Vices in Solitude

It’s that time again.  I can’t say for sure that, “that time” comes with any precise regularity.  But enough time goes by when I just know it’s time to reset the clock.  I only smoke when I drink, but I don’t drink much anymore.  Unless I need a smoke.  Nobody is around anyway, and who needs judging eyes, even when they’re from your family who really only want you to live a long life.  Of course they’re right, which is why I can say with absolute certainty that I’ve been mostly successful at ending my days of vice.  I can see the edge of the package there.  A hiding spot of sorts I guess.  Not really hidden well, but out of the way.  One of those kinds of spots. It’s not like she doesn’t know I still do it from time to time, as there is no hiding the smell of these things.  Hmmm…plenty left if my judgement of shaking sounds is any good.  Lots of natural light in the house, I might have a bit of spring weather here.  Yes, this is an activity best done alone.  I wouldn’t want it any other way.

The drink for the occasion? Well that might get more judgment, but on a day like today, with the sun shining and a nice mossy spring feeling in the air, it’s got to be tomato juice and vodka.  It is morning, and the tomato juice…well it sort of works as a light breakfast, just tricking your stomach into thinking it isn’t having vodka on an empty stomach.  Let’s see 3 good-sized cubes of ice, a tumbler.  I wonder why they call it a tumbler, I really don’t want my drink to tumble anywhere.

My pack, my drink, my lighter, and sun.  I would have survived quite well without the latter, but I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.  Not much ceremony here with the cigarette.  Some people like to make a big show of getting the cigarette out of the pack, but I think they are only trying to slow themselves down so they don’t smoke too much. The joy of smoking is in the smoking.  Anytime in between is not a good time.  And that’s a pretty good reason not to smoke.  Nevertheless, old habits die hard. It even feels strange as I hold it in my fingers, but all too familiar as I hold it in my mouth.  With the click of a lighter,  I can hear the faint crackle as paper and tobacco burn.  Alright now I’m going to need a moment.  You see every day is a fight of some sort or another.  Not smoking is just another one added to your every day. It gets lost in the background if you keep yourself busy.  But every once in a while, it feels good to lose.  Quite frankly I look forward to losing this fight.  It’s like being able to lower your defenses, because sometimes the shoulder, well it just needs a rest from raised fists.  Pardon me while I inhale deeply.

My lungs resist now, but it’s more like a difficult child who is crying because it doesn’t want to go sleep.  Which is ironic, because the only reason it’s crying is because it’s really sleepy.  That kind of resistance.  You tolerate the crankiness because you know it will be angelic peacefulness soon enough.  I really honestly feel like I can feel the nicotine enter my blood through my lungs and circulate from artery, to arteriole, to capillary.  It’s saying to every cell, “Hey! Remember me?”  And all the cells of course remember good old Nick.  He’s a great time, he never tells you what he’s been doing to Mr. Lung to get in and visit, and of course you don’t care, because your brain is in on the sting.  It sounds a bit dramatic but these moments come rarely and I insist on making the most of it.  So if the nicotine has conspired with parts of your body to con the lungs in an old-fashioned caper, I say it’s all in the spirit of good storytelling. Well a story I’m telling myself of course. I’m of the opinion, in all seriousness, that any body part is capable of betrayal given the right environment.  The gullibility of the brain is probably to blame.  No need to mend it if you can bend it.

Now with a few preliminary puffs out of the way, it is time for that first sip.  The top inch should be pretty cold by now.  To be honest with you, I should have taken that first sip first.  Smoking does tend to taint everything you ingest afterwards, but I’m too anxious for that first drag and I regret not sipping first every time.  I’ll admit this regret is mostly ritualistic at this point as well.  Anyway, I want to explain how to take a sip the right way, but I am afraid I won’t be up to the task.  That being said, I’m putting my best foot forward, by putting my cigarette down.

Stillness is the key here, and if you’re doing it right it doesn’t matter where you are.  You begin by taking the glass in your hand, feel the coolness of the surface against your fingers.  You must then bring the glass to your lips.  Not too fast so you appear greedy and sloppy.  Not too slow, because that disrespects the beverage.  It’s more like when you bring a woman in towards you for a kiss and you want to kiss her like you really mean it.  Like you want to kiss her out of the pure joy of kissing her, not because of what else it might lead to.  As the glass approaches your mouth, you want to let out a warm breath so that just a hint of condensation sits on the surface of the glass. It’s important that the drink knows that you are a living being, that you thirst, that you crave, but that you are also civilized.  You can hear the ice cubes with their soft clink on the sides of the glass, your lips part and then your top lip sinks into the top layer of the beverage while you tilt the glass ever so slightly.  It’s important that the rate of flow of the liquid is slow in order to taste each molecule, to let as much of that beverage know that it is welcome to continue its journey as it slides down your throat.  And if you manage to get the flow just right.  If you pay attention to each flavor – the bitterness of vodka, the silky smooth tang of the tomato juice, and the way your lip cools down as it touches the ice cubes floating in your drink, you will find that there is nothing else in the world but you, and the drink.  And in that moment, I can’t decide whether I’ve solved all my problems, or if they ever existed in the first place.  Either way, it’s peaceful.

