Many are the stories of individuals who seek knowledge, enlightenment, or plain old peace and quiet through aloneness. Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, Siddhartha Gautama under the Bodhi tree, even the old guy in the ramshackle house near you who only comes outside to yell at neighborhood kids who might be walking within reach of his dry and brown juniper bushes.
Peace and quiet and whatever it might lead to. It’s an honorable goal, although the method might sometimes be in question.
I socialize on occasion, but I am equally comfortable in my own skin, in my own room, on my own. I certainly don’t thrive on having company over. Peace and quiet is often my aim, and if enlightenment shows up at the same time, I certainly won’t turn it away.
For many years, summer in our house was controlled by the kids. Swim lessons, family trips, driving them places they needed or wanted to go. And of course the wife and I had to provide nutritious meals and a safe home where they could play and we needed to make sure they went to bed and woke up the next morning. Excruciatingly humdrum.
Now the children are older and some of the requirements of responsible parenting are still in play, but it is vastly easier. One has moved to Arizona, another has a valid driver’s license and keys to a working automobile, and the third has a bicycle and many friends’ homes where he is welcome to spend the afternoon, the night, or the weekend. Being alone isn’t always a planned event, but it can be welcomed with open arms if it happens to knock on the front door.
My opportunity for solitude during this summer of 2010 came courtesy of the great deserts of the American southwest. Kate came home for a visit but then returned to Prescott, Arizona. Kristin and Kelsey went to Las Vegas to visit Kristin’s parents. Kyle hopped on a plane to spend a month in west Texas, choosing a vacation with the family of one of Kristin’s cousins.
By June 30 they were all gone, and it would be eight days before the first would return. That might sound frightening to those of you who thrive on companionship, but it sounded like just what I needed. I looked at the dog and shrugged my shoulders. After all, in solitude there is no reason to speak. The dog looked back at me and smiled. Or maybe she was just breathing; it’s hard to tell with dogs. Regardless, she certainly didn’t break the code of silence with any unpleasant talking.
Eight days of peace and quiet. Eight days of being alone without being lonely. Not exactly the two years Thoreau had at Walden but about the same amount of time the Buddha stared at the Bodhi tree, and he achieved monumental spirituality when his week was up. What would I do with my eight days? It didn’t seem to be completely impossible that I might too achieve enlightenment and become a world renowned leader of a new religion.
Unlikely, yes, but not completely impossible.
Other plans were necessary, if theology wasn’t the point. So I rode my bicycle every day, racking up about 150 miles, and didn’t drive the car at all. I didn’t buy any groceries, surviving instead on whatever I could find in the house. With one caveat: liquor didn’t count as groceries. There’s nothing like a little ceremonial wine to help achieve a higher consciousness, or beer if the wine is all gone.
I hung my old dartboard in the family room, after it has languished unused in the garage or Kyle’s room for many years. I tested my aim with the calmness and surety of the most pious holy man, and could even hit the bull’s eye on occasion. I left a lot of holes in the wall, too.
By the end of my self-imposed confinement I had not unleashed a new religion. Perhaps that does not surprise you. But it could be said that I have a new appreciation for the ascetic, and I have learned how to spend vast amounts of time wisely on my own. It wasn’t all just bikes and darts and beers, people.
At this point Kelsey is the only one who has returned from her particular desert, and I am now a hermit with a teenaged daughter on the premises. Sometimes she is even home to share a meal with me, but of course her friends missed her so much that she has to make herself available. Her friends don’t do so well on the solitary way of beingness, but I have offered to provide counseling on the matter should they be interested.
Thus far, they are not. Isn’t that always the way for shunned mystics like me?
I will instead distract myself with the only thing on my To-Do List (a distasteful leftover of modern life that I successfully ignored for eight days): patching the thousands of tiny dart holes in the wall before Kristin comes home from Vegas. She is unlikely to accept enlightenment as a reasonable explanation for the damage to the house.