Wisdom Quotes

On the Difficulties and Benefits of Isolation

As someone who spends a lot of time alone, I know how easy it is to get sucked into a whirlpool of my own bullshit in my head. But the silence of solitude is the only way to get clear guidance on how to release yourself from that bullshit. In this quote from Journey into Burmese Silence, Marie Byles explores the way moods can hijack your meditation practice:

“Meditation was beginning to settle into an even rhythm when, according to arrangement, U Sein Maung came to take me to see whether the bank had at last got some money for me. It had not. The money shortage did not worry me very much, for I had a few travellers’ cheques not yet cashed. But the goddess of efficiency raised her ugly head and because of living in complete solitude the mood of irritation was irrationally heightened.

“That appears to be a characteristic of a period of isolation. I had often noticed the same thing during the annual week spent camping alone in Australia. There is no distraction to prevent moods of depression and moods of elation from having full sway. It gives the naturally solitary person some inkling of the terrors that must assail the naturally gregarious person when forced into solitary confinement; for such a one, physical torture would be far preferable.

“On re-reading my journal it seems incredible that this and other moods should have caused such disturbances. Meditation at such times, as the Buddha said, is like trying to light a fire with damp wood. The ceaseless repetition of Lead Kindly Light will ultimately take effect, but in the meantime the only sane thing to do is to remember that mankind has always been able to endure, and that this particular specimen can do as others have done.

“Always these black moods are succeeded by moods of peacefulness and joy, and in this case there were three hours of blissful absorption with the phyit-pyet flowing like a gentle stream and mind and body merged and one with it, and two visions at intervals. But these blissful experiences are far more dangerous, because it is more difficult to stand aside and be detached from joy than from pain. Both are only moods and must be transcended. Possibly U Thein’s wisdom might have shortened the period it took to learn these things, but he was away, and before he returned things were well into focus again. One more complex or ‘self’ had been slain.

“That is the reason why the Buddha emphasised the need for solitude. If there are outward distractions the black mood disappears fairly quickly, but the complex that gave rise to it is still there, and the pain to which it gives birth will return again and again each time there is the appropriate stimulus. In solitude, however, the complex has a chance of being rooted out completely, and then the pain arising from it will never return.”


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