Black and white

Sung dynasty Chan master Pai-Yun’s simple verses can be the solitary’s signature statement:

Where others dwell, I do not dwell.
Where others go, I do not go.
This does not mean to refuse association with others.
I only want to make black and white distinct.

We neither affirm nor object to the path of others. We can understand and empathize with the plight of others and see clearly and unshirkingly the source of suffering and difficulties in the world and in society. In the process, however, we move freely without assuming, we move ethically without judging. We can see black and white distinctly. We can point out the distinctions if necessary. But we are disengaged from the web of society as much as possible in order not only to comprehend but to comprehend with integrity.


Philip Koch, author of Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter, defines solitude simply as “a time in which experience is disengaged from other people.” This is an exact but accommodating definition because one cannot constrict solitude to a method that pertains only to one’s own beliefs or ends. Where for some solitude is a time for spiritual work, to another it may simply be creative work, or to another an emotional time-out, even a prescribed respite for a type-A personality. At a minimum, however, solitude is for all a physical sense of space and time and a sense of freedom or relief from interaction with others.

But perhaps the core of Koch’s definition is disengagement, for disengagement brings a new flexibiity to the experience of solitude. Disengagement not only allows for solitude in the midst of the crowd but even within the daily life-style and vocation, thus being available as a specific experience or resource that can be pursued when needed, as needed, or even at will. Furthermore, disengagement allows solitude to range from physical isolation to psychological self-perception, wherein the mind can recognize and act upon its own perceptions, intuitions, and insights.

The metaphor of engaging with the world is rightly turned on its head as disengaging from unreality and falsehood, of turning inward to what is our true source of being.

Meditating and preaching

Ninth-century Chan master Tung-shan once said: “I preach what I cannot meditate and I meditate what I cannot preach.” This is a straight-forward summary of the great dichotomy of inward and outward, extrapolated to active and contemplative.

We cultivate ourselves inwardly, through meditation and introspection, according to our tradition. But the fruits of our effort are inevitably limited. Who can boast of the perfection of inner cultivation? Society and others may wonder what we are doing, what we think of ourselves.

So we must “preach” what we lack, what inner fruit we cannot express outwardly. We must articulate to ourselves — but especially to others — what we believe, our experiences, our hopes, and desires, our compassion. And do so with the example of our lives, every moment of our lives. And when these efforts are judged by others to be inadequate, ineffective, idealistic, or false, then we must return again to our meditation to “meditate what we cannot preach.”

And so the cycle goes on, the cycle that consumes our very being, the cycle of “perfection.” We enter into it fully, but we cannot dwell on it long or it becomes an object, not a process. It is a cycle that conforms to our very purpose and our purpose conforms to the cycle. It cannot be a contrived purpose or a purpose defined for us by society, but a purpose that grows in our attentive minds the way a flower grows.

Trees and columns

The famous tree-sitting of Julia Butterfly Hill has a parallel in the column-sitting of Simon Stylites. Both were motivated not so much by a cultural or group concern but by a strong personal conviction — a moral imperative to make a statement, not a social or cultural motive. A journalist who ascended to the makeshift platform that Julia Hill had in the top of the tree noted how cold and windy it was and remarked how she could possibly stand it. Julia replied that it was very difficult at first but that now the cold was a sensation, not a hardship. Simon would have had the parallel experience. He would have endured the heat without hardship, just as a sensation.

How did others react or respond to them? It was not the message that was deficient but the people — not the message that lacked persuasion but the moral turpitude of the hearers and witnesses. The tree or the column were props, accessories, devices. They worked because they symbolized the gist of their message — Julia Hill about the deforestation, Simon about moral corruption.

As with others embarked on a solitary work, the inner psychological resources were the mainstay of the individual — with a little help from friends (food and supplies). And the time to come down was determined by a deep-rooted conviction that one had done enough to deliver the message, to strike the best moral deal given the culture and the people. This is the point at which Jesus would say it was time to kick the dust from one’s feet and move on to other projects, other audiences. Or to none at all, perhaps, to just recluse oneself.

Despite the public attention and the inherent danger of their respective exploits, both Simon Stylites and Julia Butterfly Hill knew in their hearts what it meant to be a solitary.

Visualization and mantras

Visualization is the projection of positive images throughout the mind in order to settle the mind, to struggle with disease or psychological shortcomings and stress, or to assist meditation.

But visualization is not meditation. Both visualization and meditation represent effort, but the former is effort that must be consciously, deliberately, even meticulously learned and applied. Of course, meditation must be learned and applied with effort, too. But meditation is an emptying of images, ideas, and thoughts, whereas visualization is a conscious contrivance of thoughts and images for a therapeutic end. In Buddhist tradition, a mental image is the equivalent of a sensory object, as much as is a contrived or entertained thought.

Meditation traditions hold a variety of mantras, but these, too, can be considered visualizations, or auditory visualizations. Zen Buddhism argues against mantras because mantras require a process of mind akin to visualization. Even a “good” mantra is an effort, and potentially a distracting effort. As commentator Nyogen Senzaki explains:

If you drop a coin into a calm pool, the ripples increase one after another. It makes no difference whether the coin is gold or copper. The moment the sea of our mind raises a ripple, the calmness is disturbed and the peace broken.