“The Pali and Sanskrit word for ‘solitude’ is viveka. It could also be translated as ‘isolation’, ‘separation’, or ‘seclusion’. In Tibetan, viveka is dben pa, which the dictionary defines as the ‘absence’ or ‘emptiness’ of something. This is how the Buddhists understand the term. Yet in Sanskrit Hindu texts, viveka invariably means ‘discrimination’, ‘distinction’ and ‘discernment’ and ‘judgement’. How did the same word come to assume different meanings in two Indian traditions that evolved side by side?
By withdrawing from the world into solitude, you separate yourself from others. By isolating yourself you can see clearly what makes you different from other people … In this way, you become independent of others. You find your own path, your own voice. [And] here lies the paradox of solitude. Look long and hard enough at yourself in isolation and suddenly you will see the rest of humanity staring back. Sustained aloneness brings you to the tipping point where the pendulum of life returns you to others. [The famous filmmaker] Ingmar Bergman would retreat to the island of Faro to plan his films and write his screenplays. ‘Here in my solitude,’ he noted in his diary, ‘I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity,’ which ‘oozes out of me like a broken tube of toothpaste. It doesn’t want to stay within the confines of my body’.” — The Art of Solitude
In his prophetic 2014 book, Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age, Robert Pogue Harrison argues that, until and unless we provide our young the capacity to cultivate themselves in the solitary practices of reading and reflective thinking, we will have a world populated by orphans and not the heirs of history. Amidst the global emergence of authoritarian tendencies — whether overtly visible or not — Harrison’s call to confront our persistent inability to inherit the world we live in becomes all the more urgent. It is our human freedom, our capacity to pay attention to and love the world which contains us, that is at stake.
It must be noted, however, that the kind of solitude under discussion here has nothing to do with the narcissistic drone of meditative retreats that conveniently take us out of the social realm and provide barely any insight into who we are and how we must live with others. Instead, this solitude pertains to the cultivation of ethical intelligence and the invitation to step out of our daily modes of thinking into deepened and more reflective ways of ‘listening’ to the world.
In a world driven by information and manipulative data-calculations, our ability to pay attention, and to have a truly authentic way of thinking and being in the world, is ever more endangered.
Stephen Batchelor’s The Art of Solitude is a timely arrival during these dark times of worldwide pandemic, which have forced us to turn inwards and face ourselves — that is, if we are not busy online measuring the conspiracy theories about the Covid-19. Trained in the Buddhist monastic tradition in his early 20s and an ordained monk for most of his 30s and 40s, Batchelor offers a culmination of his long relationship with the depths of solitude and inwardness and takes us far beyond any self-help book. In fact, it is a rather difficult book, for it does not have any prescriptions for its readers and neither does it offer any romanticised version of the monastic life. Instead, it’s an exploration of the nature of solitude, how it makes us confront ourselves away from public opinion and social media feeds, and what stakes we have in losing it at an unprecedentedly accelerated rate in today’s world dictated by neoliberal psycho-politics.
Batchelor’s book is written with a unique narrative logic: there are 32 short chapters, some written as diary entries, some comprising translations from classical Buddhist texts on meditative practices and some intermittently devoted to the 16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne, who is of great importance to the author’s passion for solitude and solitary living.
However, contrary to Montaigne’s spirit, Batchelor’s book is not an essay. Rather, it is structured like the duration of one’s solitary hours; punctuated with penetratingly insightful passages on the one hand, and disruptive realisations on the other. The paradox that sustains the book on this most ancient of subjects is not the “inferno of the same”, which is fostered by our tribal online culture of spending countless hours with like-minded ‘tribespeople’ on our screens, but the encounter with the other, both within and outside us.
In other words, as implied by Batchelor’s truly honest account of solitary life, it is only by learning to be with the shocking otherness of oneself that one learns to live ethically and more mindfully in the world.
Be that as it may, one might ask what possible relation solitude has to one’s ability to interact with the world more meaningfully. Moreover, what relation does it have to one’s freedom? After all, interaction is preconditioned on the presence of the other and not on solitary life as such. The answer is that everything depends on our ability to be truly and reflectively alone with ourselves.
Because it is in the solitary hours of one’s being that we come face-to-face with who we are. There are no like-minded friends or romantic partners to affirm us. We must face the wrath and the benevolence of being alone with ourselves. As Batchelor points out, the rewards of such a solitary life are endless, for it prepares us to love, care and understand much more meaningfully.
It’s one’s attention that gets trained in these hours, the ever more priced human gift that is up for grabs in almost all social media enterprises running the world from Silicon Valley, and incrementally becoming absent from the private and social spheres. More importantly, when we are constantly told how to desire, who to think about, and what trend in politics to follow, our most precious ability of interpretive judgement is taken away from us.
It is indeed the fruit of a successful solitary life led with reflective thinking that cultivates the interpretive judgement for meaningful and intelligent social action. Batchelor gives multiple examples of such an expansion of one’s self throughout history, which couldn’t have been without the solitary thinking of certain individuals, leading to the expansion of the world as we know it.
It is no surprise — as Harrison argues — that when totalitarian regimes, whether religious or secular come into power, they first and foremost infiltrate this sacred space of thinking. Political parties of totalitarian intent keep tabs on writers, journalists and control the narrative. Patriarchal systems constantly watch women’s desires to be alone and create a discursive mode of tabooing single women cultivating their lives against the dominant current of ‘finding a man’ as their ultimate purpose in life. Artificial Intelligence persistently tracks our whereabouts, thoughts and emotions and directs our impulses in ways most insidious. Online dating and the abundance of potential romantic partners throws us in the cacophony of options, leaving us exhausted for a transformative experience of being in love with the singular other.
Well-cultivated solitude, on the other hand, allows us to be distinct and independent in our ways of thinking. It invites us to reflect with a well-cultivated attention — what French philosopher Simone Weil considered a form of prayer. It allows us to see beyond the image and read the subtext; an interpretive ability that cannot be cultivated unless one is disengaged from the overbearing certainties of group mentality.
More importantly, as Batchelor’s chapter on Agnes Martin’s paintings beautifully depicts, solitude that trains our attention also chisels our way of seeing. It is nothing like the empty and acquisitive desire to take a selfie with a painting in a museum, or to constantly filter our experience of the phenomenal world through our mobile camera. It is the actual witnessing of a person or a work of art as the other that informs our experience of love and witnessing in all its longing, distance and absence, rather than the constant availability of the object that is only a source of procuring our momentary pleasure.
It is only in solitary companionship with oneself — what Plato called “the sacred dialogue between me and myself” — that one is enabled to love and witness truly. It is only through revelations in solitude that we must learn to restore dignity to ourselves and to others, for our future as humans is only secure if we are able to be attentive and thoughtful — abilities which we must cultivate through reflective thinking and serious reading.
Batchelor’s book is highly recommended to everyone interested in what constitutes our fundamental humanity, and how we must cultivate and preserve it for creating a better and more meaningful world.
The reviewer is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. Her research focuses on the Persian poetic tradition in medieval India
The Art of Solitude
By Stephen Batchelor
Yale University Press, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 8th, 2020