by Catherine Ingram

“In solitude we are the least alone.” —Lord Byron

IT IS SAID THAT SOME OF HIS STUDENTS once asked Rumi to reconcile his incessant speaking on the subject of silence. Rumi replied, “That which is truest of me has never uttered a word.”

AlonenessThere is a depth in each of us that has never uttered a word. It is a place of total aloneness. “A path so narrow,” my teacher would say, “that two cannot walk abreast.” No matter how connected with community, family, friends, society, or nature we might feel, there is a deep, silent aloneness in us all. We know that the experiences we have had, the secret moments of joy, beauty, or love, as well as the particular shades of our sorrow, can be fully known only to ourselves. We may share events with others, but we are each on our own inner journeys, and each is completely unique. For this very reason—the singular expression that we each are—aloneness is inevitable. The creative force of the universe does not make exact copies, even in clones, so there is no escaping the aloneness that is part of being an original work of cosmic art.

And yet much of human activity aims at avoiding this very fact. People are often terrified of aloneness because they experience it as loneliness. They keep busy with work, stay in motion by traveling, or surround themselves with people at almost all times. They might use intoxicants, television, sex, or food to dull the awareness of deep aloneness. But it lurks in consciousness and sneaks up on them, cold and desolate, any time of the night or day. The efforts to avoid feelings of loneliness may actually cause the feelings to be more intense when they finally break through. We do what we can to distract ourselves from these feelings, but in our private moments they arise with a vengeance and with them, a kind of madness. This madness can induce desperate and harmful actions. Much of the trouble in the world may simply be the result of resistance to our irrefutable aloneness. As the French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted in the seventeenth century, “All of man’s miseries stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room and do nothing.”

In awakened awareness, the experience of aloneness is not a cause for fear or despair. It is a sanctuary of silence, a private abode, “a room of one’s own,” the one place loneliness cannot reach. Aloneness in this sense is not a hardship of isolation but a refuge from the demands of constant mental and physical activity. When we know our aloneness in this way, we feel it even in the midst of activity. We feel it when we are with others or with that one special other. We feel it when on a podium speaking to hundreds of people or at a family gathering of dozens of relatives. As Albert Einstein wrote, “I am truly a ‘lone traveler’ and have never belonged to my country, my friends, or even my immediate family with my whole heart; in the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for solitude, feelings which increase with the years.”

My teacher, Poonjaji, was as a lion in his aloneness. For many years, he wandered in the foothills of India, some-times sharing dharma with the few people who would chance upon him, sometimes traveling with another, but mostly walking alone and letting fate take him where it would. He kept diaries for some of that time, and reading them is an insight into awakened mind. He would often mark the date and place of a journal entry, but beyond that there would be nothing about the local area, people, or sights he had seen. His interest was in a journey occurring on another scale of time and space. A typical entry: “In me the universe moves hither and thither, impelled by the wind of its own inherent nature.”

I met Poonjaji much later in his life. His health had diminished to the point that he could no longer walk without help, and consequently he was almost always surrounded by people. Yet, I have never sensed anyone so alone. His was a majestic aloneness, like that of the ocean or the sky. For me his aloneness is probably the most inspiring aspect about him. He lived in a depth in which one can bring nothing and no one—no friends, no children, no spouses, no possessions.

In Dharma Dialogues I often refer to this majestic aloneness as “a mountain seat of freedom.” It is as though one is resting on a mountaintop, quietly gazing into vastness, enjoying space in all directions. Welcoming whatever arises in the sky, one notices that thoughts pass by like clouds, feelings fade like rainbow colors, sensations flicker like birds twittering. Here is only the luminous present, the open expanse of being, and whatever is passing through the sky right now. A sense of fullness prevails. No attention is paid to mental commentary about what should or should not be happening. There is just relaxation into what is—only suchness.

And, finally, in awakened awareness aloneness becomes irrelevant. The sense of it fades as there is no one to feel alone, no one to speak about the majesty of aloneness. All mental activity effortlessly subsumes into the silence from which it arose. There is no feeling of self or other than self. There is only the wind blowing through boundless awareness, the light shining in our eyes, and the sounds of life reverberating right through us.

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Catherine Ingram currently leads Dharma Dialogues and retreats in the U.S. and Europe. She is the author of In the Footsteps of Gandhi and has written on consciousness and activism for magazines and journals for over 25 years.

From Passionate Presence, by Catherine Ingram. Copyright © 2003 by Catherine Ingram. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, division of Penguin Putnam, New York.