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  • Beth Bradford

Is Solitude Possible Without God?



As I'm editing this book on solitude, I keep reverting to references and sources that emphasize our connection to God. Although the Upanishads and the Vedic tradition doesn't really call it "God," they do refer to a divine essence that surrounds and permeates the world. The other references I use, particularly pertaining to loneliness and the Dark Night of the Sense, direct the attention to a divine source or spirit.


But then I wondered, is it possible to be in solitude without believing in God?


Someone who attended one of my Insight Timer sessions asked me how to connect if you're not a believer. I honestly don't know. If you don't believe in some sort of force, energy, or even emotion that ties us together even when we're not physically together, I would imagine you might have a hard time feeling that connection.


Then I turned to the Buddhists, who don't necessarily believe in a divine being. You might think that this "emptiness" might feel just that--empty. However, if you listen to any Buddhist talks or read any of their works, you feel nothing but peace. They don't try to argue their point because they see all of it as an illusion--Maya--that keeps us from experiencing the moment as it is.


Thich Nhat Hanh addresses solitude and loneliness in his book, Silence. He never mentions a divine connection. Instead, he says that our external world can easily feed into what we're feeling inside. If our life episodes have traumatized us to a certain degree that we feel lonely, we can easily keep energizing our feelings of loneliness by consuming media--videos and music--that resonate with our loneliness.


"So why do we open our windows to bad movies and TV programs--movies made by sensationalist producers in search of easy money, movies that make our hearts pound, our fists tighten, and that send us back into the streets exhausted?"


We might not even be aware of it. Our selective processes home in on particular attributes of media that activate our feelings of loneliness. It creates a larger mental model of "lonely" that's easily accessed in our minds. Even our conversations with people can embolden our afflictive emotions such as loneliness.


Thich calls for us to pay attention to the "nourishment" we take from our sensory environment. Rather than "closing our windows" to the environment altogether, we notice all facets of our environment and how it might trigger us.


Even if we can't avoid a harmful or emotionally turbulent sensory environment, Thich suggests that we always come back to the breath. His mindfulness meditation is rather simple and can be practiced right here, right now.


Wherever you are, at a busy street corner or next to a gentle river, breathe in and say, "Breathing in, I know I'm breathing in." As you exhale, say, "Breathing out, I know I'm breathing out." Repeat this as long as you have.


That sounds easy, but how many of us are easily lured away from this? This takes some practice. Over time, you might notice something orienting your attention elsewhere, but then you let it go and return to the breath.


The Buddha calls solitude the "island of self," which is the peaceful place inside where we can call home. It's a place of retreat that's available to us at any moment if we subdue the internal and external noise.


So indeed, solitude is possible without believing in God. It might not make us feel intimate or connected to others, but it might help us find inner peace. Frankly, though, I prefer a belief in God.

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