The adventure of being alone - Food for thought | Sunday Observer

The adventure of being alone - Food for thought

25 April, 2021

Being alone and feeling lonely are two different mental states. Another word for being alone is solitude treasured by philosophers down the ages. When I think of the time I spent learning Latin, I sometimes wonder why the simple study of living was never considered a proper school subject. The appalling number of school dropouts, runaways and teenage suicides might indicate the need for children to know something about the fine art of being alone.

If you are living in the asphalt jungle, you will never find peace in solitude. You may have seen city dwellers flocking to public parks to enjoy peace of mind. But they will never succeed in their attempt to enjoy peace because there is so much noise and distractions even in a public park. Children, ice cream vendors, gram sellers and adults talking politics make a sound and fury in the atmosphere. Meanwhile women start exchanging information with others. You may call it gossiping, but there is nothing wrong with it.

My idea of a perfect place to live is a farmstead where I cannot see another house. As there are no such places in our tiny island, you have to spend some time in a jungle. Recently I had an opportunity to spend a week in the Wilpattu jungle. Even in a jungle you need some form of shelter, food and other necessities. As vehicles were not allowed to proceed into the jungle, I had to go along a footpath to reserve a room built in an old container. Although it was covered by trees, the room had all the basic facilities. There were a few other ‘container rooms’ in the jungle but they were not easily visible.

Footpaths

The few people who were staying there were seen walking along the footpaths during the day. They avoided the footpaths at night for fear of attacks by wild animals. Early in the morning birds started singing. As our rooms had no clocks, radio or television, we did not feel the time passing by. A river flowing by added extra beauty to the environment. I was happy because I could not see even a distant chimney that would shatter my sense of tranquillity. At night, however, I saw faraway lighted windows beyond the river like prying eyes watching me.

This is the ideal setting for a loner like me. Any writer would enjoy being alone in such an environment where he could talk to himself. Even a painter would find landscapes without the benefit of people to enliven the scene. This goes against the advice given to me by one of my editors.

He said, “Don’t use pictures without people.” It may be good to have pictures with people in newspapers. When I tried my hand at painting, my teacher said something different. “Sloane seldom has people in his paintings.” He virtually asked me to paint landscapes without people.

Young people do not know the value of solitude and they want to be surrounded by friends. They like loud music and dance. It is only when you mature that you come to know the value of solitude.

At one time when life was confusing and my mind lacked decision, I sought advice from other people. But now I have learnt that the answers are usually within my reach all the while. When I am perplexed, I seek seclusion and in the eloquence of silence, I wait for the replies to arrive. And they do.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

I was introduced to being alone at an early stage in my life. My close association with Dr E.W. Adikaram’s books and listening to Jiddu Krishnamurti’s talks brought about a sea change in everything I did.

Today as you walk along a crowded street, you usually pass people without a glance. But when I was living in Wellawaya during World War II, I used to approach any solitary person and exchange a few words with him. As we had no electricity, radio, television or telephone, life moved very slowly and happily. We had enough time to watch birds, count the stars in the sky at night and pick mangoes falling from trees.

Any writer is a hermit in the cave of his mind. He is often a lonely person. But now I have realised that loneliness can also be a sweet suffering. They say suffering makes you sincere. Such a sincere writer was Van Wyck Brooks who knew New England like the palm of his hand. He contended that materialism severely restricted the growth of culture in the United States. His most ambitious undertaking was the five-volume “Makers and Finders: A History of the Writer in America.”

The first volume “The Flowering of New England” was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1937. He said, “Loneliness is particularly evident on the New England face; it is the American bittersweet of pain and pleasure. But those who live understandingly with it find it a tolerable and even exciting companion.” Judith Orloff in “Emotional Freedom” recommends guerilla meditation to counter emotional overload. For this you have to find a private place to close your eyes. She suggests that a clean bathroom is the ideal place. You have to do two things while meditating. First, keep exhaling pent-up negative emotions – loneliness, worry, and more. Feel them dissipate with each breath. Second, put your hand over your heart and visualise loving-kindness permeating you from head to toe. These actions will quickly relax you.”

Final analysis

In the final analysis, solitude or aloneness has in it a sort of sadness, sorrow and a very deep peace and silence. It depends on how you look at it. If you are living in a city, it will be difficult for you to have your own space. When you are always engaged in various activities – personal affairs, worldly affairs, anxieties and plans for the future – you tend to live on the surface. If you can find time to be alone, you can sink inward.

When your mind is not occupied in anything, you will not feel the way you have always been feeling. If you love yourself deeply, you will be ready to love others even more deeply. Today we have been conditioned to seek happiness from others. So we move around and meet all kinds of people thinking that happiness comes out of being with others. In fact, this is not true. The happiness you derive from others is superficial and it will not last long.

When happiness comes out of solitude, you can enjoy it. You may have seen people singing softly to themselves or sitting silently waiting for something to happen. Such people are not unhappy souls. Once you have tasted happiness from the very depth of solitude, you will realize that all relationships are superficial. When there is nobody to share your happiness, you start sinking down in yourself. When the sinking goes deeper, you will feel a sense of stillness. In such a situation, contradictions will dissolve bringing you a sense of tremendous happiness. 

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