Written By: Susanne Sims
Have you ever watched your mind to see where it goes and what it latches onto? This can be both daunting and liberating.
It was Valentine’s Day and my sweetheart and I were once again thousands of miles apart. “I should be sad,” I told myself. “All the world is celebrating love today, yet I’m alone.” Following that, another thought arose: “But I’m happy.”
It was truly miraculous that I was not feeling depressed or sad. Even when trying to convince myself that I should be feeling down, I just could not summon such feelings. Was I beginning to go numb, or was something truly wonderful happening?
For many of us being alone can be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. We have been programmed since early childhood by fairy tales and love songs to believe that there is another person out there who will complete us, and without them by our side, life will be terribly miserable. Being alone was something to be avoided and even feared. Perhaps for good reason?
I grew up in a family with four siblings and a large number of cousins and relatives. For the majority of my life I rarely found myself alone. As an adult, my work put me in touch with a large social circle as well. Having a warm body at home and someone to talk with at the end of the day brought solace. Being helpful, useful and caring to another brought meaning.
Perhaps it is not being alone that we dread — but loneliness itself. The other day my 96 year old mother admitted to me that she has never lived alone and that she has some trepidation about it. She and my father (who is 98) have spent an astonishing 72 years together. “I wonder how I will adjust when your father is gone,” she said, assuming she will survive him.
Sooner or later life will likely bring us to face-to-face with solitude, and yet there are numerous ways to avoid it. Karl Marx said that religion is the opiate of the masses. This could be said also of work, shopping, travel, food, relationships, entertainment, social media, news, and any other addiction, attachment or distraction that keeps us from being silent long enough to face what is going on inside.
Most spiritual teachings encourage monastic solitude as an insight practice and for very good reason: We must at some point must bear witness to our thoughts, feelings, motivations, emotions and sense of identify, if we are to really know ourselves. And we must come to terms with our vulnerability and human fragility. Embracing the void of silence requires a fierce willingness to face these places of discomfort.
I went kicking and screaming into being alone, and it took several years to become comfortable with it. Without a practice of yoga, mediation, prayer and contemplative study, I do not believe that I would have gained the wisdom necessary to cultivate the patience, kindness, forgiveness and non-judgement that were required to overcome my existential angst and critical chatter. Eventually, I learned to not mask what was emerging, but to become friends with it, understand it, and ultimately write a kinder script. If I could truly cultivate love and peace within, then I wouldn’t be seeking it elsewhere.
The mind is a problem solving machine, excellent at making distinctions. Along with its attendant ego, it forms opinions, categorizes, classifies, subjugates and even denigrates. At its worst it is filled with worries, frets, regrets, jealousies, anxieties, grief, distractions, hatreds and resentments. It can mount a raging war within us and drown us in feelings of shame, guilt, judgement and anger. Its desires can be insatiable and unreasonable.
At its best, the mind can see us beyond all of those nightmares. It can create beauty, joy and wisdom. It can open the door to gratitude and bring into manifestation our highest aspirations for love and beauty. And once tamed, it will reveal how to be at peace with ourselves.
Perhaps one of my greatest breakthroughs was the day in which I was able to observe the progression of my mind as it moved from a state of neutrality into a state of despair. I had just read a bit of news about planetary ecosystem collapse and found myself entering a familiar tail spin. The difference this time was that I was able to watch the unraveling. Determined not to go to bed with “dread head,” I was highly motivated to recover.
It struck me that I had not yet done my mediation that day. The morning had gotten away from me and without this connection to the Holy Spirit (the comforter) I could now see how other thoughts had eagerly shown up to fill in the blanks. When we leave the door open, critters appear. Since the default position of our minds is to sort for the problem, how could it not come to the logical conclusion that things are terribly wrong? Everything is headed toward destruction, dissolution and death. This is likely the one big, terrifying idea that drives all others.
To live in this world but not of it, I must remind myself daily where to go and what to do when the world taunts my sanity. Without a good first aid kit, one can easily get shredded when walking the razor’s edge between love and fear. By repeatedly seeking equanimity through prayer and meditation, I have learned to restore and renew my mind.
Mental illness is the way of the world, but peace, love, joy and wisdom are the way of the spirit. There is light beyond reason and a place where mercy, tenderness and grace are our birthright. Once we discover this, we can truly know the peace and comfort of our own company and the joys of looking inward.
Photo By Burst Photos: Giuseppe Mondi