This post was precipitated by a passage that I read in Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism. The book is a great insight into why we must seriously reconsider our relationship with technology. However, one particular chapter on Solitude, caught my attention.
Newport, speaking about Henry Thoreau, the American philosopher, says,
What Thoreau sought in his experiment at Walden was the ability to move back and forth between a state of solitude and a state of connection. He valued time alone with his thoughts—staring at ice—but he also valued companionship and intellectual stimulation. He would have rejected a life of true hermit-style isolation with the same vigour with which he protested the thoughtless consumerism of the early industrial age. It’s exactly this alternation between regular time alone with your thoughts and regular connection that I propose as the key to avoiding solitude deprivation in a culture that also demands connection. As Thoreau’s example emphasizes, there’s nothing wrong with connectivity, but if you don’t balance it with regular doses of solitude, its benefits will diminish.Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism (p. 111). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
The key here is the world balance. Balance in anything we do is crucial if we want a flourishing life. Extremes must be avoided. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna urges Arjuna, the protagonist to be balanced. He says this,
Yoga is not for the person who eats too much or does not eat at all for long periods; nor O Arjuna, for one who sleeps too much or keeps awake for long.
To one who is temperate in eating and recreation, in the effort for work, and in sleep and wakefulness, Yoga helps overcome misery”Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 6, Verses 16 & 17. Translation adapted from ‘Universal Message of the Bhagavad Gita’ : An exposition of the Gita in the Light of Modern Thought and Modern Needs. Swami Ranganathananda
The key to life is balance. In our modern hyper-connected world, we must regularly seek out a space to reflect and just be. This being helps us connect with our deepest parts and integrate our darker and repressed emotions and thoughts. In fact, the health of an individual is dependent on this alone time. Psychologists agree that increased addictive use of smart phones has resulted in an increase anxiety, depression and a host of other social disorders (reference).
However, humans also have the need to connect. We need healthy, deep relationships to life a full and meaningful life. Not all of us would prefer to lead the life of a buddhist monk or a hermit living in a monastery. In fact, surprisingly, even an ashram is full of communal activities. Generally speaking satsang is a cornerstone of a monastic life, save in some extreme religious and spiritual sects.
Therefore balance is crucial to human life. All extreme viewpoints and activities must be eschewed. Yet, strangely, the modern human is attracted to extreme and strong viewpoints. The stronger the view, the truer it seems. Having a strong viewpoint appears to make us stronger. This in fact, highlights an important fact about ourselves, that we do not feel the strength and solidarity from simply being ourselves. Our culture is to blame. The culture, that is supposed to have promoted individualism, has in fact disempowered the individual by emphasising the society (in today’s world society is a vague thing dominated by corporations, tech companies and politicians). Today’s culture, disempowers the individual by constantly bombarding him/her with information that makes one insecure. It would be, therefore more appropriate to call this the age of distracted disempowerment of man.
Our inner state of meaninglessness and emptiness has been filled by a superfluous and constant flow of unnecessary information. This attempt at filling our vacuous inner states, admittedly and naturally fails. The source of our emptiness is our lack of curious attempts to understand ourselves, the lack of our ability to spend time in solitude, the lack of our courage to feel these uncomfortable feelings of emptiness.
And unless we develop the courage to be with ourselves, we will never be able to be with anyone fully and completely. Ironically solitude fosters relationships. True intimacy with others, with music, art, nature and society cannot be forthcoming without a deep understanding of oneself. And without this, man is laid bare to the modern vultures of our time – tech companies, media and advertisement, corporations and politicians. This makes most of us worship film stars, larger than life politicians, CEOs and entrepreneurs and worst of all – social influencers. It is the pernicious disenfranchising of oneself.
In order to regain balance in life, we must begin to carve out some space for ourselves. We must face our inner void. We must feel the things we have kept at bay for decades. And while this journey might be painful, it is the beginning of the metamorphosis of man from a lost seed floating adrift empty space to a deeply rooted, nourished tree secure in one’s being.