At this point you are welcome to stay, but I think I’ve shared about as much of this morning as I can with you.  I know rinse and repeat seems a bit anticlimactic, but that’s all that is left.  But you can take my word for it, I will enjoy every moment.  And then, well I have a list of chores to get to and the day must officially start.  For now, all this is unofficial.  Cheers.

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Where Silence Reigns

From cool blue ice She melted into the serene rill below and swirled Her way down the slope.  A cup dipped into the water and She felt Herself poured over a sun-beaten face, thick with sweat.  Thoughts lost in introspection, the man let the water drip back into the stream.  Continuing on Her journey She felt the leaves fall on Her and carried them down, down.  Some slipped away from Her lazy grasp, and others joined Her.  She came now to a bridge and looking up She saw the face of a woman who saw to peace in the waters below.  A single tear landed without a sound to join the gently flowing waters.  Though no one could tell She wept as well as She passed under the bridge downstream.  Tall soft pine waving farewells in the breeze.

It was night when She first entered the sleeping city.  Dark houses are filled with slow breaths and strange dreams while the occasional streetlight reveals nothing but strays contemplating the next meal.  Further on a key slides in noiselessly and turns as a wayward teen sneaks back into their warm home, hoping not to be heard.  While the ever vigilant and worried parent is blanketed with calm knowing their child is safe.  As city center is reached the dawn approaches and She turns into vapor as She wafts into the street, drifting and curling around corners.  It is Sunday morning and only a few vehicles pass on towards churches whose bells call to worship.  She sighs as hidden sins enter wooden doors and quietly sit in polished pews.  A few people shuffle down deserted alleys, failing to recall clearly the boisterous activities of the night before.  An old man with newspaper in hand opens a door and She follows warm smells of roasted beans for steaming brews and feels at home for a moment.  She passes by a woman in her 40’s dressed in Sunday best, who slowly stirs her coffee while feeling ignored and unknown. Her husband staring into his phone to learn the minutia of teams and players in upcoming matches.  She circles in behind the counter as a barista makes conversation with a young man, who is gripped in fear for how vulnerable and in love he is with her.  He contemplates what to say, but never gets it right.  And before the ventilation takes Her out into the streets again She passes by a manager thinking about his wife and young son at home who had to leave on a Sunday morning to come to work in a country that doesn’t rest as much as it should.

In the day’s heat She ascends above the growing bustle and looks down upon missed connections, lost opportunities, and people who have forgotten how to listen, to breathe in the air and be thankful.  It cries to Her. Or sings in continuous discordance.  She cannot tell.  It deafens Her as She continues to rise and feels Herself condense back into Her better self.  As the noise subsides She looks down again and sees fields of green and dives down like a giant tear to the spongy earth below.  She is drawn to the roots of a tree and took asylum in the xylem as She flowed up trunk and out branch and waited.  Each day She fed to the growing fruit, incorporating Herself into the flesh.

The sky turns above and She hears Her benefactor hum a song of patience as Her branch becomes heavier with fruit.  And each day a young girl comes to sit under the tree.  Hoping for better days.  Hiding from the screaming of parents. Breathing in the clean air to replace that dank smell of her father’s alcohol.  And each day She hears the hope, the hiding, and the relief from clean air.  She hears Her kind slide down cheeks and get wiped away on pretty dress sleeves.  She hears the slow decay of an untended farmhouse, and the façade of a mother pretending everything is alright.  And then one day, with leaves fading from green to orange, the girl sits with head between knees, shutting out the world.  The wishing to be whisked away is like a piercing scream into the sky and She has no choice but to fall to the ground.  Vibrant in Her redness, full of sugar and quenching juices.  A thud that could be heard by no other, save someone sitting under the swooping branches, caused the young girl’s head to turn.  A soft rumble reminds the girl she is hungry.  And there was a meeting to never forget as she, but for a moment, loses all remembrance.  Each bite slow and savored and She can hear the sound of laughter as She is consumed.  From the lattice of fruity flesh to the dendritic flow of blood through flesh.  Through lung, to ventricle and atrium, the girl and She merge together as one.

