Monday, March 22, 2010

Solitude and Community

I had guests staying with me this week, bookended by a party at my house on one weekend and a party at a friend's place the next. The guests are people I love and wish I could see more often, the party at my place was overflowing with people I care about and enjoy, the friend's party was elegant and fun. People-wise, though, I've been overserved. I'm feeling a desperate need for silence, for words read in print rather than spoken into air, for no smiling faces before me, for the presence of no other and as little of my own as I can manage. I need solitude so that I can breathe.

This has got me thinking about Anthony and Pachomius (what, you don't get intimations of 3rd and 4th century ascetics when you want to be alone?). Anthony ran off into the wilds of the Egyptian desert on a quest to find God. Others gathered near him, each living a life of solitude broken only when they came together for worship. A number of years later Pachomius followed the same path, but then got sidetracked in his solitary quest by a vision in which God told him to create a place where seekers of holiness could live a communal life. So now the world-weary who wanted to leave behind the "get-this-do-that-have-more" mentality of ancient Alexandria had options when they decided to throw it all aside and head out into the desert: they could choose lives of solitude or community.

It's pretty clear that I'm the solitude type. Of course, the solitude of a comfortable house with a full fridge and temperature control, plus TV, tunes, phone and Internet just waiting for me to grow weary of quiet, isn't in the same league as the solitude of a hut in the Egyptian desert. But still, I crave quiet, and it's hard for me to function as a human being if I don't get time in a room alone every day. As much as I enjoy people, I only truly relax alone. It's as though all the thoughts and emotions that usually get bottled up inside this little container called "me" finally have space to spread out. And it's a little easier to hear God's part of the ongoing daily conversation when I'm not hearing anyone else.

But there's a lot to be said for community. You have to deal with your fellow humans when you live in community, in all their crazy wonderfulness. Petty jealousies, serious encouragement, downright hostility, deepening love - it's all right there, pushing you to admit your limitations, to find your compassion, to see God in the face of the person standing in front of you.

I'm not likely to run off to the Egyptian desert anytime soon, so I'm not pushed to choose one of these as a spiritual path and stick with it. I get to go back and forth, finding what I need at the moment and blessing the universe for sending it my way. So thank you, universe, for all the community I have recently experienced - and all the delicious solitude I'm experiencing right now.

Friday, March 5, 2010

“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.”

So said Albert Schweitzer, and I'm not necessarily inclined to disbelieve him.

I came across this quote doing some research into happiness - no, that doesn't mean I've been discovering the finer points of Jack Daniels or the latest online dating service. As part of a writing project on the Tao Te Ching, I've been doing some reading about psychological research into happiness. There are people out there analyzing data and creating tables who seem to have given up on wondering why we here in the most affluent society the planet has ever known have off the chart levels of depression and a general spiritual malaise; instead, they’ve turned their efforts to figuring out ways to help people get the hell over it. And they’ve got a good method, too: positive psychology tells us that money doesn't buy happiness, that our true wealth is in relationships with family and friends, and that for a straight line to a happier life nothing beats gratitude. It has wonderful insights to share, but when you get right down to it I still think it misses the point.

"Do tell, Cynthia, enlighten us with your wisdom: what is the point?" Good question, glad you asked. The point, I think, is to be present, to be compassionate, and to recognize that everything is so intricately and intimately interconnected that nothing falls outside of the web. Good, bad, ugly, pretty, indifferent – all of it is part of the now, and when we put happiness front and center as the goal toward which all of life should aim, we push away so much richness that doesn’t fit the program. We want to carve happiness out as a cause for rejoicing and simply suffer other experiences and emotions, but we’re chasing the wind – even when we get in the middle of it, the tiniest bit of thought will show us that happiness is not made to last indefinitely. So why should we put all our efforts into trying to grasp what is bound to slip through our fingers like quicksilver?

What if, instead of seeking happiness, we seek contentment and harmony? What if we face happiness with gratitude and sorrow with acceptance?

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 44 (Stephen Mitchell translation)

Happiness is about liking the way things are; contentment and living in harmony are about accepting things the way they are. Doesn’t mean you can’t try to change them, but the second your happiness gets all tied up in the “if only things were different” mode, then you’re running down the track to Destination Unhappy. Find the harmony right here, right now, not in some future where everything is right and tragedies never occur and you’re never bored. Find it, and be happy.