Isolation can be a recipe for anxiety and depression. Left alone people may wither.
But what about hermits and mystic loners who enjoy solitude? What is their secret?
Mystics have always had a simple answer. They experience companionship in nature. From a grain of sand, the touch of air on their skin, out to the infinity of the cosmos, mystics sense a connectedness with all that is. They also sense an invisible and benevolent presence.
Mystic: a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect. (Oxford Dictionary)
Yet mystics are not cut off from cruelty and suffering. In fact, because of their deep connection with the wonder and energy of life, they can meet pain with courage, compassion and dignity.
This is one of the assets of great spiritual leaders: they model a deep connection with the wonder and energy of life yet are simultaneously fully present to suffering.
Mystics also do not need the companionship of other people. They may enjoy the company of others, but they do not need it.
But infants and children absolutely need people around them. Without other people the infant brain simply does not grow. (See Sue Gerhardt: Why Love Matters – How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain.)
Children then mature. As part of their development they gradually detach from their families and carers. They need to explore, expand and become independent.
Adults, even though independent, still experience instinctive biological needs, including those for company and touch. At its most physical there is a DNA programmed biological response. Being in a crowd can feel great. Like most animals we like being stroked. Massage and lovemaking can even be blissful.
Unhappily natural instincts can become habitual, addictive and self-harming.
We see this in cravings, from food to sex. We see it too when the instinct for human company and touch becomes needy.
So here is a stark question. In this context of the pandemic and lockdowns, how much of the current concern about solitude and restriction is based in neediness rather than necessity?
We know that children absolutely require human company and affection. But do we adults really need it too or is it just the desire to satisfy a habitual craving and not a necessity?
That may seem an unnecessarily harsh enquiry. Certainly our first awareness should always be compassion and the relief of suffering. But when the suffering is based in addiction, we may need tough love.
Desire is the memory of things that have given us pleasure in the past — Patanjali 200 BC
This is where mystics have useful strategies.
They are content in solitude and isolation because they are nurtured by a felt, benevolent presence. But to achieve that state they conduct regular spiritual practice.
Their ongoing experience of the wonder and energy of life is not serendipitous. It does not just happen. Its foundation is in commitment, perseverance when times are tough and self-discipline. Mystics have robust rhythms of taking long periods of time to give full awareness to their spiritual connection.
Self-discipline however is a sensitive subject.
When someone is vulnerable and in pain, stoic willpower can be irrelevant, insulting and harmful.
On the other hand the stoic willpower of daily spiritual practice can be beautiful, nurturing and liberating. What is better for us than a deepening experience of the wonder and energy of life?
Although entangled in the web and habits of biology, instinct and human relationships, we are still independent beings.
Solitude, even restriction, can be enjoyed. Even the poignancy of feeling alone whilst also being spiritually connected can be appreciated. The choice is ours.
Blessings and love to all.