Eyelids widen in the dead of night and She slips out through door in defiant trance.  With divine strength she climbs stealthily into hills and then on to rocky slopes rising like a fog in a valley breeze.  She is sustained by Her purpose alone and through 3 days and nights she climbs and climbs until white frozen ground is beneath Her bare feet.  Soft snow shuffles and She listens between gusts of wind for the calling of Her home.  As She gazes out at the wide world, the first of the sun’s rays dance of Her face, sweet peace is like a hymn from a jubilant choir in Her ears.  She sits down on Her throne of ice and closes Her eyes in glacial contentment.

Night Conversation

I conversed with a heavenly body last night,
She was particularly beautiful,
She radiated tenderly on my face,
I knew she belonged to another, a great man,
But she was so lovely and alone that I stayed

Of late I had given in to her many times,
I knew he would not mind,
He being so far above us anyway,
And I could not resist her flattery,
And the way her faces expressed sympathy.

With heavy eyes she looked at me and said,
“You are too much in my light friend,
Find your way into the day,
I have been romanced since days of old,
And your companionship is unnecessary.”

Confused and yet boldly replying,
“You may be invisible without him,
But don’t dismiss me so easily,
I do understand you the best lady,
We are much closer than you are with him.”

I paused and pondered in reflection,
“Please see me as I am fair lady,
Though you radiate with less intensity,
You can illuminate me and more,”
But she shook her head in revolution.

I turned away from her rejected,
Feeling her pale light, my desperation waxed
“But lady I am going through a phase,
I know that’s your expertise,
Please let me stay in your company.”

She said, “For as much as we share,
In the end only one face remains,
Your perception of me is as he desires,
Instead, strive to be like him always,
Cast your own light into the universe.”

I said, “You underestimate your value,
But perhaps I do as well,
And alas we are once more alike,
Don’t shut me out from your gifts,
Let me bask in ambiguous beauty.”

I then searched the source of my thoughts,
My lamentations were in orbit,
Do I choose fruitless pursuit in my sky?
My separation from her dawned on me,
But I continued to argue in circles as she circled.

“Why have I never seen you from behind?”
As I turned, her turn kept pace with mine,
“I only see your face changing,
I long to see the curve of your back,
The flowing of your lustrous hair.”

Though she knew the reasons for my pleas
Tears fell from both eyes and she said,
“My motion is fixed and I have no choices,
You do not know the gravity of my situation,
If I was different it was so long ago.”

“You must understand that he is the only one,
The only one who sees all of me,
Though your heart may sink at this,
I am not here for your benefit,
He and I have been together for so long.”

A fog then began to grow in the night air,
She became featureless but glowing,
And I heard her anguish over me,
I felt her obstinance waning,
And I longed to press my face to hers.

She sighed “Only one knows me entire,
And long familiarity has faded to habit,
So expert is my illusion I am whole,
Few show interest in more of me,
I am complimented, but you know the truth.”

“It has been a long time for me too,
Since one has appreciated my other side,
My memory is as clear as yours,
What good is it to rise as he does,
For all my beauty I am shallowly perceived.”

With empathy she resigned and said,
“Let us pass the nights together my darling,
When you are ready to take me from your sky,
You will rise one morning with him,And the thrill of a new day will set you free.”

I conversed with a heavenly body last night,
And as I fell asleep she was there,
And when I opened my eyes I was dreaming,
Dreaming of the warmth of the sun,
When the dream ended, I waited again for her.

 

Out Under The Sky

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

A friend of mine and I had a wonderful discussion about magic and perfection the other day. It got me thinking about what it means to appreciate the magic something.  For her it was about the pure and the simple.  On a wonderful little gift she gave me, the tag on the gift had the line from the following Walt Whitman poem above “from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars”.  When I looked up the entire poem and read the words (as I had never read it before) I found it funny how much the meaning of the poem had to do with what I was sorting through in my mind (by the way this friend was a student in my Introduction to Earth Science class and wonder if there isn’t more of a message in there for me lol).  The words from the poem she shared with me are good advice.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could no longer follow such advice.  Have I lost something?  Have I lost the appreciation for magic?  Am I unable to enjoy things in perfect silence?  My mind singular on the beauty I behold?  Not too long ago another blogger I follow who writes poetry that I always connect with wrote a poem about missing when life was simple called Old Happy Stars.  I do long for that.  I think we all do to a certain degree.  I also know that you can’t go back and making things feel so simple an amazing is very hard for me.

