Balance: Solitude and engagement, stillness and action
“When I observe the ruts in a road, I inclined to think, how much deeper the ruts in the mind.” – Henry David Thoreau
“If necessary, let us forgo one bridge over the river, go round a little there, and throw at least one span over the greater gulf of ignorance which surrounds us.” – Thoreau
“The Waste Land, let us say then, is any world in which (to state the problem pedagogically) force and not love, indoctrination, not education, authority, not experience, prevail in the ordering of lives, and where the myths and rites enforced and received are consequently unrelated to the actual inward realizations, needs, and potentialities of those upon whom they are impressed.”
– Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology (Vol. IV of The Masks of God)
Yes, as T.S. Elliot said, this is the wasteland; and modern society is a wasteland because the people are frantically busy and have no time for stillness or reflection, which would rapidly bring them to their senses, were they to allow themselves the time or space for it.
It would be wise, I believe, for us to balance solitude – time alone in silence, to nourish and reconnect with the deeper parts of our being – with time engaged in the world, living and acting with love and compassion, doing what we can.
There are good reasons for protracted periods of solitude and seclusion – much can be done there that cannot easily be done in other ways or other settings. And certainly, there is a need for periodic times of silence and solitude – a few weeks or a few days here and there, or a few hours of moments set aside more often, and ideally, daily, would be my suggestion. But in the broader sweep of a life, it is balance that is generally most helpful, and which offers the most empowerment, richness of life, and also, the most effectual action – and I too am working on this myself, I must add.
For myself, I cannot stand to be idle. Idleness feels like stagnation; and stagnation is a slow death. Better to live, and truly live, if you are going to live at all.
Stillness, yes; but idleness, never. There is far too much suffering in the world, and far too much to be done, for us to waste our lives in idleness – or worse, to fall into that trap of a chronic, mindless busyness, which is an idle busyness, in truth, where nothing is really accomplished, and we are simply chasing our tail: an affliction, it is, and a disease of the mind which infects and negatively affects and imprisons the minds of the great majority of men and women, as Thoreau observed over a hundred and fifty years ago.
But action sometimes requires stillness to precede it – and this is generally the case, at least if we want our actions to be successful, clear-minded, effectual or even sane. And the best action always comes only from stillness.
If we cannot be still, then we can accomplish little of value or meaning in this world. This is the fact of the matter, which the habitually restless and hyperactive never seem to realize. Slow down, and all of your actions will take on more power.
Idleness is the ornament of fools; stillness, the inner ornament of princes, sages, and the wise.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau observed, a century and a half ago. And they lead lives of quiet desperation, because they know they are betraying their better instincts, their common sense, their better judgment and themselves. “The mass of men are busy gathering up treasures which moths and rust will corrode, and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they shall find at the end of it, if not before.”
The middle class are the lower echelons of the global aristocracy, materially speaking, in terms of their material standard of living, though only a rare few realize it. They are in the top 7-8% of the world’s population according to UN stats, in terms of material wealth; and in historical terms, they live lives that are more materially lavish than the wealthiest of aristocrats, and even many kings of feudal times. But at the same time, their psychology is, in general, that of medieval serfs. They are more chained than free, and this too they fail to realize. A little stillness would bring reflection, and reflection, truth – and the truth would set them free. But still, they cannot be. Stillness they cannot abide.
“The better part of what my neighbours believe to be good, I believe in my heart to be wrong, and if I repent of anything, it may well be my good behaviour. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?”
The great majority of people are obsessed with bells and baubles and the gathering up of material possessions. As Thoreau said, they do not possess their possessions so much as they are possessed by them.
Worse, they are obsessed with the never-ending drive to please and to conform, to win the praise or at least the respect of their neighbours, their family or their peers. They are obsessed with what others may think of them. And this is their shackle, and their chains.
