Some Thoughts On Solitude

I have long wanted to take a private/personal retreat of some kind. Last Christmas, my best friend Dawn gave me the gift of one — telling me to simply choose what I wanted and she would take care of any needed details. I searched for through the many option in the area, but kept coming back to a Franciscan based hermitage retreat called Pacem in Terris (Latin for “Peace on Earth”). My Birthday fell at the end of last week and I felt it would be perfect timing to spend it there in solitude and reflection.

Like Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin, each hermitage is a small, single room cabin with an attached screen porch. Each one is sparely appointed with just the essentials — a bed, a rocking chair, a small table, a couple of stations for washing and cooking, and a small altar for those who wish to pray. A delicious basket of food is supplied and refreshed daily — a couple of loaves of (oh-my-goodness-so-delicious!) homemade bread, some fruit, some local cheese, and some jugs of water. They have been doing this for years so every amenity is well thought out and centered around reducing any stress or desire.

A retreat into solitude like this is impossible to convey in mere words. One has to really experience it and come away with their own impressions. For me, it was lovely and peaceful and restful and I highly encourage everyone to seek out such a place near them and allow themselves such a gift. But I felt, at the least, I could share some of the thoughts I wrote down about it. What follows are all direct passages I wrote in my journal during and after, offered in no particular order other than flow…

In many ways a solitary journey into the wilderness is, in equal measure, a journey into the wilderness of self. Just as the path into the woods draws us further away from civilization until all one can see in any direction is nature, so too is the truth of our own nature revealed. We can finally see our thoughts without noise or hinderance of distractions and obligations.

One of the interesting things about being out in nature with nothing to do but listen, notice, and ponder, is that one’s attention becomes more acute. When the leaves are blown by the wind, after time one stops hearing a whoosh and rustle and begins to hear each leaf knocking against another. Instead of one great sound one hears a collection of individual ones. Acorns falling to the ground sound like heavy raindrops in rapid succession and not a short storm. So too it becomes with our own thoughts — no longer are they a fleeting cacophony bombarded by many outside inputs — here, in the stillness, we can see and examine each one for what it is without the fear of loosing it.

Thoreau knew the secret. His journals make so much more sense to me now! I can understand how focused and excited he gets over the smallest things. How the way the snow caps or the lake shimmers can be worth a thousand word ode. Because, it is the way one sees them when in wilderness (external/internal). One would notice both each sparkle of snowflake and whole of a storm all at once. Just as I, sitting in the middle of this field, am alive to each swaying blade of grass and the whole of the prairie at once. I could surely write a thousand word ode to this!

The reality of how much this is missed in our daily lives was when I began to realize how much of an incredible luxury this seemed. Almost as if to be able to have such time and to experience such a thing were to enjoy something far beyond the means of most. For a short time I dealt with almost feeling ashamed at enjoying such fortune. To have the time, however short or long, to ponder both that which is all around us and that which is deep inside. To not have to rush through it all. To watch grasses sway and dragonflies dance on a crisp Autumn breeze while I examine each thought before sending it along without care for a next action. To have such things be the only thing I do.

Ask yourself, when was the last time your were alone. Not just alone in the sense of not having another person around but alone in the completest sense of having no distractions, obligations, tasks, next steps, “should be doings”, or “have to be doings”? Like me before this, I bet the answer was “never”. I feel like I’m now a member of some small, secret, select club. One who not only holds a secret but knows what it means. The impact it could have if more in our modern society knew it. It may sound absurdly grandiose yet I feel it does not begin to touch the surface. This experience changed me. I went into the wilderness one way and returned from it another — better equipped and seeing clearer.

I implore to all who might read this one day — go out there, into the wilderness, into solitude. Find the world there. Find what matters there. Find yourself there.

Who are you in the future?

