From The Zurau Aphorisms by Franz Kafka
“You need not leave your room. Remain seated at your table and listen. You need not even listen; simply wait. You need not even wait; just be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
“Directions” by Billy Collins
I remember that in my early 20s I was plagued with a recurring nightmare. I would find myself in some unfamiliar place and I was suddenly aware that my family or friends or whoever I was with at the time had taken off for places unknown and left me behind. I was . . . alone!
It’s not hard to play arm-chair psychologist and recall that at that time of life I was separating from my childhood home. I was deeply uncertain of where my place in the world would be and that anxiety echoed in my dreams.
Still, that understanding doesn’t necessarily make the experience any easier. Even now, I can feel my pulse race a little at the memory of waking with that image. We humans truly are meant for each other, and no one wants to feel separated and alone.
Yet, most of us go through periods when the community we had breaks down or the time comes for us to leave it, and we are left to our own devices. I know this is a familiar experience for many of you. You may have left a long-time residence to come to Asheville. You may have just retired from a long career, or left home to come to college or begin a job here. You may have been through a divorce, or recently lost a spouse or partner.
Our lives are full of transitions that leave us unsettled and uncertain, unsure, even, where we fit in. It can be a hard and lonely time. And that’s one reason why we here create many opportunities to gather and get to know each other so that we can be communities of support for each other.
At the same time, we needn’t rush to fill every quiet moment of our lives. Time alone can give us space to sort ourselves out, to deepen our relationship with ourselves, with, even, the fullness of our own and all being.
And this is something that we find in solitude, in time by ourselves where we leave room for discovery. The poet May Sarton spoke of the difference between loneliness and solitude: loneliness, she said, is the poverty of the self; solitude is the richness of the self.
She described this in her book, Journal of Solitude, which described how at age 58 she spent a year by herself. Her experience, she said, was that the time she spent by herself came to feel like her “real life” because it was then that she had the opportunity to make sense of things.
The firehose of experience left her numb and distracted. Solitude gave her space to reflect on what she believed, what she cared about: in essence, who she was. With that understanding, she could return to her tasks and relationships with a better sense of what they meant to her.
You’ve probably had that experience of finishing a draining day and just feeling like you wanted to zone out. Our default these days when that happens is to turn to one screen or another: TV, laptop, tablet, phone, and just let its flood of content wash over us. It may, indeed, help us zone out, but instead of a reprieve what we get often feels more like an extension of the frenzy we were seeking to escape. The noise – visual as well as aural – is hardly calming and certainly no relief.
Now, I don’t want to dis screen time. It can be entertaining and enlightening. But all the same, as my colleague Rob Hardies puts it, checking our voice mail and our email and our texts, what’s trending on Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter, we are “quietly disappointed that we hear more from those who would sell us something, or demand something of us, than those we love.”
Amid all the noise we have little time to reflect on, as May Sarton puts it, what we believe, what we care about: we have a hard time finding and knowing ourselves.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton had a radical solution to that conundrum: he secreted himself in a monastery. And from that space he did indeed gain new insight into himself as well as his own sense of the holy. His context was the Christian tradition, but he also deeply respected other traditions that centered spirituality in the heart.
His poem that you heard in our meditation invites us into an expansive solitude that requires nothing more of us than that we simply attend. Be still, he says. It is not required that we conjure any particular image or idea. Solitude alone is context enough.
He invites the reader to drop any consciousness of who she or he understand themselves to be and simply dwell in the moment, simply be. This is space where, he says, we let go of judgment and widen our awareness. We are not separate: while you are still alive, all things live with you.
And this dispels the mistake at the center of loneliness, the sense of being disconnected, of being alone. When we are present to the world, to each other, we are living the truth at the center of our being: we are bound up in this world, with each other & all things.
I love Kafka’s image of this growing awareness: You don’t need to climb a mountain top to discover it. In fact, you need not leave your room, whatever space you happen to occupy. And you don’t need any special discipline. You don’t need to concentrate your listening or somehow wait in some special way. As Mary Oliver put it, you don’t have to crawl on your knees in the desert for a hundred miles repenting.
Simply, as Merton counseled: be still and solitary. This is the stillness and solitude not of despair or abandonment, but of integrity, your own integrity. It is the space where you own who you are, where the soft animal of your body loves what it loves. It is not lesser than anyone, anything else, but is woven into all that is. It is in this space, where the world offers itself to your imagination to be unmasked and, as Kafka puts it, will “roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Part of what we exist as a community to do is to invite each other on the path to that awareness. And this is how Billy Collins’ poem speaks to me. To my way of seeing, this is where the “Directions” in his poem lead us.
We each have our own tale to tell of how we get to the place where our awakening occurs – through the woods, over the rocks, climbing steeply or over broad meadows, accompanied, perhaps, by birdsong or the falling of cones or nuts from the trees.
And what to say of what we find when we arrive? “It is hard to speak of these things,” Collins says. “How the voices of light enter the body and begin to recite their stories, how the earth holds us painfully against its breast made of humus and brambles, how we who will soon be gone regard the entities that continue to return, greener than ever,” generation upon generation, finally reaching “the ground where we stand in the tremble of thought, taking the vast outside into ourselves.”
I don’t know that I could tell it much better, how in our solitude we may get just the first glimpse of the glory of this Earth, of this life for which we are privileged to be present. We are then given the opportunity to invite each other into this same sort of widening awareness, to companion each other along the way.
We can help each other create space where the noise is diminished and our loneliness is relieved where we are liberated to discover what we believe and what we care about: where we can find and know ourselves.
Using Billy Collins’ imagery: we create the setting where we walk together with hands on shoulders as we head into the crowd of maple and ash. Moving toward the hill, we bid each other well as we leave off and watching each other go, piercing the ground with our sticks.