My 2012 Greenbelt talk on solitude – Part 2

We are thinking about people who are afraid of silence; who fear space in the day, in their lives, and seek to fill it.

These people seek disturbance because they fear the silent clearing in the forest.

But beyond these fears, if we can make our way through them, are some important discoveries. And one of the discoveries in that clearing is our identity.

This is not the identity that the world gives us, which is a rather changeable and random thing; but our true identity, the life beneath our life.

I don’t want to be defined by circumstances or relationships. Sometimes I have a bit of success but usually I don’t, so circumstances aren’t a good source of identity; they are a rickety construction, not secure home for anything.

Neither are relationships a good source of identity. Sometimes people like me but sometimes they don’t – and often they change their minds, from ‘for’ to ‘against’ or ‘against’ to ‘for’, it swings both ways – so this is not a stable or wise source for self-definition.

Relationships are granted and withdrawn, they are beautiful and poison – and certainly not a sure or secure foundation on which to build my identity.

Instead, we seek the life beneath our life, our true originality which we knew before we were born and will know after we die – but which we can lose sight of it in life.

Solitude is the path to your true identity, our life beneath our life. Can you sense it now?

Isak Dinesen tells a story from her time in Africa. One day she was out in the bush and saw a snake of great beauty with a glistening skin full of wonderful colours.

She was in awe of what she’d seen and spoke of little else on her return home.

In an attempt to please her, the house servant then went out into the bush, killed the snake, skinned it and made it into a belt for Isak. She now had a snake skin belt.

But for Isak, there was no beauty there now. The vibrant skin had become dull and grey, because its beauty hadn’t been in its skin – but in its life, its livingness. It was this life that had transformed and permeated this skin.

And for me, that’s a story about identity. Our identity is not what we do or the reputation we have or the name we possess but the life beneath the life.

I remember when I worked in a supermarket and I lost my name badge and had to wear another one for six months while waiting for a new one.

The store manager was panicking. The Area Manager was coming, we all needed name badges. I was initially given ‘Wendy’ – but it was taken off me, girls’ names weren’t allowed for blokes, so I ended up with ‘Omar’ on my badge, a previous employee.

I was surprised how easily I gave up Simon – which I’d been called for 50 years – and became Omar.

So who or what is defining you?

In solitude we walk through the foliage of emotion and thought towards the clearing of stillness and silence. And it may be that there we recover a truer sense of identity.

When I die, five minutes before, I don’t want to look back on a life defined by my circumstances or defined by others.

When I die – and it feels surprisingly close – I don’t want to look back on a life defined by my parents or by the church, mosque or temple – I want to look back on a more original definition.

I’d like to look back on a life that knew who it was and was secure in that. And we learn solitude to find that life.

So in solitude, we’re looking to exchange tat for gold: we’re looking to exchange confusion for identity, busy for still, fear for discovery, urgent for important, machine for human, separation for union.

There are a couple of ironies here; two large elephants in the room. One elephant is this: Here we are considering solitude in a group.

It does sound odd. A friend of mine went on a house party in Wales. One evening someone got up and said, ‘I’m going out. I need to be alone.’ And then one of the others said, ‘So do I. I’ll come with you.’

But reflecting on solitude in a group is nothing odd. We’ll need to learn solitude both alone and in company. It’s important you can know solitude even as you sit here now.

Mother Sycletica was an abbess in the deserts of Middle Egypt in the 4th century. She was suspicious of the whole hermit charade, desert one-upmanship. You know the sort of thing:

‘I live 40 miles from the nearest living soul.’

‘Really, Gavin? Well, I live 80 miles from the nearest living plant! I’m much more into solitude than you!’

But Mother Sycletica, in her wisdom, knew that not all hermits were true hermits. Oh, they might live miles from anyone in a cave – but their minds were so busy they might as well have been at the amphitheatre in Rome!

‘It’s possible to be solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd,’ she said.

We take ourselves off on retreat but our mind is so full of people and incidents we might as well be stood in Piccadilly Circus. This is not solitude – though it could become solitude.

But just as those alone may know nothing of solitude, those in a crowd may know plenty. It’s possible to be solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd; possible to be our silence into the market place.

I was at a job interview a while ago. It was apparent the 2 people interviewing me were aware of my book on Solitude.

I hoped this might help me, because in interview I need all the help I can get; but it actually seemed to present them with problems.

‘There’s not much chance of solitude here!’ one of them said. ‘It’s much too busy!’

The other one agreed, a bishop, interestingly, famous for his Radio 4 ‘Thoughts for the day’.

‘It’s all about performance from the start of the day to the end of the day,’ he said, fingering his large cross. ‘Believe me this is not a place for solitude!’

I said to them: ‘You don’t need to be alone to experience solitude: I’m sitting here talking to you now. But on another level, I’m sitting here aware of my inner silence, the free space within me. I’m with you and I’m not with you.’

Quizzical looks from the two interviewers as the bishop fondled his cross in an irritated fashion. I was aware they didn’t understand, aware I was creeping off traditional interview territory. But I didn’t want to give any nourishment to their dull and self-important activism.

I didn’t get the job.

But amid the disappointment, I calm my rage – for let’s name it accurately, it is rage – with the thought that Jesus wouldn’t have got the job either.

Disappointingly, he used to disappear off early in the morning – when he could have been doing something useful. His disciples come looking for him: Remember the scene? His disciples come looking for him:

‘We didn’t know where you were!’ they complain.

‘Good’ says Jesus – or words to that effect.

And, of course, that’s all of us all the time. We may not be at a job interview or even the messiah, but we’re all out there playing various roles and some of them are very demanding ones.

What demanding roles some of us have!

But whatever we’re doing, we’re also trying to stay in touch with ourselves, with who we are, with our inner flame, with our inner space – because it’s easy to forget.

And when we forget who we truly are, when we run from that space, we become posturing puppets on the twisted strings of our own self-importance.

If you wished to mock society today, you might say that with our splendid technology, we’re in contact with everyone…except ourselves.

And people who lose contact with themselves are dangerous. Because when you lose contact with yourself you become a posturing invention.

We practice solitude both alone and in the company of others so that the roles we play are growing out of something substantial, real, true.

‘It’s possible to be solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd,’ said Mother Sycletica.

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