But breathless, as we grow when feeling most;
And silent, as we stand in thoughts too deep:—
All Heaven and Earth are still. From the high host
Of stars to the lulled lake and mountain-coast,
All is concentered in a life intense,
Where not a beam, nor air, nor leaf is lost,
But have a part of Being, and a sense
Of that which is of all Creator and Defence.

–excerpt from Canto III of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” by Lord Byron, 1816

In the current maelstrom of life in the 21st century, it may seem from the accumulated reports from across the globe, that Lord Byron was recounting the state of the world from an impossibly gentler time, when stillness was a great deal more common than it seems to be in our time. In some ways, of course, it may be true that our modern world has become less amenable to calm and stillness, with fewer opportunities to stand in deep thought, or to appreciate a lulled lake scene, or to be soothed by the gentle rhythms of a mountain coastline. Our apparent societal obsession with the advancements in digital technology and the relentless machinations of the 24-hour news cycle, may make it appear as though “life intense” no longer infers a condition where “not a beam, nor air, nor leaf is lost.”

In spite of the demands of modern life, there are still opportunities for appreciating the view of heaven and earth “…from the high host of stars.” For Christmas this year, I received a signed copy of “Infinite Wonder,” a book by astronaut Scott Kelly, detailing his year in space aboard the International Space Station. The photo above is one of the many views provided by our participation in the work being done 250 miles above the earth. Thanks to the efforts of astronaut Kelly and the many international participants in the space program, anyone who wishes can now appreciate these “unspeakably beautiful” images of the Earth from space, and realize that the stillness of “heaven and earth,” from this perspective is fully available to any who have eyes to see, and the ability to ponder “thoughts too deep.”

Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt
In solitude, where we are least alone;
A truth, which through our being then doth melt,
And purifies from self; it is a tone,
The soul and source of Music, which makes known
Eternal harmony, and sheds a charm
Like the fabled Cytherea’s zone(*)
Binding all things with beauty;—‘twould disarm
The spectre Death, had he substantial power to harm.

–Canto III again…(*) —Cytherea’s Zone – refers to the fabled belt or girdle (zone) of Aphrodite/Venus, the goddess of love (Cythera was the mythical birthplace of the goddess), which conferred upon by any mortal who wore it, the power to attract love.

Recently, as I have spent more time in solitude, I have begun to understand how Byron concluded that when we spend more time there, “where we are least alone,” we come upon a truth, which illuminates an “eternal harmony,” at the heart of life. Last year, depicted in the photo above, I performed a scene for my family during our annual Christmas celebration, which I wrote as part of a larger work-in-progress, where I reflect in solitude, and affirm Byron’s contention that such contemplation “stirs the feeling infinite:”

When I’m alone, looking back over the years, I can still hear the beautiful song of hope that played in my head as a child. It’s like a siren song. I believed in it. I believed in it because it was not a song that leads to destruction, but one that was calling me to my task. That beautiful voice gave me hope. Now that I look back on it, I know that it was not just one voice. I know that each time I heard it, I recognized the spirit who dwelled within it…it may be the voice of my unborn grandchild…it may be a voice from the future or from an ancient past. I know that essence. In unguarded moments, in the silence between words, in moments of quiet contemplation, I know that it is a part of me, telling me to move forward with hope.

Spending more time now in contemplation has provided me with opportunities to reflect and focus on the meaning of a lifetime of experiences and “deep thoughts,” which were so rare during the demanding work schedule I pursued. For many people, the frenetic pace of modern life, with so much more attention being paid to our digital lives, rather than our temporal and spiritual lives, contributes to an awareness for some of us of an emotional and spiritual deficit, which we try to fill with “mindfulness programs,” which often seem more materialistic, emphasizing profit, rather than providing the personal benefits possible when applied empathetically as a therapeutic approach to the modern challenges of life in the 21st century. Anyone can subscribe to one of the many offerings made available through large for-profit organizations, and some of them do provide portions of age-old wisdom traditions in a way that might lead to a more considered approach to those challenges, but with the additional requirement for monetary contributions, when there are other religious and spiritual centers which provide similar programs without cost.

During the past eight years here at John’s Consciousness, I have endeavored to provide some sense of the underlying “eternal harmony,” which I believe exists within us, and which can be accessed regardless of our ability to participate in the modern amenities available in such for-profit programs. This is not an indictment of any such program or a criticism of those who participate in them, only a suggestion that when we seek outside of ourselves for the answers to our most pressing personal and spiritual challenges, what we often find is that we can often better serve those goals by taking what we find and comparing it to our own inner sense of what life requires of us in pursuit of these answers. With a consistent and concerted effort to explore our inner world in this way, we can arrive in a place where our very human spirit and our evolving inner life can expand and become fuller, even in consideration of our jam-packed modern lifestyles.

In the coming months, I will be devoting more of my time to expanding on the work I have accumulated over the past eight years, and presenting examples of the many ways in which we, as individuals, can enhance our understanding and appreciation of the pathways leading to a greater spiritual and less materialistic approach to modern life, and sharing the many stories of all the various experiences and explorations that contributed to my present world-view. As the previous year recedes and the new year approaches, as is usually the case with me anyway, I engage more fully in contemplation of what I have learned and what still remains unanswered, and how to discern which efforts in which areas may provide me with an improved path forward. I thank each and every one of my readers and commenters for their continued support and encouragement in this effort, and look forward to an expanded amount of sharing as life unfolds in the year ahead.

