Most spiritual teachers of the past and present gone through a period of solitude and isolation from the society. And at some stage, many of us will feel the urge to go somewhere quiet and be alone for some time. I remember the feeling that came about 6 years ago after living in a busy spiritual community. I had teachers, was surrounded by like-minded people and yet, at the back of my mind, there was this nagging need for the solitude.
So I went to Thailand, where first completed 1-month meditation retreat, in quiet, but not isolated surrounding, then another 3 months in a retreat hut, with a minimum of human interaction, then another 6 months in a Buddhist monastery in Malaysia, more and more isolated with only occasional human contacts… and then another year of solitude in a simple cheap room in Thailand, alone, happy, not constrained or bothered by any rules or limitation of a formal monastic environment.
This was a very happy time filled with bliss, purity and joy. There were many revelations, and yet, there were doubts, ideas, there were “shoulds”, like: “Am I hiding from social connections? Am I shirking my responsibilities in the society? Isn’t it time to go back, return to the world? Am I becoming a “spiritual wreck” unable to function in a society?” They would come and go, surface, submerge back into a blissful silence, resurface again… Eventually, I have decided to emerge and went on to do some volunteering and even took a teaching job in Tokyo (some change!), with another 8 months retreat after it…
There was absolutely no problem with functioning in the world, ability to speak well came back very quickly; it seems like I have only become more flexible, more efficient and more practical with a lot of my “emotional baggage” left in the silence of monastic isolation. And one of the main lessons of the retreat became apparent: the Ego is maintained primarily through comparisons in social interactions (even if these interactions happening in my mind only).
Our minds are constantly building and maintaining the idea of “Me” – happy “Me”, dramatic “Me”, suffering “Me”, successful, misunderstood, victimized, overlooked by the world, unloved, unnoticed, not needed, etc. And how we come up with these conclusions? Only through some examples of past interactions, when something was said, or done by someone. We compare this picture to the ideal one – and that ideal exists only in our mind build mostly through watching movies, reading books or observing the momentary interactions of the others. Like a couple holding hands and loving gazing into each other eyes – in this moments, in the next, they might be bitterly fighting or splitting up. But we observe this moment and come up with another “poor me” validation, “this never happens to me, unloved, unappreciated, unlucky”, etc.
This process of comparison going on and on, even when we are alone. I remember sitting in retreat and marvelling how my mind still continues fighting my parents, proving something to people that ignored me 20 years ago, envying someone who had something I wanted (like a “happy family”) or fantasizing about my possible futures, even though none of it was present or relevant at this moment. There was the whole imaginary world going on in my mind, abstract, completely fake, and observed by me… And I was here, just me, just presence, pure, innocent, the same as when I just came into this world, unadorned by any concepts and yet, for some strange reason, still grabbing onto them with passion.
“Show me your face before your parents were born” – they ask in Zen monasteries. What was your face before you ever compared yourself to another, before the picture of ideal me, and my ideal life was formed? Before we were taught to prove, to compete, to fight, to survive the imaginary foes? Before the idea that the number in your account or sex appeal of your body somehow equal your importance or value in this world? And without all of this, without the constant bombardment by “societal values”, how can we even estimate our inherent worth?
Eventually, the rattling of my mind has subsided and the silence of Eternity just spread itself through the entirety of my being, sweet and pure. It had no idea of time, or the need to do “something useful and valuable” with that non-existing time. It became apparent how they did it, the numerous hermits, who preferred their caves to the luxuries of the civilized world; how Tenzin Palmo did it, having spent 12 years alone in a cave 13,000 feet up in the Himalayas (“Cave in the snow”, by Vicki Mackenzie).
Really, the Eternity has no problem with society or the human Ego. It is happy to play in the form or without it, but the human form has the tendency of getting caught in the imaginary world of its own making, and the solitude can help us to return home. To our real home.
Below is the documentary about Tenzin Palmo, one of the people who inspired me over the years