– Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal was a 17th century French mathematician. However, it is his Penseés (Thoughts) for which he is primarily know today. In today’s mad, chaotic, and hypervigilant world there is a constant expectation that we will be instantaneously available for contact and communication. When and where do we find “time to sit quietly alone”?
Pascal suggested that all our problems stem from not being able to find solitude. Presumably he meant not just our personal problems, but also our social ones as well. Most likely, too, he was referring to our environmental problems. For in Penseés, one of his thoughts is: ‘Nature is an infinite sphere of which the centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.’
As a result of not finding “alone time,” and not being able to “sit quietly,” our soul becomes disregarded and unhealthy. How can our souls heal from the pains inflicted by the world?
Solitude is one way.
The very word – solitude – alludes to the possibility.
Have you ever noticed that the words SOUL DIET are an anagram for the word SOLITUDE? Solitude is Diet for the Soul: anagrammatically, figuratively, psychologically, and spiritually.
Before proceeding too far, it may be worth saying what solitude is not. Solitude is not; isolation, loneliness, exile, banishment, confinement, or alienation. All these forms of “aloneness” can engender negative emotional, psychological, and/or physical damage.
Solitude does not create such harm. In fact, solitude and the consequent attention to our soul is likely to help us heal from such harms.
And soul? What is our soul? Philosophers, theologians, poets, psychologists, and mystics have pondered this, and provided definitions, for millennia. The definition I like to use is that provided by the eco-psychologist, wilderness guide, and writer, Bill Plotkin. Plotkin grounds his definition of soul within the Earth community, thus not privileging soul as an uniquely human phenomenon. Plotkin’s definition is succinct. For him,
‘Soul…is a person or thing’s unique ecological niche in the Earth community…A thing’s eco-niche – its Soul – is what makes it what it is on the deepest, widest, most natural level of identity.’1
This is the understanding of Soul that resonates most clearly with me, and is the definition that I use throughout this blogpiece.
Note that Soul is; ecologically embedded, unique and personal, characterises identity, and fits with and alongside other ‘souls.’ Furthermore, soul is not synonymous with spirit. Spirit could be thought of as an all-encompassing, infinite, net, which transcends all. Soul then, could be thought of as the individual, unique, nodes of that net where the warp and weft of the net intersect. The net cannot exist without the nodes, and the nodes exist because they are part of the net. In this depiction, spirit is transcendent, soul is inscendent.2
When understood this way, it is possible to recognise how, and why, solitude is a powerful means by which our soul can be healed and nourished.
In solitude one is not distracted and is fully present, fully aware of themselves and their unique place in the world. Sitting quietly (in a room or elsewhere) one is able to fully and deeply reflect.
Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr is a Ngangikurungkurr woman from northern Australia. She has written an exquisite explanation of the process of sitting quietly in solitude and contemplation. In her language this is dadirri which she describes as,
‘…inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us… It is something like what you call "contemplation". When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the riverbank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness. There is no need of words. A big part of dadirri is listening. Through the years, we have listened to our stories. They are told and sung, over and over, as the seasons go by. Today we still gather around the campfires and together we hear the sacred stories.’3
Here, we notice too that Miriam-Rose locates dadirri and solitude within a world deeply connected with ancestral roots.
This is what solitude has to offer us. A deep connection with ourselves (our soul), with the present ecological world, and with a temporal identity.
There is a caveat to all this, however. What has so far been described sounds lovely, peaceful, and harmonious. It may not always be like this. Solitude, and deep self-contemplation, may take us into a darkness where we encounter our demons and our Shadow side (as Jung refers to it.) Indeed, for many Jungian psychologists and eco-psychologists (such as Bill Plotkin) this encounter with darkness and the depths is necessary for the true adult human to emerge.
Plotkin, for example, likens this to the stages of a butterfly. The caterpillar eventually enters the cocoon, where as a pupa it enters a darkened space, “dies” to the caterpillar stage, and metamorphosises into the adult butterfly.
Some of our best known “teachers” knew this experience well. Muhammed spent many nights alone in the Cave of Hira in prayer and contemplation. Jesus spent time alone in the desert where he faced his demons (in the form of Satan.) Buddha, similarly, was tempted by Mara (personification of demons) during his time of solitude and deep meditation.
Yes, during solitude we may be tempted, we may be frightened, we may even want to quit; yet the benefits of this soul diet are enormous. We finally get out of our own way, so that our ego-centric perspectives dissolve away, to be replaced by an all-encompassing eco-centric perception.
This has benefits for our soul and the souls of all other beings.
We find, via this solitude, and our emergent soul, that we become better able to connect with others, including other-than-humans. We become able to truly love the world. We become fully connected.
Yes, let us nourish ourselves with a Soul Diet, via Solitude.
1. Plotkin, Bill, The Journey of Soul Initiation, New World Library, Novato, California, 2021
2. The term inscendence is borrowed from: Berry, Thomas, The Dream of the Earth, Counterpoint, Berkeley, 1988
3. The word, concept and spiritual practice that is dadirri is from the Ngan'gikurunggurr and Ngen'giwumirri languages of the Aboriginal peoples of the Daly River region (Northern Territory, Australia).
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