This discussion about magic came up because we were discussing Santa Claus. She was a firm believer in Santa Claus until the 4th grade, and is raising her daughter, like many people, to see all the magic that is Santa Claus.  I am someone who never once believed in Santa Claus, and thus even I were to want to give my son Santa Claus at Christmas there would be no level where I could really fake it.  I have no memories of any magic associated with Santa.  She said it’s important for children to have those magical things.  And I have to say I agree with her.  After the conversation I started to ponder what the magic was in my childhood.  I remember looking at lightning in thunderstorms and feel that it was absolutely magical.  Thunder seemed magical, the smell of rain seemed magical.  For me there was a lot of magic in the sky and I am certain I had some moments of perfect silence, even if it wasn’t actually silent.  I think sometimes in such moments we feel perfect silence because we are in perfect solitude, shutting out the rest of the world while we are singular in our focus.  When I came home I started watching my son and how amazed he is by things, whether it’s trains or the planes up in the sky.  It seems to me that even they begin to learn what these things are and what their purpose might be, they have no idea how they work.  Something that seems to moving but has no muscles, no animal-like locomotion, no feathers for flying must seem like absolute magic.  If I wasn’t forming a lot of long term memories, and I saw this metal object flying in the sky I would be pointing up every single time too in excitement.  I think, at least I hope, kids always see things as magical, even if you don’t give them Santa.  For them, every object that they’ve dropped or thrown up in the air comes down.  That plane up in the sky has to be some pretty crazy stuff to them, and what other choice do they have but to take it on faith that it will not fall down from the sky.

That thought made me happy, but I started to get a little bit sad, because I am not sure that I could just gaze at the stars in perfect silence. Because in that poem I am the Learn’d Astronomer, and if I was a student in that class I would be enthralled by the equations, the figures, and the charts.  When I look at the stars I can’t help but think what the humidity might be that is impacting their twinkle.  I would think about how far away those stars are, and how trigonometry gives us a way of telling how far away they are through stellar parallax.  I would think about how the stars are like a portal back in time, knowing that I am seeing what a star looked like 10,000 years ago, and how at that time human civilization was just dawning.   If you can’t tell already, it’s hard to quiet my mind.  I look at everything like that.  Sometimes I am wondering and questioning, maybe coming up with some hypothesis to explain what I’m seeing.  Perhaps I would make an analogy.  Or perhaps I would simply think about all the forces at work, or the history of the object, the big picture, the detailed picture, related pictures.  Sometimes I contemplate all the connections that one thing has to others.  All that comes to me in a flood and I feel overwhelmed by how amazing this universe is.  And then I started to smile, because maybe it’s not magic, but it’s still amazing.  It’s still beautiful.  I t still leaves me in awe and wonder even if I know exactly how it works and think about every variable in the equation.  And maybe for every person that walks out on the Learn’d Astronomer and enjoys that perfect silence at the stars, there is a student who stays and listens and just takes it all in and the amount of seemingly simultaneous thoughts grow like the branches of a tree.  And I’m not making a comment about level of intelligence because my friend is extremely intelligent and I feel like she experiences those moments of perfect silence frequently, perhaps even at will when she needs to.  But maybe it’s just really a different way of approaching the same beauty in life.  There are truly times when I wish I could experience such moments that Whitman describes, and so I envy her.   But maybe the beauty I see is just as enviable.

So as I began to smile I thought back to just that morning and how when I drove in to work just sliver of the crescent moon was visible as the moon waned. Often, at about an hour before sunrise, there is enough reflection of the Earth back to the moon and you can see the rest of the lunar sphere, even though it’s featureless.  Then I thought in my mind about the geometry of all 3 objects and had this model in my head.  And I decided to write a poem.  The one I just posted a few days ago.  And like magic I took all those thoughts and imagined almost like a love affair between the Earth and the moon.  So even if I stare at the moon and explain its beauty while also appreciating it, such thoughts can still inspire, still create, and still bring me a great deal of wonder that I think can be considered a type of magic.  And maybe that Learn’d Astronomer is just as lost in his world of equations and charts as the star gazer is lost in his moment of perfect silence.  Maybe it’s not so important how you experience magic in the world, but that you do experience it and never lose that ability to get lost in wonder and awe at beauty.

What Makes A Good Human?: Final Thoughts

I will try not to make this too lengthy, but this series has been a journey writing it and I felt a more holistic summation was in order.