When thinking about long term goals, those goals that are several years out, I think the common inclination is to think about what you want to do in that time. For example, a common five year goal might be to be at a specific point in your career or occupation, a certain level of income, to travel to a specific place, or an ambitious fitness goal. While these are all worthwhile goals to focus on, I would argue that in order to best achieve these goals there is an essential question that one first must ask, brainstorm, and meditate on. In fact, these goals should only be based on, and a natural progression from, the following exercise…

Get a large blank piece of paper and a pen or pencil. I recommend paper because this exercise should be done with immediacy and no editing or judgement. The task is to write down any words or phrases that pop into mind. Ask yourself the following question by writing it at the top of the page:

Who am I in X years?

(Where X is any number you want. I like five because it is distant enough to be achievable but not so much as to not also be accountable.)

OK, now go! The method does not matter. If you are a mind map sort of person, do that. Outlines, essay, sketches, just a bunch of words scribbled down, no matter. Like I said, the point is to answer the question with any words or ideas that pop to mind. Even if it is bat scratch crazy, capture it. You will sort it all out later (and I’ll cover that in another post).

There are some other things I’d like to mention about this exercise. First, the phrasing on the question is important. It is not "Who do I want/wish/hope to be?" because that gives you an out. This is not so much about aspirations. This is about projection. This is about putting yourself in the mind of the person you are in the future. This is about the kind of person you really think you are at that time. It will likely not look all that different than who you are now except for the things you wish to change or improve. If you are currently a smoker you might find that, in your five years from now mind, you may find you are a non-smoker. Meat eaters may find a vegetarian when mentally projecting themselves. You may find you are a world leader or circus clown. But, whatever you find don’t judge! Just capture it and move along.

This exercise will form the foundation of your long term goals. Because, none of those will be remotely achievable without this. For instance, how realistic is it for your to set a five year goal of completing a marathon if you do not also see yourself as an active three-to-five time a week runner five years from now as well?

Also, because this is a free form "no judgment" exercise, when using it to plan your goals you will be rewarded with new goals to consider that you might otherwise have not known you had. To use my own mind map pictured above as an example, the word "Monk" popped into my head, I captured it, and I have no idea why it came to mind. But, when beginning the work on my five year goals, I will now need to figure out where that fits and what that means for a happily married father of a little girl who works for himself full time and has many other obligations that "Monk" is in conflict with. Perhaps it doesn’t belong and I’ll ignore it for now. Perhaps it simply speaks to a desire for a deeper and more meaningful spiritual practice than I have today. Perhaps it means a complete change of course. Regardless, at least I am now forced to consider it and where and if it fits into my long term goals.

I encourage you to try this exercise yourself. At the very least, it will help you see for yourself what things are important enough to you today to make sure are a part of your future.

Right Effort

Here is what my current favorite online Buddhist resource has to say about the precept of Right Effort:

Right Effort means cultivating an enthusiasm, a positive attitude in a balanced way. Like the strings of a musical instrument, the amount of effort should not be too tense or too impatient, as well as not too slack or too laid back. Right Effort should produce an attitude of steady and cheerful determination.

In order to produce Right Effort, clear and honest thoughts should be welcomed, and feelings of jealousy and anger left behind. Right Effort equates to positive thinking, followed by focused action.

Drop a stone into still water, and the water will respond with exactly the right amount of ripples for the size of the stone. A smaller stone will produce less ripples. A larger stone will produce more. But, it will always be in proportion and never more or less. In a similar way, Right Effort encourages us to apply the appropriate amount of action dictated by the intention.

In the last few months, I have worked hard to apply this idea to my social media approach as well. I’m certainly not perfect at it. There have been many times that I have failed. But, in general, if you were to look at my feed you’d find that I try not to post too often or too infrequently. I do my best to find balance between the two. I participate when directly engaged. I try to make sure that what I’m posting is of a positive nature. I try to only post things that I believe are worth the time of those who might be reading it. I rarely engage in debate or argument— and when I do my intention is to try to learn from an opposing view, not to rebuke it. And, more than anything else, I try to be helpful in any way I see that I can be.

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