They run a never-ending gamut, and have chained themselves to a treadmill, because they feel the absolute necessity of conforming to the herd. And they feel the terrible necessity of conforming to the herd because they fear being alone, and more essentially, because they do not trust themselves. They consign themselves to a life of slavery in the process, but they see it not.
They are busy, but they are busy with a chronic idleness which goes nowhere but in circles. This is the tragic state of the great majority today, as it has been for a very long time.
They cannot be still, but they are almost constantly idle. And a frenetic, frenzied, restless busyness is their idleness. If they could be still for but a moment, this incessant idleness would cease, their fastidious and mindless busyness would come crashing down, or at least pause long enough for them to begin to see things more clearly; and they would begin to be truly free, truly awake, and truly alive.
But alas, for the moment at least, they have neither the ears to hear nor the eyes to see. They refuse to be still long enough to return to their senses. This may well be the central tragedy, and the central, underlying pathology of the modern world: the ignorant and stubborn refusal to be still long enough to see what is before our eyes, or even to realize what it is that we are doing.
As Jesus and the Buddha both said, “If the blind lead the blind, they will all fall into a ditch.” But the great majority of people are busy doing just that, and no amount of stumbling in the dark and falling repeatedly into ditches seems sufficient to spur them to reflection, or even to pause for a moment in their great haste to go nowhere as fast as their feet can take them. The blind continue to follow the blind, and much to their common detriment – and with a common, collective disaster approaching fast, as a result.
They are obsessed with what is respected, for they seek the approval of others above all else – even above the call of their own common sense. Meanwhile, they completely and chronically overlook what is respectable.
“I sometimes despair of getting anything of value accomplished by the help of my fellow men. Their minds would first have to be put through a kind of powerful vice, to squeeze their old ideas out of them.” – Henry David Thoreau
To fall one-sidedly into solitude or seclusion is an act of despair, or else an act of callousness, and of simple negligence; to fall entirely into engagement with the world, with no time set aside for silence or solitude, leads to burn-out – or at the least, to a failure to embrace all our power, our deepest power, or to realize our fullest clarity of mind and depth of resources.
To everything there is a season, but generally speaking, balance is the key. And if we trust our own natural intelligence, our own inner guidance, we will know what the moment calls for – or the period of life, as the case may be – if we have the ears and the courage to listen to our own hearts. Sometimes what is most needed is to dive into the still pool of our own being, and thereby, to reconnect with our deeper being, which is the ocean of being itself. Sometimes what is most needed is to dive into the ocean of the world.
Generally, it is best to do the former first, and for a long time. Then, our actions will have more power, and more importantly, they will come from a place of greater clarity. And if we are immersed in the world, then we definitely need moments of solitude and silence, or we will run the risk of losing our basic clarity, and become lost – as the vast majority of people are.
Slow down, make time for silence and solitude, and reconnect with your deeper being. Then your actions will have more power and effectiveness, as well as more clarity; you will be healthier and happier, and at more peace, and will run less risk of burn-out or illness; and you will also begin to find your inner riches, which a chronically busy life makes it impossible to find.
But to start: slow down, and seek a greater balance. That is a good beginning – or a good new beginning. And we should remember that every day and every moment, even every breath, is in truth a new beginning.
In short, men and women of action need to incorporate a little stillness into their lives, if they wish for the greatest success or efficacy of their actions. And those who are inclined to introspection, reflection, philosophy or a spiritual life, need to remember also the value of meaningful action – which means, an engagement with the world, and a life devoted to compassion, in both sentiment and also in practice.
We should remember as well, that it is good to keep a sense of humour, and a little playfulness. If we cannot be playful, then we are dead – or soon will be.
And to quote my favourite writer once more:
“In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Do not be domesticated. We are not cattle, nor are we sheep. We are men and women. And if we will allow ourselves the time for solitude and silence, for a little stillness amidst the confusion and the din, not only will our lives be enriched immeasurably, but we will begin to be truly empowered, alive and free.
January 22, 2014