One of the things that occurred to me that I was writing it was that was I sounding too much of a person of privilege in my posts.  I certainly felt like that at times.  If I could say one more thing about what makes a good human might also be luck.  The country I was born in, the parents I got, the extended family, that were very loving, and of course my wife and friends all played a role in making me what I am, and for giving me the time and freedom to ruminate, contemplate, learn the right lessons from my experiences for me to even be able to write this.  Of course luck isn’t really in our control, and perhaps it is who we are that draw at least some of the people into our life and keep them there.  But there are those who are born to parents who stifle their curiosity. When does the parent or parents who work long hours to provide for their children find the time for curiosity themselves or get a chance to play?  There are those who spoil their children rotten and make them prideful and without humility.  What of those who struggle about even what to put their faith in, fearing a repetition of past mistakes?  I was thinking about how would a person who lived in the inner city slums of Mumbai, or Rio find solitude?  And then of course what about those who have clinical psychological conditions like narcissism and thus are excessively self-centered?  How does the psychopath learn empathy when physically incapable of it?  While there may be some solutions to this, early recognition and special nurturing techniques are often necessary and so my words in this series may be nothing more than the words of someone who has, overall, had it pretty good.

One positive thing I have noticed in my life is that none of these qualities however belong to any one specific class, race, culture or region.  I have seen the poorest with the least reason to be generous and compassionate be more so than those with the means to bring more good into this world than they do.  And I have seen the busiest parents with little time for play themselves, make those sacrifices simply so that their children have that advantage.  Life is dynamic, and always changing.  Some qualities we may have to put to the side to move past a certain point where we can bring them back.  It would be idealistic to say we can have these qualities at all times, and in all places.  And while it would be nice if it were so, such utopian fantasies should never occupy our thoughts for too long.

If asked who I wrote this all for, I would say firstly for me.  That in itself may sound self-centered, but I desire to become more than I am always, and this journey has helped me greatly in recognize the areas in my life where I might know how I should be in theory, but haven’t been in practice.  It has helped me look at areas where I want to grow also.  But I think that I also wrote this series for those of you who do such a wonderful job exemplifying these qualities as well.  It is those who have been the fortunate in this world who, like rocks striking the surface of the pond can send ripples into the world to try and make it a better place.  And when I say fortunate I don’t mean that your life has all been a “walk in the park” (and certainly mine hasn’t always been either) but have overcome great adversity to be where you are now.  I also don’t list these qualities to emphasize that we should all be the same. As I have tried to make clear along the way we all exemplify different levels of these qualities, and as I mentioned above, sometimes we may suppress these qualities in ourselves to be able to foster it others, like our children.  I think a good human exemplifies these qualities, but our individuality is what decides which of these qualities drives us most strongly.  Some people may strive for more balance, others may selflessly always give their time to others, some may love learning and sharing that knowledge, others display great acts of courage that inspire.  I do think that all these qualities, should always exist as sparks within ourselves, and we should never let them go out.

I was talking to a friend yesterday and she asked me why I even blog.  And I guess central to who I am is that I believe that we are a lot more similar than we are different, and I want to always try to look at things that bring us together rather than those things that drive us apart.  So I guess in looking at things that make a good human, I wanted to try to see if I could come up with what I felt was a comprehensive but simple list of things that I’ve seen in my life that make the world a better place for all.  I am sure there are other things that might be added, and as I continue to grow and learn perhaps I would add things to this series.  But if we can all agree on at least 8 things, that then I think that is a good start. 🙂

Peace.

Swarn

What Makes A Good Human?: Solitude

From http:///www.markg.com.au

The last in this series, comes late for several reasons. For one, I am Poland, and have been enjoying my vacation. But largely it is because this last quality has needed many if not all of the things I am going to talk about under this heading. The time change has left me less than well rested and it has taken about a week to really feel like myself again. It has taken also some time for me to find enough time to myself, in which I haven’t needed to take care of my son, and haven’t been surrounded by family. My in-laws live in a small apartment and it has felt uncomfortable for me to spend a lot of time writing around others. Finally it has taken a lot of thought, deep thinking, introspection and perhaps a little creativity to nail down what I wanted for this last quality. It also took some humility as I had to bounce this creation off my wife because I was rather unsure if I had a cogent post here or whether I might need to make a 9th quality. What I thought was going to be my 8th quality changed as I realized there were other things that I wanted to write about that I felt were linked together but unsure how. And there may be some debate as to whether or not I was successful here putting all of these under the same umbrella.  In the end I’ve decided the number of qualities isn’t as important as saying what I wanted to say. My wife also told me that I was quite clever in my solution to the final quality being solitude. She almost never tells me I’m clever even when I think I’m being clever so that has me feeling really positive about this post. 🙂 With that said, let’s delve into solitude.

