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Solitude, destiny and mobile phones

Apparently one of the consequences of the revolution in communication technology may be that we are losing the ability to be alone. I notice this on trains; whereas maybe 20 years ago a solitary traveller might sit gazing idly out of the window, now he or she is more likely to be on the phone to someone (and, it has to be said, exchanging what is usually extremely banal bits of information). And even if they are not on the phone, they know that someone or other is just a push-button away.

One of my Buddhist teachers used to recommend annual solitary retreats for his disciples (and you can be sure he did not mean with the phone turned on!). One of the reasons for this was that in such solitude one can begin to find out who one really is, what one really thinks and feels, separate from what other people expect and want from one. Sometimes these expectations and wants are no small matter. In traditional Chinese medical-come-philosophical language, who one really is is expressed as one’s ‘destiny’, which is not blind fate but the deeper current of one’s being carrying one towards a more authentic experience of oneself, becoming who one really and truly is, fulfilment.

Sitting idly gazing out of a train window isn’t quite an intense experience as the self-imposed hermithood of the solitary retreat, but perhaps it can serve the same kind of purpose, albeit in a more modest way. It gives a chance for those thoughts, ideas and dreams about our life, which are perhaps held down by the ‘thousand-and-one things’, the endless detail of living, to bubble up. Maybe it gives us a chance to reconnect with our destiny. The only part of Robert Pirsig’s once famous book ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ I remember, is the bit about how the author, when trying to solve some tricky mechanical problem with his motorbike, would put his tools down, brew some coffee, and just sit there for a bit…. and, hey presto, the solution would come to him. Nowadays his phone would ring. The English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was famously disturbed from writing out his poem ‘Kubla Khan’, which had come to him in a dream, by a knock on the door. When he went back to finish the poem, the rest of it had gone. He was pretty unlucky in this, but nowadays he would be lucky if he had a chance to write out the first line.

The thing is, if we don’t have these spaces in our day, in our lives, time to do nothing and undisturbed by ringing phones and so forth, if we don’t have time sometimes to say or hear nothing, maybe we lose touch not just with our ability to fix our motorbike or even to write our poem, but with our destiny. And this is no small loss. In traditional Chinese medicine, if we are not able to follow our destiny, we get ill. The more cut off from it, the more we are living a life we don’t really want to live, the more ill we get. You can’t really be true to your deeper self if it can’t get a word in edgeways. Health tip: turn your phone off now and again, unplug your PC, and turn off the telly. Gaze out of a window. If it is uncomfortable to be so deprived of input, stay with it – it won’t kill you. Possibly the opposite in the long run.

Written by Vimalaprabha

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