The Art of Solitude: Buddhist Scholar and Teacher Stephen Batchelor on Contemplative Practice and Creativity

“Right here lies the paradox of solitude. Look lengthy and arduous sufficient at your self in isolation and all of the sudden you will notice the remainder of humanity staring again.”

The Art of Solitude: Buddhist Scholar and Teacher Stephen Batchelor on Contemplative Practice and Creativity

“Give me solitude,” Whitman demanded in his ode to the everlasting pressure between metropolis and soul, “give me once more O Nature your primal sanities!” In these primal sanities, we come to find that “there isn’t any place extra intimate than the spirit alone,” as Could Sarton wrote in her beautiful 1938 ode to solitude — her hard-earned testimony to solitude because the seedbed of self-discovery, for it’s in that intimate place that we see most clearly what our animating spirit is product of. Solitude, Kahlil Gibran knew, summons of us the braveness to know ourselves. Elizabeth Bishop believed — a perception I can attest to with my very own life — that everybody should expertise at the least one lengthy interval of solitude in life as a way to know what we’re product of and what we will make of our presents. “There is just one solitude, and it’s giant and never straightforward to bear,” Rilke wrote in considering the connection between solitude, love, and creativity, “however… we should maintain ourselves to the troublesome.”

The visionary poets knew — as do the visionaries of scientist, as do all individuals engaged in lives of creativity or contemplation, which are sometimes one life — how this solitary self-discovery turns into the wellspring of all of the meaning-making that makes life value residing, whether or not we name it artwork or love. From solitude’s promontory, we peer out into the expanse of existence and prepare our eyes to look with wide-eyed surprise on the inconceivable reality of all of it. Solitude, so conceived, isn’t merely the state of being alone however the artwork of turning into absolutely ourselves — an artwork acquired, like each artwork, by apprenticeship and painstaking devotion to dwelling within the typically lonesome interior gentle of our singular and sovereign being.

“Solitude” by Maria Popova. Obtainable as a print.

Its mastery, delicate and troublesome, is what the Buddhist scholar and instructor Stephen Batchelor explores in The Artwork of Solitude (public library). Celebrating solitude — not the escapist privilege of it however the observe of it in opposition to the true world’s pressures — as “a website of autonomy, surprise, contemplation, creativeness, inspiration, and care,” he writes:

True solitude is a manner of being that must be cultivated. You can not swap it on or off at will. Solitude is an artwork. Psychological coaching is required to refine and stabilize it. While you observe solitude, you dedicate your self to the care of the soul.

Almost forty years after he first started bridging Western phenomenology and existentialism with Buddhist precepts in his 1983 guide Alone with Others: An Existential Strategy to Buddhism, Batchelor attracts on a lifetime of solitude-mastery — straight, by means of his personal contemplative observe and a number of silent retreats, and not directly, by means of his immersion within the lives and works of centuries of solitude-virtuosi starting from Montaigne to Nietzsche to Ingmar Bergman — to formulate the essence of the inquiry, directly elemental and embodied, on the coronary heart of the artwork of solitude:

Don’t count on something to occur. Simply wait. This ready is a deep acceptance of the second as such. Nietzsche known as it amor fati — unquestioning love of no matter has fated you to be right here. You attain some extent the place you’re simply sitting there, asking, “What is that this?” — however with little interest in a solution. The eager for a solution compromises the efficiency of the query. Are you able to be glad to relaxation on this puzzlement, this perplexity, in a deeply centered and embodied manner? Simply ready with none expectations?

Ask “What is that this?,” then open your self fully to what you “hear” within the silence that follows. Be open to this query in the identical manner as you’ll take heed to a chunk of music. Pay complete consideration to the polyphony of the birds and wind outdoors, the occasional airplane that flies overhead, the patter of rain on a window. Hear rigorously, and see how listening is not only a gap of the thoughts however a gap of the guts, a significant concern or take care of the world, the supply of what we name compassion or love.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open Home for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.

Echoing Rachel Carson’s belief within the loneliness of artistic work — a byproduct of the solitude obligatory for artistic work, pure and wanted, typically terrifying and all the time clarifying — Batchelor provides:

To be alone at your desk or in your studio isn’t sufficient. It’s a must to free your self from the phantoms and interior critics who pursue you wherever you go. “While you begin working,” stated the composer John Cage, “all people is in your studio — the previous, your folks, enemies, the artwork world, and above all, your individual concepts — all are there. However as you proceed portray, they begin leaving, one after the other, and you’re left fully alone. Then, in case you are fortunate, even you allow.”


Having shut the door, you end up alone earlier than a canvas, a sheet of paper, a lump of clay, a pc display. Different instruments and supplies lie round, shut at hand, ready for use. You resume your silent dialog with the work. It is a two-way course of: you create the work and you then reply to it. The work can encourage, shock, and shock you… The solitary act of creating artwork includes intense, wordless dialogue.

Artwork by Margaret Prepare dinner from a uncommon 1913 version of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Obtainable as a print)

Drawing a hyperlink between the Buddhist notion of nirvana and Keats’s notion of “damaging functionality” — that spacious willingness to negate the pull of attachments, reactivities, and fixities, to stay with thriller and embrace uncertainty — Batchelor observes that contemplative observe trains the power to see every second as an opportunity to begin anew, to savor life as ongoing, unfixed, ever-changing and ever able to being modified. He considers the important constructing blocks and supreme rewards of contemplative observe:

To combine contemplative observe into life requires greater than turning into proficient in methods of meditation. It entails the cultivation and refinement of a sensibility concerning the totality of your existence—from intimate moments of private anguish to the countless struggling of the world. This sensibility encompasses a spread of abilities: mindfulness, curiosity, understanding, collectedness, compassion, equanimity, care. Every of those may be cultivated and refined in solitude however has little worth if it can’t survive the fraught encounter with others. By no means be complacent about contemplative observe; it’s all the time a piece in progress. The world is right here to shock us. My most lasting insights have occurred off the cushion, not on it.

In consonance with poet and thinker Wendell Berry’s life-tested perception that “true solitude is discovered within the wild locations,” the place one is with out human obligation,” the place “one’s interior voices turn out to be audible [and,] in consequence, one responds extra clearly to different lives,” Batchelor provides:

By withdrawing from the world into solitude, you separate your self from others. By isolating your self, you possibly can see extra clearly what distinguishes you from different folks. Standing out on this manner serves to affirm your existence (ex-[out] + sistere [stand]). Liberated from social pressures and constraints, solitude may help you perceive higher what sort of particular person you’re and what your life is for. On this manner you turn out to be impartial of others. You discover your individual path, your individual voice.


Right here lies the paradox of solitude. Look lengthy and arduous sufficient at your self in isolation and all of the sudden you will notice the remainder of humanity staring again. Sustained aloneness brings you to a tipping level the place the pendulum of life returns you to others.

Complement The Artwork of Solitude with Hermann Hesse on solitude, hardship, and future, then savor Batchelor’s spacious On Being dialog with Krista Tippett.

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