In his book Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience(1990), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes that good interpersonal relationships bring “flow experiences,” a high quality of life and happiness, but relationships involving conflict are probably the most depressing and dispiriting events anyone experiences. Yet, he notes, most people never explore solitude.
Why is solitude such a negative experience? The bottom-line answer is that keeping order in the mind from within is very difficult. We need external goals, external stimulation, external feedback to keep attention directed. And when external input is lacking, attention begins to wander, and thoughts become chaotic — resulting in the state we have called “psychic entropy.”
Hence the modern cycle of television, drugs, videos, games, shopping, overeating, sex, gambling — what become desperate methods for imposing external order on a chaotic mind. A positive solitude, however, is too difficult in Csikszentmihalyi’s scheme; he has only the goal of “flow” to offer, having written his book before the positive breakthrough of Anthony Storr’s Solitude and other books in rehabilitating the positive role of solitude.
One of the more insightful features of hatha yoga and qigong/tai chi chuan are the postures that visualize the body’s identity with the earth. The corpse asana or posture of yoga is a supine resting posture during which one imagines one’s weight sinking into the ground. Similarly, the standing meditation of qigong visualizes the same rootedness into the soil. The image is not a morbid one. On the contrary, while the body “sinks” into relaxation the mind is lifted from the whir of events, feelings and mental chatter characterizing the energy points assailed throughout the day. It does not take a yogin or martial artist to appreciate these simple bodily postures and to utilize the sense of well-being that flows from them.
In his list of prerequisites for meditation, which is easily applicable to daily life, Kamalashila includes limiting one’s desires. He offers this brief explanation of what that entails: “limiting your desires refers to not being excessively attached to many or good clothes and so forth. The practice of contentment means always being satisfied with any little thing.”
With regards to his third prerequisite, “not being involved in many activities,” Kamalashila states: “Not being involved in many activities refers to giving up ordinary activities like commerce, avoiding too close association with householders and monks, and totally abandoning the practice of medicine and astrology.” Of course, who else would one associate with other than monks and households? Hence, one could read this as meaning people in general. And commerce, medicine and astrology were, in 8th century India, often unscrupulous and fraudulent.
Kamalashila identifies five characteristics for a “conducive environment,” such an environment being a prerequisite to meditation but also to daily life and the ideal physical setting for solitaries. (The list is easily updated by identifying evil beings in 2. as bad company and neighbors.)
- provides easy access to food and clothes,
- is free of evil beings and enemies,
- is free from disease,
- contains good people who maintain moral ethics and who share similar views, and
- is visited by few people in the daytime and with little noise at night.
The 8th century Mahayana Buddhist writer Kamalashila identified several prerequisites to meditation that can easily be applied to daily life in general. While they might be considered “ascetic,” most solitaries would find that these prerequisites reflect their ideal lifestyle. (From his Guide to Meditation, with commentary by the Dalai Lama.)
- to live in a conducive environment;
- to limit desires and practice contentment;
- to not be involved in too many activities;
- to maintain pure moral ethics, and
- to fully eliminate attachment and all other kinds of conceptual thoughts.