The solitary should be conscious of paradox at all times, in contrast to the many (ideologues, apologists, advocates, activists, the indifference, the powerful) who are not.
Paradox is already present in everything one does or says. We advocate a certain moral or ethical counsel to which we do not quite live up. We recommend practices based on the authority of sages but regularly fall short of pursuing them. The solitary begs a preference in use of time and the arrangement of space, of silence, disengagement — and then goes out into the world, to live, work, buy, encounter people — undermining the great goal of solitude, that secret desire.
The solitary intersects with people and those unconscious or deliberate human accretions springing from society and culture. We are born and grow in a household, we think in symbols and languages. We maintain subconscious assumptions and drives. We learn, imitate, interact, and have feelings about others. What distinguishes the desire for solitude?
The uncharitable observer of the pursuit of solitude dismisses the solitary as hypocritical, or worse, neurotic. The indifferent will call the solitary contradictory. The solitary’s desire for solitude feels like a fire, or a house on fire, as the Buddha put it. But then the flames sputter, burning low, not enough heat or inspiration in most aspiring solitaries to embrace solitude altogether.
Swami Abishiktananda feared embracing solitude altogether because he feared he would lose his psychological identity, which was his only self-identity, his very self. To lose this self was to lose even the structure of our solitary personality. Solitude, like mysticism, suggests a loss of self-identity akin to madness, to a plunge into the depths from which the self cannot emerge.
Solitude should be understood for the opposite of what the world understands as loneliness and alienation. The solitary is the psychological product of the same factors as anyone else: upbringing, environment, experience, heredity, personality, one or more of the multiple intelligences. But the solitary has need of a special insight to throw a sense of rightness and normalcy onto a path that differs radically from what most people define as correct.
Solitude must be normal and correct not because it justifies a predisposition but because it is a special and revelatory path. Solitude is more true than the engaged social path, more reflective of the potential for self-discovery. And the first discovery is the fundamental aloneness of the soul, of the self. The vicissitudes of solitude are the core experiences of this innate sense of self. Society’s refusal of solitude breaks in over and over to deny the individual the possibility of self-discovery. It treats solitude as antagonist to its collectivizing tendency, its innate tendency to prevent individual thought and reflection, instead keeping the self focused on contrived objects that merges the consciousness of individuals into a social and collective mass, pliable, indefinite, a substance from which all must consume. Soon the self and a path for the self are forgotten.
Solitude in this light seems a contradiction to society. But because everyone has a core of solitude within merely by the fact of consciousness, then the continuity of this consciousness from solitude to awareness to action is a threat to collective power. Power must brand solitude as unnatural, irrational, unreasonable, a denial of human duty and potential. So solitude (and the solitary) are branded as contradiction and hypocrisy. When an individual desires even a modicum of solitude, society blares out noise and distraction, scatters objects to consume and material things to demand attention. So few people ever reach solitude.
Those who desire solitude live in paradox, not contradiction. By distinguishing ourselves from the “them,” as Heidegger suggests, we can begin to distinguish within ourselves what is properly ours and what is properly speaking simply an inheritance, a nostalgia, a zone of comfort. This must be contrasted to what is properly ours.
A paradox maintains that two apparently contradictory things are nevertheless existent and therefore true — in their own spheres. The contradiction arises when the spheres touch or intersect or collide. Such is our consciousness of self versus society and culture, indeed, reality.
We fail to fully understand ourselves epistemologically since we are not all-knowing beings. Our closest proximity is in solitude and silence, where all that is not-self is hushed if not excluded altogether. At this point we sense solitude’s truth as a path, as an opening to knowledge and self-identity. And, when we return into the world, we understand the paradox.
The tension filling the atmosphere around us is full and vibrates, the place where we stand is always moving, shifting imperceptibly. But the solitary knows that as he or she goes on living, we are not living a contradiction. We know that there is no absolute chasm between solitude and the world. Nor between solitude and self, for in fact we do not know self without solitude. Solitude reveals more than anything society and culture can tell us about ourselves or even themselves.
Contradiction is the mathematics of logic and science, but it sets things in opposition when everything shares the sameness that makes contradiction a mere abstraction. We are, for example, dust, like the earth, and yet we are not — contradiction? No, paradox. We are dust and yet we are not. We are of this world of sorrow and tears — and of smiles and tendernesses. And yet we are not. Issa the Japanese poet, when his little daughter died, wrote simply:
is a tear-drop world …
And yet, and yet.