I am going to break this down in a more organized way, but let’s talk about some general things first. You might first think that, “Hey aren’t we humans social animals? You’ve been going on a lot in this series about how we can all better get along and have empathy, so why should solitude be so important?” If you’ve raised a child you of course have seen the changes from a baby still thinking it’s in the womb and not knowing it is separate from the mother, to a slow buildup of a sense of self. From then on as parents we try to help the child along to develop a sense of independence. To sleep alone, to be able to do simple physical tasks and to enjoy playing on their own as they gain more and more self-sufficiently. And as a child I remember not only being proud as I could do more things on my own, but actually growing to appreciate and like having time to myself, free from responsibilities to anyone. It seems to me that everybody, no matter how social they might be, to be healthy, need some alone time. Healthy relationships often aren’t ones where both people spend every single moment together, but where each have some hobbies and things that they like to do on their own. Everybody needs their space. What we do in this solitude varies and I am going to talk about 3 different facets of solitude that I think are all important, and I do think have a common thread. So let’s begin:

Creation

It takes a little more humility to mention that I owe this important aspect of solitude to my wife. I am not an overly creative person, but when she mentioned the importance of solitude to the creative process I realized she was right. While artists and musicians certainly collaborate, the initiation of that creative process is usually done alone and then ideas are bounced back and forth with those that are collaborating. Walk into any museum and count how many pieces in that museum have more than one artist listed there. You won’t find many. How many of your favorite novels have multiple authors on the front cover? How many of your favorite poems are written by more than one person? We may be inspired by others when we create, but ultimately what we create is done I solitude. I also don’t want to arbitrarily separate the arts and sciences, it is just generally more easily seen in the arts. Collaboration and feedback is a very important part of the scientific process, but often the vision and inspiration that starts a new idea is formed through thinking in solitude. Scientific history is littered with important scientists whose vision and inspiration excited the scientific community and progressed their respective fields forward. My blog posts are often inspired by conversations, articles or books.  However it often takes some solitude to think about what I want to say and write. Even if during that process I talk it over with others as I have done with this blog post, in the end solitude has played an important part in the creative process.

Recharge

Regardless of the seemingly infinite things we can think of to do, we are sadly quite finite creatures. Our time and energy have limits and many of us are constantly trying to get the most amount out of our day and not getting enough down time. I’ve already discussed the importance of play, and certainly this is important in reducing stress and giving us more strength face to the challenges of life, but there is also the simple act of rest. Resting your muscles and resting your mind. One of the ways we do this of course is simply through sleep. I know few people who don’t love a good night’s rest, and more and more I hear many people wishing they could have more (including myself). According to the National Sleep Foundation, we aren’t getting enough, and this leads to all sorts of problems such as increased weight gain, loss of focus, anxiety, and overall being less efficient as we could be. Whether you are sleeping with someone or not, sleeping is an activity that is done in solitude. It is your time to be unconscious and recharging your “energy cells” and freshening the mind. Getting better sleep may give you less waking hours in the day, but chances are you will be more focused and efficient during those hours such that time will not be lost and may actually be gained.

Meditation

Sleep, however, is not the only way in which we can rest and recharge. One of the other ways in which we can gain energy is through meditation. Now meditation can be defined in a number of different ways, but all of them have benefits and I will talk a little bit about them throughout this post, but for now when many people think of meditation they think of some bald headed person in a robe sitting down in a lotus position and saying ‘om’ a lot, and I admit I used to be from this camp too at one point. And that type of meditation is beneficial, as it clears the mind and rests the body. By focusing on sound, or your own breathing you can rest and recharge. Recent studies have shown meditation to actually change the brain in a positive way.  Daily meditations may also simply involve sitting on your patio drinking a cup of tea while you look at your garden, going on a walk as you take in the sights and sounds of the moment, and it can also involve repetitive activities such as exercise. Repetitive actions keep you focused on the task at hand keeping you in the moment. Exercise is one of the better ways to do this of course because you must focus on the movements and muscles needed to perform the task and this is actually restful to the mind as much of the clutter and stresses of our everyday life can fade away. The well-known “runner’s high” is a good example of this. Of course when you first start to exercise this may be difficult as your body adjust itself to the activity as you may actually experience a lot of pain and/or be uncomfortable and this can be distracting. But this is why meditative activities require regular practice. You aren’t going to be good at it right away and the health benefits take time to come to fruition. I feel that one of the hardest things for people who begin to exercise is they never push through the phase in which it is painful, and tiring as they find they have less energy. But it does get better, and I’ve seen it happen for myself and for others.

