To Be Alone Is Not Lonely

By: - Dec 06, 2019

The words “monk” and “monastery” derive from the Greek, monos –  “solitary,” “alone.” Those words invoke an image, a perception, of a hunched over old man in a robe sitting cross – legged in an ancient temple somewhere in eastern Asia.  But not all monks are old, or hunched over, or living in a temple in eastern Asia.

It is one of the most frequently asked questions when people learn I have lived as a monk in China and continue my practice even away from my temple.  I usually answer with some form of both Zen and Laozi: I eat when I am hungry, I sleep when I am tired. I am ordinary.

I also live a mostly solitary life,  time spent each day in meditation, training in qigong and taiji, hiking in the mountains, chopping vegetables, and listening to music.  Quiet and simple.  

Withdrawing from society, spending much of my time in solitude, is both helpful and necessary.  By removing myself from the constraints, distractions and influences imposed upon me by others, solitude frees me to reconnect with myself, absorb and digest ideas, and confirm identity and meaning in my life.  

Loneliness – the pain of being alone – is debilitating, whereas solitude –  the joy of being alone – is restorative and empowering, an exercise in freedom.

As Nietzsche wrote:  

“I go into solitude so as not to drink out of everybody’s cistern.  When I am among the many, I live as the many do, and I do not think I really think.  After a time, it always seems as if they want to banish my self from myself and rob me of my soul.”

This is not to say a monk shuns society or does not enjoy the company of people.  I enjoy meals with my friends, and conversations with my Hospice patients. In fact, the stillness we cultivate through our daily practice and devotionals, the stillness that brings clarity to us in each moment, impresses upon us the essential need for human contact, and the need to live a life of compassion, forgiveness and love. 

It is the time alone, in the joy of solitude, that empowers us for a life in service to others, or at least in service to something larger than ourselves.  

How many of you actively seek out solitude?  Do you feel comfortable being alone? Or do you derive your identity from those around you, placing greater importance on their opinion of you rather than your own?  

Solitude forces you to face yourself merely as you are, just as stillness provides the clarity to see everything around you merely as it is.  Meditation is the skill we use to cultivate that stillness, and the practice of “sitting still, doing nothing” in solitude, away from the noise of man, offers the opportunity to confirm self-identity and find meaning in your life.

Living as a monk is merely living.  Admittedly, it is living a bit differently than most, but it’s still just living.  It requires discipline, a devotion to one’s beliefs, and a determination to live a life consistent with them, moment to moment.   

But it’s still just living . . . eating when hungry, sleeping when tired.   Being ordinary.