Sunday, March 11, 2012

solitude simply is

Photo by Thomas Merton
"It should be clear from the start then that the solitary worthy of the name lives not in a world of private fictions and self-constructed delusions, but in a world of emptiness, humility, and purity beyond the reach of slogans and beyond the gravitational pull of diversions that alienate him from God and from himself.  He lives in unity.  His solitude is neither an argument, an accusation, a reproach or a sermon.  It is simply itself.  It is.  And therefore it not only does not attract attention, or desire it, but it remains, for the most part invisible."

-- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) p. 184


  1. Beth, A wonderful set of postings lately. Good to get saturated in such writings. The good news is that it leaves one with a lot to think about and the bad news is that it leaves one with a lot to think about. ??

    The sentence in the latest posting "It is" speaks the loudest to me. In this paragraph it references the idea of solitude but also it seems to me that it applies to one's (mine anyway) spiritual side overall. My sense of what Merton is saying here is that one needs to be careful to not "claim" to be anything. Just "be it" and don't define it as it is truly beyond definition, beyond words. Even thinking about it is risky as it easily reverts back to a claim of the ego to say "I'm a solitary, I'm a contemplative etc. This is only hard for us humans because we're humans. You see a deer grazing along the edges of a field. You know it's a deer but it doesn't know it's a deer, it's just being a deer doing what a deer does when it doesn't know what a deer is or does....."It is". Not so easy though for us humanoids.
    This Merton passage reminded me of another Merton thought that I have pinned up and also a Gary Snyder thought.

    "We must be detached from the spiritual life, but we must still live it." ... Merton

    fewer the artifacts, less the words
    slowly the life of it
    a knack for non attachment ...Gary Snyder

    Thanks again for the site and your effort to put up the postings. Robert

  2. You're not supposed to think, Robert! :-)

    And I have to warn you, you're gonna get a lot more saturated before I'm done. I actually have them cued up for about 10 or more days, but I'm then surprised at the little "nugget" that I get in the email in the morning. It's like I have to take this stuff in little pieces, a day at a time.

    I think you're right on about not holding on to anything that you think that YOU are, or that solitude is. I like the way you say "be it". That resonates with me too. I always kind of think that you can't look back at yourself - which is what you are saying too.

    Thanks for the Gary Snyder words. I haven't read anything of his for awhile, but seem to remember that I really liked him.

  3. Good news that you have more lined up. I see that another is already here. Keep them coming....I'm wearing my hip boots. Rewarding to slog around in this stuff.

    Solitude Simply Is and "It is" = Is Simply Is. Maybe a bit silly but then again maybe not. Perhaps the challenge or the work is to "not find oneself". Is the "oneself" the part that gets in the way?

    Sidebar: I just finished reading Thomas Merton Master of Attention by Robert Waldron. Also subtitled An Exploration of Prayer. I found it insightful and enjoyable to read.

  4. I think you're right about the "oneself". I trip over that notion many times in my search for the "true" self. Merton uses the words "disappear" and "invisible" a lot in trying to get at this. I also like the way Cynthia Beourgealt approaches it with the "let it go, let it go, let it go" ...

    I don't know that book by RObert Waldron. I'll look it up. Thanks.

    1. Another book that ran across recently and have found helpful and clarifying of this work is:

      The Way Of Transformation: Daily Life as Spiritual Practice by Karlfried Graf Durckheim.

      This book for me has re-explained much about a personal spirituality that follows right along with Merton and what's been being spoken to lately on this blog. The language is somewhat different but very supportive of what Merton speaks to. I had never heard of Graf Durckheim until just recently. I mentioned him to someone who I regard quite highly as a guide for my own contemplative understandings and they simply smiled and said "Oh yeah, he's the real deal". I've about finished the book, meaning I'm almost through it for the first time but will simple return to the beginning once the last page is read. It seems to be just what I needed at this time.

    2. I think you need to start a library, Robert :-) ... I have too many books now. The problem is that sometimes I give a lot of books away, then I start thinking about something and look for the book, and I go out and buy the same book that I used to have and gave away! I'm basically a minimalist kind of person, so this is definitely a problem for me.

      But I think I'm going to have to get that Durckheim book ...

  5. I read some of the reviews of the Durckheim book and it sounds like it is right up my ally. I wish that it was available for Kindle. When I read a concept (notion, idea) in different places, it affirms my sense that it is valid. Just reading some of the excerpts from the book I find it articulating ideas that I had intuited on my own, but never heard anyone else say. Like the idea of "critical awareness". Or:

    "Rather than concerning ourselves with Heaven we are challenged to find beauty and meaning in the daily round of ordinary activities. According to Durckheim, making tea, mailing a letter, or washing the kitchen floor can become a spiritual practice if it is done with attention, care and love."

    This sounds a lot like Thich Nhat Hanh.