If you exercise at a busy gym, or listen to music while exercise this may actually diminish some of the meditative aspects of the exercise as you may start to focus on other things and become distracted. I’ve seen many people pause their treadmill just to text somebody and so I doubt they are getting much of the meditative benefits of exercise, but exercise is still good of course. Being physically healthy gives you more energy and helps you recharge more effectively. Being physically tired is also an aid in getting better sleep which is important as mentioned above. Silence is also a helpful part of the meditative process. Of course complete silence is difficult, but relative quiet may help you pay attention to sounds you don’t often notice like the sound of your own breathing, the babbling of a brook, or the twitter of birds. In previous posts I have talked a lot about the importance of being in the present and this is the one the great advantages of meditation. We can’t always be serene and peaceful, but taking time out of our day to quiet the noise of our everyday lives is important and is something we do in solitude.

introspection2The dictionary also defines meditation as continued or extended thought, reflection and contemplation. This is the sort of meditation I do a lot. For better or worse I suppose as I am frequently lost in thought unaware of what’s  going on, which is bad for activities like driving, or paying attention to your spouse when she is talking to you. This type of meditation is our natural scientist at work. Whether we are reflecting on our own actions, searching through the past for understanding, issues of the day, or just things that we’re learning, thinking deeply about things is a positive activity.  It is our way of helping us see how we can do things better in our lives (humility), what changes we like to make about ourselves (courage), what questions we still have and thus areas we need to understand better (curiosity), trying to understand the actions of others (love/empathy), or setting aside our worries and stresses about future events (faith). In the scientific method it is the final stage that allows us to make adjustments to our original hypothesis and form new ones. Thus our introspection, outrospection, and contemplation ensures that we continue to grow and change in an ever changing world. We may even may take time to plan activities that are both fun, and those that help us better have time to ourselves (play and solitude). And meditation like this and what I described above is something we should try to do every day (vigilance/perseverance).

These meditative activities are all performed in solitude. Even if we don’t get much alone time during the day, 15-30 minutes of meditation can be an important part of good health and if needed, keep the creative juices flowing. If you are constantly surrounded by people your only time for this might just be a nice long shower, or a satisfying crap on the toilet, but in all likelihood you appreciate that time to be alone with your thoughts. Mix that all in with a good night’s sleep and conquering the day may not be seem so daunting, even if it isn’t easy. The amount of solitude that everyone needs for a good sense of well-being I’m sure varies, but I think it’s important that we try to give ourselves that time if possible. In doing so we can gain increased feelings of serenity, understanding, and peace which will help us fight battles in the present instead of the impossible task of winning future ones. The dark side of solitude in the extreme is known, I’m sure, to all. We are a social species and whether you want just a few good friends, or be the life of a party we shine the most in the company of others. Few of us could live the life of a hermit.  We do best when we are cooperating, collaborating, and helping. Too much solitude can make us feel lonely, often worse is that feeling of solitude when surrounded by others. Like the other qualities the down side of solitude comes to fruition when we don’t practice the other 7 qualities in this series in some balanced way. And it is possible that what makes solitude good is some security in knowing that solitude isn’t our only option. That we have other treasured people in our life that we can depend on when we no longer wish to be alone.

This series has been long and if you’ve taken the time to read all of it, I do thank you, but I cannot sum it all up in just a sentence or two so I will have one more post in which I will try to take a more holistic view of them all, and take a critical look at how this intellectual exercise of mine doesn’t always mesh well with reality.

Only the Lonely

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone.
Then- in my childhood, in the dawn
Of a most stormy life- was drawn
From every depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that round me rolled
In its autumn tint of gold,
From the lightning in the sky
As it passed me flying by,
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

Alone by Edgar Allen Poe

I wanted to preface this post with one of my favorite poems.  I spend a lot of time thinking about how we interact with people because I love company, I love talking to other people, trying to understand them as I try to also understand myself.  I have a wonderful wife, great friends, and am surrounded by bright and energetic students and colleagues, but an incident recently made me feel alone, and I started contemplating what it means to be lonely, to feel alone.  I’ll understand if this isn’t a fun read during the holiday season! 🙂

Being alone can have two different meanings and I’d like to focus mostly on only one of them.  One can of course be literally alone with nobody else around.  I equate this more as solitude and solitude can be a

From http://www.capuchinfranciscans.org

good thing.  It can be a time of reflection, possibly getting in touch with nature, and can be a very rejuvenating experience.  Being alone however can mean lonely and this is quite different.  Certainly you can be literally alone and feel lonely, but I find that loneliness comes in many shapes and forms and is most strongly felt when one is not literally alone.

