Being Alone by John Aske

Crowd at the Seashore, William James Glackens © Metropolitan Museum of Art

There are huge pressures in modern society that make us feel that in many respects we can only be happy in a crowd — until our intuition tells us otherwise. A lot of modern activities, like clubbing for example, simply remove the individual, together with all the problems that go with it, and that gives us the impression of freedom.

But even gaining the whole world can be a worthless bargain if it lacks the rich colours and flavours of our humanity. It simply doesn’t mean anything if we are cut off from the very things that make life real.

No matter how many things we buy or acquire — cars, houses, designer clothes, etc — the pleasure soon fades and we are back again with the old sense of dissatisfaction and the need for something new, something else.

Tagore wrote: ‘The cure for all the illness of life is stored in the inner depth of life itself, the access to which becomes possible when we are alone.’ So time on your own may be the only real source of renewal and rediscovery, curious as it sounds.

When we are in groups we don’t see things for ourselves in the way we do when we are alone. All our attention is turned outward to the other members of the group, and everything is out of focus, including our most vital faculties.

‘The capacity to be alone is linked to self-discovery and self-realisation, to awareness of our deepest needs, feelings and impulses. In other words, what we need is right here, where we are, if we are prepared to look.’

(Rainer Maria Rilke)

We may persuade ourselves that we are at our most wonderful in a group, drawing on its power and influence, but Montaigne insisted, ‘The only true freedom comes in solitude.’

The sources of music, painting — and writing itself — are solitary. The presence of others can be a joy, but also a problem. Other people may offer a solution to our problems, but it is usually a solution to their problems, and if it helps us it is usually by luck. We’re better off finding a patient friend who will just listen until we find our own solution.

The simple reason we don’t find solutions this way is because we spend very little time with ourselves, and are discouraged from doing so in the modern world, so we seldom have the chance to take up Tagore’s suggestion.

‘People go to the ends of the earth to see the great mountains, and wonder at them, and to explore the great rivers, and wonder about them. But the greatest wonder of them all — themselves — they never look at or wonder at,’ said Saint Augustine.

Perhaps we should have another look, This is ‘The miracle we carry round with us all day long,’ the King of Thailand’s daughter told me.

What we are and how we are, is central to everything we do and how we live our lives. But until we extricate ourselves from the group, we will never find out who we are and what we really want. If we are ill, we go to the doctor, and if our cars break down, we take them to the garage. But this mysterious and unique self that we are, we ignore completely, together with its wealth of possibilities.

Buddha Preaching. Central or northeastern Thailand, Mon-Dvaravati period 8th–early 9th century © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Much of our outer life consists in pretending interests we don’t have, imitating other people, and disguising bits of ourselves we think other people won’t like, all of which hinders us rather than helps us find our own powers. ‘It’s not by going outwards that you get to know other people, but by going inwards. There is no real alternative. Everything else is superficial knowledge.’ (Douglas Harding)

It is this relationship with the true self and not what Thomas Merton calls the ‘Smoke Self’ that enables us to relate to others, and we learn to do this better when we are alone. Then, if we are comfortable with ourselves, we can be comfortable with others, and this helps them as well as us. For the Smoke Self, Merton says, is always hungry, and a hungry self does not make for good relationships.

There is nothing wrong with groups, as long as we realise they impose their own likes and dislikes and their own picture of the world, which may not be what we see, and this can too often leave us unsatisfied and unfulfilled. We all want to look good in the eyes of our friends and loved ones, but if we don’t find out who we truly are — if we just create a picture of someone we think others will like — we will inevitably encounter unhappiness and dissatisfaction, as reality and illusion collide, and as inevitably illusion fades, like a dream. However good the illusions are, they can’t survive those human earthquakes that we all have to live with.

Being on your own might seem such a waste of time when you could be partying and clubbing with people you like and even admire. But reality isn’t like that; the only real action is ourselves. At some point we need to ‘come to ourselves again’ after the sort of ups and downs that shake us out of our usual pattern of living. We divide our lives up into little boxes and then juggle them about into a shape that, hopefully, pleases us; or regard our lives as cords on which useful events can be strung. We forget that that is not what we are, or how it is.

Living fully, is openness to change, to the fluid nature of things. This is far from an ‘anything goes’ policy, and means rather taking responsibility for our lives. The quieter and calmer we live, and the more aware, the clearer the path ahead becomes — as shoals become visible through a calm sea — and we see the way through.

Click here to read more from John Aske.

Categories: Beginners, Buddhism, John Aske

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9 replies

  1. How true! The quality of every relationship we have depends on the ideas we have of who we are.

  2. Very nicely put – thank you.

  3. It is a wonderful post John . The most difficult journey is the journey within thanks to the clutter we sorround ourselves with . It is important to know the self firsthand to live in awareness.

  4. Thanks John. This was very inspiring. There is a difference between being alone or feeling lonely, don’t you think ? Your posts are always a joy to read so thank you.

  5. Thanks for this John. There is a difference between being lonely and being alone and you have described it beautifully. Thanks.

  6. “The only real action is ourselves”

  7. Having been the carer for my husband for several years I am not sure who I am now – if anyone! The peace and silence spreads out into the surroundings. Isn’t there just being?

  8. It is often more fun and easier to feel good – to feel everything – when you are alone. The deeper I go in my spiritual practice the more peace I find in being alone but not alone. Namaste!

  9. I totally agree with the view. As a practitioner, I have experienced how easy to look in and understand who I am and also the little tit bits which are lying underneath, obstructing my path.
    That is why the Buddha prasied solitary life as the journey is easier.


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