    Merton, for all his lofty explorations into the spiritual realm, never really got down to a day-to-day technique for getting free of ego. Whatever he did, worked for him and advanced Zen masters recognized this in him ... I tend to think that the Contemplative Prayer techniques that followed in his wake (Centering prayer, etc) have picked up a lot of the slack here.

    Depth psychology is something that I've been interested in all of my life, and how it parallels the work of spiritual teachers.

    1. You mentioned reading concepts in different places. These two books, Merton, Master Of Attention and Durckheim's book just sort of appeared in front of me at virtually the same time. I've been reading them together and it's almost like listening to a dialog. They compliment each other quite well. I agree with what you were saying about Merton's personal day to day approach being hard to locate in his writings. Waldron's book exposes aspects of that part of Merton which I found helpful but they are also Waldron's perspective and understanding. Still helpful so read for me. I guess in the end there is no "way" other than one's own way. It's funny that the way is to just show us where we already are so we can work with that. Actually we're not really going anywhere else huh? I remember seeing a documentary a few years ago about Chinese Zen Hermits. One who they spoke with said something that was interesting and helpful. He was asked that since he lives alone as a hermit in the mountains, who does he go to when he needs help. He pointed to the Buddhist texts and said I go here. He said that if you read them and something makes sense to you, then you are there along the path. If you read something and it doesn't make sense you're just not there yet. At the time that barely made any sense to me but now, a few years later and hopefully with a bit more understanding I can look back and see that same sort of experience has been playing itself out for me.
      Depth Psychology.....Sorry, here's another book. I ran across this book quite by accident at exaclty the right time for me. I was on a private retreat at the New Camaldoli Hermitage a few years ago. They have a small selection of books on a shelf in the kitchen area for the retreatants. One morning as I was leaving the kitchen with my tray of food this book was sticking half out of the shelf. I have no idea why I didn't push it back in but instead pulled it out and put it on my tray and took it to my room. I got to my room and flipped it open and the next thing I knew it was after lunch and I was still reading. In reflection it was as if someone was on the other side of the bookshelf and slid it out to me as an offering. The book changed my life and my understanding of the link between psychology, trauma and spirituality. The book is available but only through the author. In case you're interested here's the info....
      The Way Of The Wound: A spirituality of trauma and transformation by Robert Grant PhD Contact info: Robert Grant, PhD 520 Clark Drive San Mateo, Ca. 94402. I believe copies are $30.00 plus shipping but it's been a few years ago. I requested current info back then by email and got a very rapid response.
      Lots of book recommendations today. I hope it's not too much. I'll pull back on the reins. I apologize if it's unwanted.

    2. Not unwanted, Robert. I'm glad to know that these books are out there.

      I loved the Chinese Zen hermit story.

    3. I'm glad to hear that I'm not over the top here. The film about the Chinese Hermits is very good. Entitled "Amongst White Clouds". Worth a viewing. Some clips from the film are on YouTube. Have a good week coming up. I'll keep peeking in.


  6. "Rather than concerning ourselves with Heaven we are challenged to find beauty and meaning in the daily round of ordinary activities. According to Durckheim, making tea, mailing a letter, or washing the kitchen floor can become a spiritual practice if it is done with attention, care and love."

    This definitely sounds like Thich Nhat Hahn!

    Reminds me of this Thich Nhat Hahn quote:

    "People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either in water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle."

    We are so busy regretting the past or being anxious about the future that we fail to see the miracle of the present moment.

    I think this is one of the functions of solitude: to slow us down, to sweep away our regrets and anxieties so that we can experience the magic of the here and now.

    ~ Matt

  7. Thanks, Matt. It's so easy for me to get swept away in the supposed hurry and rush of things, that solitude is essential for me to get my bearings.

    Here is another Merton version of that miracle of now:

    Today, Father, this blue sky lauds you.
    The delicate green and orange flowers of the tulip poplar tree praise you.
    The distant blue hills praise you, together with the sweet-smelling air that is full of brilliant light.
    The bickering flycatchers praise you
    with the lowing cattle and the quails that whistle over there.
    I too, Father, praise you, with all these my brothers,
    and they give voice to my own heart and to my own silence.
    We are all one silence, and a diversity of voices.

    You have made us together,
    you have made us one and many,
    you have placed me here in the midst as witness,
    as awareness, and as joy.

    Here I am.

    In me the world is present, and you are present.
    I am a link in the chain of light and of presence.

    You have made me a kind of center, but a center
    that is nowhere.
    And yet also I am "here".

    To be here with the silence of Sonship in my heart
    is to be a center in which all things converge upon you.
    That is surely enough for the time being.

  8. Beautiful, Beth! Thanks for sharing...

    By the way, same here - I would go nuts if I didn't have enough time to be by myself in solitude and silence. Thank God, I have a wife who who understands my need for solitude...


God speaks

God speaks, and God is to be heard, not only on Sinai, not only in my own heart, but in the voice of the stranger. — Thomas Merton, Emble...