When I moved away from home to go to graduate school I didn’t know a soul, and since I didn’t have the money to come down and look for housing I unfortunately lived in the dorms for the first couple of months (a horrendous experience I might add!).  I ate my meals in the cafeteria and University of Oklahoma is a big school.  There were probably about 500 people eating their meal and I would of course find a spot that wasn’t next to anybody and eat my meal.  Now there are some people who might have just sat down next to somebody and started talking, but I’m not that way.  It really hits you that you don’t know anybody and yet you are surrounded by people.  It is a very intense feeling of loneliness.  I would have felt less lonely if the cafeteria was empty.  This of course was compounded by the fact that I had just moved away from home and so when you are feeling very lonely it is easy to think more about the friends and family you’ve left behind.

Of course this feeling of loneliness is something you get used to, to a certain degree.  Being in new social

From guestofaguest.com

situations where you don’t know anyone, can feel awkward especially if you are like me and seek genuine conversation over the normal small talk.  It’s a skill you have to learn to get good at the small talk to get to the better stuff.  I think a lot of introverts are like that, but they just refuse to play the game.  A lot of people think I’m an extrovert, but I just think I’m an introvert who has learned to be more brave with time. 🙂

One of the more intense feelings of loneliness I think occurs when we don’t have someone to be intimate with.  I am not just talking about physical intimacy, although we certainly crave and miss that as well, but just the intimacy of even a close friend; somebody that you can share thoughts and feelings with, and most importantly be yourself around.  This type of loneliness is compounded by the presences of others, especially those we wish to be closer to but are not.  When you’re shy or lack confidence in approaching someone I think we all start to even get down on ourselves thus worsening the situation instead of making changes to improve our situation to feel less lonely.

Loneliness of this kind can lead to all sorts of behavior that can be unhealthy to you and others.  In a desire to get intimacy we may turn to sex as a substitute which gives momentary pleasure but not the intimacy we crave that is longer lasting and ultimately more fulfilling.  We may turn to a group of friends that become “drinking buddies”.  This may feel like fun temporarily, but often those friends aren’t confidants are even people that you can really be yourself around, and at the end of the evening you still come back alone and feel empty again.  We may seek out chat rooms on the internet, and sometimes you can even get to know someone really well, but it’s just no substitute for being in someone’s physical presence.

I have also noticed a type of loneliness that I could best describe as intellectual or behavioral loneliness. A sort of loneliness you feel when it feels like you are the only one who thinks a certain way.  Like being surrounded by a bunch of pro-gun people and after the umpteenth school shooting you are thinking

From http://www.biography.com

maybe we should pass some gun laws, and they say make the teachers wear guns!  Or wondering if you are the only one who thinks that Julia Roberts isn’t that great of an actress!  I know many people who often feel lonely when raised in a certain religion and feel doubts about their beliefs, but feel alone because nobody else seems to be asking the same questions.  I would imagine realizing you’re homosexual and not knowing anybody else who is, has to feel very lonely too in this sense of loneliness I am talking about.  When you feel like you are different from everybody else.  Poe was a pretty depressed guy, but I think this is the type of loneliness he speaks of in his poem and what inspired this post.  This loneliness is both unsettling yet necessary.  I am not sure if I can explain why I think that.  I just do.  Perhaps this is why the poem has captured me.

The most painful feeling of loneliness however comes from the people we love the most when we fight, or a relationship is ending.  When I was having marriage troubles and it seemed like divorce was imminent, since we both live far from our families we had no place to go so we had to live in the same house, sleep in separate rooms.  It was horrible.  I never felt so alone in my life.  Here was somebody I was so close to emotionally, and so close in proximity, but all of a sudden I felt there was a great distance between us.  Someone I loved so much and yet I felt like touching her was inappropriate and maybe even talking to her intimately was inappropriate, it was terrible.   I am sure many have experienced this before, but it’s not something that I would want people to go through.  Because for all the ways of feeling lonely I’ve talked of already this is the only one that I didn’t feel like I learned anything from.  Maybe I should have, but I didn’t.  It just sucked.

My goal in  exploring this topic is the recognition that loneliness is a very shared experience.  We’ve all felt it in its various forms and so what seems sort of cool and interesting to me is that even through loneliness are we together and I take some comfort in that.  I wish you the least amount of loneliness possible, but loneliness is something all people have to bear throughout their lives and I have found it to be an extremely good source of self-esteem to have battled through lonely days towards better days.  It makes you appreciate good company even more. 🙂