February 25, 2005

Asking Questions : Solitude, or Isolation?

I've been doing a lot of talking--even "lecturing"--in here recently, and I'm starting to feel uncomfortable about it. I've been studying religion in an academic setting for four years, and the one thing I know for sure is that the more you learn and ask questions, the more you realize just how little you really know. That sounds cliché, but it's the truth, honest! So, to remind myself of this inescapable fact, and to encourage others to jump into the conversation, ask their own questions and share their own ideas--I thought I would start an "Asking Questions" series, of which this will be the first entry. Sound fun? I hope so. I know this blog is new and has practically no regular readership, but you just see if that'll stop me from pretending people are dying to comment!

So. First in the "Asking Questions" series, check this out:

Many of us, whether mainstream or undeniably counterculture, probably feel alienated or isolated, like outsiders in our own society. These feelings often seem to feed certain trends (New Age and otherwise) which claim to offer new, enlightening philosophies of life. One such book (which I found browsing Amazon.com) is The Disappearance of the Universe, by Gary R. Renard. Reading the excerpt from and reviews for this book got me thinking: How do we balance between having a healthy, thoughtful lifestyle in a society that is often unhealthy, thoughtless and addiction-driven, and being distanced from "normal" life and people to an unhealthy extent?

I know that most of my life I've been an introverted poet/academic-type. I spend a good deal of time reading and thinking, and not a lot of time "socializing" with my peers (especially when those peers happen to be college students mainly interested in partying, drinking, and "hooking up"). I've lost some friends because they took my "straight-edge" and often intensely spiritually-focused lifestyle to be a personal affront to their own choices. Even those closest to me sometimes worry that I'm hopelessly "out of touch," even if in an eccentric, disarming or amusing way. One of the reviews of the above mentioned book made the excellent point: sometimes people can become fixated on certain philosophies or spiritual ideas and, as a result, can grow increasingly isolated and unable to relate to the "unenlightened" members of the population.

How do we guard against falling into this type of isolation? Solitude and contemplation, I think, are necessary for a fulfilling, fully human life--but where do we draw the line between solitude, and isolation? Between healthy interiority, and superiority-complexes? Between contemplation, and mere quietism?

I struggle with these questions all the time. Sometimes, I have moments of certainty and relief. The other day, after receiving a notice in the mail about an academic award I'd be receiving, I went to the cafeteria on campus to get lunch. Happily, I sat down with my friends, showing them how the cereal I'd scooped was down to that level where half of it is dust (and, when marshmallows are involved, it's very colorful dust!). "I like when I get the marshmallow dust that makes the milk all sugary!" I said, not giving a second thought to expressing how pleased I was about such an enjoyable little detail, until one friend responded, "I like how you're more excited about the cereal than about the award." That comment (though maybe he meant it sarcastically!) made me happy all day. I want to be that person, who appreciates the simple pleasures of life and wants to share them with others, and who doesn't worry otherwise about other honors (which mostly I feel like I haven't earned and don't deserve, anyway).

There's a great story about Lal Ded, a mystic disciple of Shiva who left her abusive husband and harsh mother-in-law to wander "in a state of undress, singing and dancing her passionate mystical experience" across the countryside. One day, when some children were taunting her derisively, a cloth merchant came to her defense. She immediately bought two lengths of cloth from him, draping one across her right shoulder and one across her left. For the rest of the day, every time she received a compliment, she tied a knot in fabric over her right shoulder, and for each insult she tied a knot in the left. At the end of the day, she returned and asked the cloth merchant to weigh the two lengths of fabric. Of course, they still weighed the same!

I love this story. It seems a perfect illustration of what it means to live a balanced life. This woman lived very much in the world, rejoicing and sharing her happiness, responding to those she met; at the same time, she's obviously outside of normal society to some extent, living in a way that most people do not or cannot live. The cloth is symbolic of this idea: even though the fabric is somehow touched, changed by experiences with others by being knotted; there is also something about it that remains untouched, that is unchanged and weighs the same.

My personal belief is that real spiritual evolution does not ever distance us from the world (except perhaps superficially, through the customs we may or may not adopt)--rather, it always enables us to be increasingly loving, forgiving and compassionate towards others, to relate better to other people. Mother Teresa's life is a great example of this: she lived very differently from most of us, but her entire life was dedicated to service to God through service to others. Spiritual growth teaches us what has real value--not popularity or wealth or even some ideal of enlightenment--but the beautiful earth, Creation of the Creator, and each human being, uniquely manifesting the Divine and capable of participating in the on-going dance of life and creation.

But those are just my own thoughts--what do you think?


At 14.4.05, Blogger Athanasios said...

Last comment of the night...I'm old and I have to get my sleep.

I wish I had a copy of Mertons "New Seeds of Contemplation". I believe it was there I read a chapter exactly about what you are speaking to: isolation vs. solitude. He talks about how real solitude and contemplation do not distance us from the world (just as you said). In fact, monks flee the world so they can save it, the opposite of the common misnomer a lot of Protestants have today that monastics/contemplatives are escaping the world. They aren't escaping the world: they are saving it!

Finally, he talks about even in solitude and contemplation, we remain united to the historical church, the union of all, the collective soul if you will.

Who knows, maybe you're another Merton! I've got to get some sleep, take care again!



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