Wishing you all the best of what life can provide in the coming year. With warm regards…John H.

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Part Two

Back in June, while contemplating the wondrous display of nature right in my own front yard, I wrote about the extraordinary life force evident in the plants and trees that burst forth with such intensity every summer, and how I marveled at their tenacity to find a way to overcome their circumstances to flourish and grow, almost beyond belief:

https://johns-consciousness.com/2018/06/09/the-extraordinary-in-the-ordinary/

As the months progressed since that posting, I have been monitoring and photographing my efforts to tame the wilderness encroaching upon my house, and in spite of my determined efforts to prune and chop down the overgrowth, Mother Nature continued to impress me with her tenacious refusal to allow my efforts to completely stop her progress. In the image below, I recorded the winter status of a rogue tree growing right in front of the window on the living room side of the house:

As you can see, this errant seedling had grown beyond the height of the roof and was already tangled in the power lines running from the house to the power pole out front. At the time, I was reluctant to chop it down since I enjoyed the amount of greenery that it added to the front yard, and had observed the changing leaves in the autumn with great pleasure. When I saw this scene in January, I realized that it had clearly grown beyond the point where it was just nice to look at in the change of seasons, and when the opportunity presented itself in June, I enlisted the assistance of my young grandson Alex, 15, to bring it down.

BEFORE:

AFTER:

As much as I wanted to see the leaves on this beautiful rogue sapling turn again in the autumn this year, I reluctantly agreed to chop it down, carefully avoiding damage to the wires, while standing on a stepladder, amazed at the strength and weight of the trunk of a tree that had only been growing for a few years.

Much to my surprise, several months later, in September, right at the end of the summer season, the stump had sprouted an astonishing number of tiny branches that seemed to burst into being in a matter of weeks:

After careful consideration, I decided to let the bunches of greenery play themselves out in the coming fall season, hoping the leaves might turn and provide an attractive image for my annual photographic ritual of recording the changes. It seemed that Mother Nature had other plans. Just last week, my hopes appeared to be thwarted by both the peculiar weather patterns this year, which provided an unusually high amount of rain in November, and sudden cold spells which simply seemed to kill the leaves off:

It was disappointing from my perspective, but also a completely natural development given the circumstances, so I decided this week to just go out there and remove all the dead branches, and noticed that the vines had surrounded the stump, probably contributing to the choking off of nutrients to the abbreviated stump. As I followed the winding tangle of vines, it led me to the brick wall where they had begun to aggressively climb and cling to the front of the house. It seemed that in response to this attack, the only sensible response was to remove as many of the vines as I could:

With the wind at my back, and momentum built up in my determination to avenge the destruction of the greenery, I decided to trim the vines from the light pole which had completely overtaken the light in over the summer. The result was unexpectedly satisfying:

BEFORE:

AFTER:

The swiftness of the change of season this year, and the disadvantageous conditions that diminished the number of colorful leaves, while disappointing in one way, made the necessity of pruning the branches and removal of the vines much easier to execute. Once begun, I seemed to gather a fairly robust amount of energy to complete the task, and once it was done, I consoled myself with reviewing some images from previous autumn photos from years gone by:

One bright moment to balance out the disappointment I felt regarding the doomed sapling came the following morning when I opened the door to retrieve the morning newspaper. (Yes, some of us still like to read an actual printed newspaper!) When I opened the inside door, there was a leaf from the tree out front stuck to the storm door, which was wet from the rainfall overnight–one of the few colorful leaves of the season. I took it as a small compensation for the deficits I experienced otherwise, and I smiled right away and snapped a few photos of it, just to capture the spirit of the moment.

It wasn’t lost on me as I ripped the vines away from along the wall, as well as those which were strangling the tangle of branches surrounding the plants and trees and the lamp post, that Mother Nature will no doubt continue to press on with her relentless pursuit of growth, in a perfectly natural and ordinary way. Even my own pursuit of efforts to curtail the overwhelming abundance of creeping vines and rogue saplings, falls under the category of an ordinary and practical undertaking. What inspires me to conjure the extraordinary view in the face of all this activity is the obvious connection between the living plants and trees with the living creature perpetrating the removal of the overgrowth. My own spiritual growth, which was clearly enhanced and illuminated as a consequence of the almost meditative state required to perform the actions in direct opposition to the implied goals of the abundant greenery in my yard, parallels the imperceptible natural growth of the plants and trees that occurred over several years when my attentions were elsewhere. I can’t help but feel that our natural inclinations in the pursuit of spiritual growth may be directly related to the natural incremental growth of everything that lives. The living spirit of the Earth itself mirroring the spirit within each of us.

After completing my task for the day, I stood silently near the scene and took a moment to simply breathe and be present, reminded of the importance of this very moment now. We must be present and allow ourselves to open to the extraordinary in order to know it and bring it into our awareness.