The Happy Hermit

Happy Hermit.jpg

Chalice Lighting

From all our separated place and from many directions
We come to be together
To share our sorrow and joy
To be known to one another
To be assured of our interconnection
And yet, the depth of our togetherness depends on our own self-acceptance and self-love
May the light of this flame guide us in the inner journey
To make possible our connection, our happiness and our love

Reading: Any Moment Now, by Steve Toth

The more we are what we are
the lonelier it gets
You don't need to get away
for some time alone
We're always alone
So why kid ourselves
& act as if we don't know
We know very well but
don't like to think about it
because it makes us
feel suddenly abandoned
Just like we know
we're about to breathe our last
any moment now
Much better to simply accept it
because we're already
getting light headed
& because there's suddenly
nowhere to lean
nowhere to stand
The earth seems tiny like a baseball
being shot out of your reality
or a mortal shell
or some kind of nerve gas
What kind of wild story
will our minds make up this time
to explain what
happened to our senses?
When you're solitary
distances take more out of you
Every cup life hands you
seems ready to shatter
Everybody lives with
the knowledge in their own way
Some get fired up & leave the lights on
Others explode into countless fragments
none of which seem to belong anywhere
& still manage to show only courage
in the face of some
of the strangest things yet encountered
without even the senses
to fully grasp them

Message - part 1 by Rev Andy Pakula

Every Sunday, I end my welcome with ‘you are not alone.’ I didn’t make that up. I took it from a beloved colleague who said it regularly at the end of every service. When he said those words, I could feel it viscerally. It was a relaxing - a warmth - a consolation. It was a hint of the powerful thing that is belonging. It almost goes without saying that we don’t like to be alone in life - maybe a few minutes here and there - but most of us dread the notion of being alone without other human beings.

Here is an excerpt from the abstract of a 2014 research paper in Science, one of the most prestigious of scientific publications: 'In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.’

Basically, the experimenters put university students in a plain room with nothing to read, no paper or pen, and no mobiles, tablets, or computers. Most of them didn’t like it. Some of them preferred physical pain to being alone with nothing to do. One of the harshest punishments our prisons mete out is to put inmates into solitary confinement - just being alone with no one else to talk to. Being alone can make us lonely, and loneliness hurts.

Loneliness is harmful to human beings. Lonely people are at higher risk of alcoholism, depression, and psychosis. And loneliness does not only increase the risk of emotional problems. Lonely people are more likely than other to get infections and develop cardiovascular disease and even cancer. It’s said that loneliness is as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Human beings are very social creatures and we thrive on interaction with other humans. I often find myself at the end of a day of mostly solitary work feeling tired and emotionally low. I haven’t necessarily felt lonely, but I have not been with people. And then I have to go to an evening meeting. I drag myself there, sure that I will find it even more exhausting - sure that my low mood will get even worse. And moments after I find myself in a room with other people, I am energised. I feel happy. I become chatty. For me, being together with people, talking, working, and sharing is a medicine that cures me of the ailments caused by being alone.

There have been times in my life when being alone was agonising to me - when just being alone with my thoughts was almost unbearable. I didn’t have a television and this was before the web became ubiquitous and smartphones were invented so I couldn’t lose myself in the endless distractions that are available to me now.

With all of this, it will surprise no one that strong relationships with friends and family seems to be one of the key ingredients of happiness.

Reading: When My Mind is Still, by Paul Beattie

When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart,
I remember things too easily forgotten:
The purity of early love,
The maturity of unselfish love that asks --
desires -- nothing but another's good,
The idealism that has persisted through all the tempest of life.
When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart,
I can find a quiet assurance, an inner peace, in the core of my being.
It can face the doubt, the loneliness, the anxiety,
Can accept these harsh realities and can even grow
Because of these challenges to my essential being.
When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart,
I can sense my basic humanity,
And then I know that all men and women are my brothers and sisters.
Nothing but my own fear and distrust can separate me from the love of friends.
If I can trust others, accept them, enjoy them,
Then my life shall surely be richer and more full.
If I can accept others, this will help them to be more truly themselves,
And they will be more able to accept me.
When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart,
I know how much life has given me:
The history of the race, friends and family,
The opportunity to work, the chance to build myself.
Then wells within me the urge to live more abundantly,
With greater trust and joy,
With more profound seriousness and earnest service,
And yet more calmly at the heart of life.

Message - part 2 by Rev Andy Pakula

Despite everything we all know about loneliness and how harmful and painful it can be, spending time alone is not the enemy of being happy. I have several different images in my head about people who are separated from other people. There are those who are lonely - who find themselves unable to be with others. They are imprisoned literally or just feel that way. Being alone is a torment for them.

There is the image of the cantankerous and mean-spirited recluse. His garden is overgrown with weeds and studded with signs telling visitors to stay away. Go to his door and it will be slammed in your face. He is alone because the pain of being with other people is worse for him than the pain of being alone. The television - or perhaps 14 cats - keep him company.

And then there is the happy hermit - person who spends months and years alone by choice - perhaps in solitary prayer or meditation - a person able to be alone with their own thoughts - no TV, no smartphone, no internet. A visitor arrives one day and is not warned off. They find find not a human being ruined by loneliness but a joyous and warm person with a ready smile and an enormous generosity of spirit.

In his poem, Paul Beattie writes of a solitude that is nurturing. He finds within him an unselfish love. He finds an inner peace that allows him to confront anxiety and loneliness. He finds a truth that all humans are kindred - an acceptance and love of others that is driven away by the hustle and bustle of regular existence. He finds - not an urge to remain solitary, but an urge to return to connection to living more fully, connected, and purposeful.

On the one hand, we know that being alone with our thoughts and no one to talk to as torture. On the other, solitude is a tool that strengthens us and opens our hearts. Can both assertions be true? The Sufi mystic, Hafiz, wrote this:

Don't surrender your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you as few… ingredients can.

For the one prepared to accept themselves as they are - the one willing to engage in the inner struggle - being alone with our thoughts is solitude and not loneliness. Many of us are alone from time to time, but it’s not being alone with our thoughts if we seek and embrace distraction.

When I ride the tube, I notice that almost every ear is plugged into a source of music or words. Nearly every gaze is glued to a screen. People walk down the street talking to an invisible conversation partner. We might tell ourselves this is productivity - using every moment to get something done. I have certainly justified my own embrace of distraction that way. But I suspect that the music and podcasts we pipe into our ears, our mindless games or obsessive email-checking or news-reading is often just a way to push away the possibility of having to deal with our own inner lives.

It is in our positive solitude that we become more capable of relationship. In her book, Alone Together, Sherry Turkle writes: “You end up isolated if you don’t cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. When we don’t have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we’re not able to appreciate who they are. It’s as though we’re using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self.”

Happiness is not made of pleasure. It is not built by knitting together one pleasurable experience after another.  It depends on the development of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. It requires that we become comfortable with ourselves - not in preparation of being a happy hermit but as part of the path to becoming a person who can love others open-heartedly and without losing ourselves. Only when we know and accept ourselves can we find true happiness in a life of purpose, meaning, and deep relationship with other lives.

This week, I hope you will make some time to be alone with your own thoughts. Turn off the music or the podcast. Put away the phone. Put down the book. Sit quietly or walk without distraction. Listen to your own thoughts. Take time to get to know yourself. Take time to grow happy.

Closing Words

Though the world around can challenge us
The more rigorous journey may be the one within
To hear our thoughts
To know our minds
To accept and love who we are
May our togetherness nurture the individual journey
Making possible the outer journey toward love and toward justice