Solitude Will Change Your Life: How to Be Alone With Others

Author and ex-monk Stephen Batchelor on the ageless practice of self-reflection

Posted Sep 21, 2020

Stephen Batchelor is one of my all time favorite writers and teachers. A contemporary Buddhist master best known for his secular, agnostic approach to spiritual life, he was born in Scotland and ordained as monk in the Gelug tradition of Tibet before disrobing and marrying ten years later. Stephen is a revolutionary in the dharma world who views Buddhism as a constantly evolving culture of awakening rather than a religious system based on immutable dogmas and beliefs. His secular Buddhism speaks to the mystery and vitality of spiritual life in every form, and emphasizes doubt and questioning as the critical parts of the seekers journey. Stephen is the translator and author of many books, including the bestselling Buddhism Without BeliefsLiving with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil, The Faith to Doubt, and, most recently, The Art of Solitude. He lives in Southwest France with his wife and teaching partner, Martine, and leads spiritual retreats around the world. We spoke a month before the pandemic began about the value of solitude as initiation, the use of psychedelics in spiritual practice, and why faith should never be blind.

Mark Matousek: In your new book about solitude, you quote the essayist Thomas De Quincey on the gifts of being alone. He refers to "that inner world of secret self-consciousness in which each of us lives a second life apart and within himself alone." How do we begin to cultivate that affinity for solitude?

Stephen Batchelor: First of all, we have to recognize that solitude is not a privilege for the spiritual. It's part of our existential condition. We are born alone and we die alone. It's how these two dimensions of our being somehow work together that constitutes, for me, the core of spiritual life.

I was certainly not trying to suggest that the true spiritual life is what's going on deep inside me. That's only half the story at best. A genuine spiritual life is one where you've come to some integration of an inwardness, as Kierkegaard spoke of, and others at the same time, as a dynamic participation in the social framework within which you live.

MM: Yet solitude is rarely encouraged or cultivated in our hyper-social culture. 

SB: I remember when I was at school, probably seven or eight years old, I was always struck by how all the teachers would talk about anything except what's actually going on inside us, our worries, our fears, our anxieties, our longings. This was something that was taboo in Western education. That struck me at a very young age as something very weird, that an education could actually ignore the very thing that matters most to us. In other words, how we feel, how we are, who we are.

What attracted me to Buddhism was to meet with Tibetan lamas in the first instance, who had no embarrassment about this. They had no reserve or awkwardness talking about deeply interior qualities of being. I think that was an enormous attraction to me. For the first time, I had met people who were completely open about talking about emotions, and not only talking about them, actually providing exercises and practices and disciplines that enabled you to refine your interiority.

That's what meditation is all about, cultivating, stabilizing, and clarifying your own inward spaciousness. That's what Buddhists, Hindus, and other traditions are so good at that they've developed methodologies and ways of being that over time, you could train and become more true to yourself, meaning that you become less the victim of your random thoughts, fears, emotions, memories, and plans, and you stabilize inner attentiveness or mindfulness.

MM: You talk about a middle ground of solitude as a site of autonomy, wonder, contemplation, imagination, inspiration and care, while making the important point that not all solitude is wholesome. What do you mean?

SB: Solitude is a term that embraces a wide range of human experiences, including despair and loneliness, which I think is very much an issue in our time. For solitude to become autonomy and care, you have to learn how to live in solitude. You have to somehow come to terms with your aloneness and be open to the fact that it does have a shadow side of alienation.

People travel all over the place these days. There's very little sense of being rooted and grounded in a community over generations. People are very much on their own. This causes an enormous amount of suffering and pain, that fact of feeling disconnected and cut off. That is the dark side of solitude. We have to come to terms with that as well.

It wouldn't be much point just valorizing the nice bits. If we embark on a life of inwardness, we are also going to be encountering dark nights of the soul. That challenging and threatening and destabilizing overwhelming sense of what it is to be alone. Existentially, we're all going to die. We're all going to get old and sick. These things are going to ultimately be faced by us and us alone. That is very central to the practice of contemplative training. We need to learn to live with the dukkha, the pain of being human; to have the capacity to do that, instead of switching our minds off, getting distracted, taking opiates, or whatever.

MM: I love what the philosopher Montaigne says about solitude and clinging to others. “Of course we should have wives, children, possessions, and above all, health, but not become attached to them in such a way that our happiness depends on them. Let these things be ours, but not so glued and joined to us that we cannot detach ourselves from them without ripping off our own skin in the process.”  How can seekers find a middle path between detachment and connection?

SB: To flourish as a whole human being requires that we embrace all dimensions of our life with equal value. To be able to accept the radical aloneness of our existence and at the same time, the radical participatory nature of our being. This life begins to flourish when we're able to bring these two sides together.

In Buddhism, the awakened one is someone who has realized their own purpose and, at the same time, realized the purpose for others. That's considered to be the goal of practice, not some deep, introspective, mystical vision that only you have access to.  We've gotten lost in our own specific lives, the uniqueness of our own situations, and forgotten to forge a path that brings these two dimensions together. Unfortunately, in our society, we're not educated in a contemplative tradition and are not   given these skills as children or even as young adults. As a consequence, we don't get an education in how to be alone.

Arguably, that's what a lot of psychotherapy is about, coming to terms with inwardness. How each one of us pursues this path is going to be unique. 

MM: We must question the nature of our attachments? 

SB: Attachment is a neutral term. We're attached to other people. We're attached to our parents. we're attached to our society. We're attached to all those things. That is not a value judgment. It's just an acknowledgement that we are beings who live and thrive and can only exist through our attachments to other beings.

The problem is when the attachment becomes pathological. Then your attachment has become something that is used as a prop to keep you feeling okay about who you are, but you're not actually okay about who you are in any self-sufficient way. The practice of solitude is really the practice of self-sufficiency.  You realize how many of your attachments have somehow prevented you from really living fully on your own terms.

The flip side of that, which we'll find in monasteries and so on, is that attachment just becomes demonized. Any connection to anything is somehow tying you down to the miserable world of birth and death. Whereas, in fact, you've just simply opted for the opposite extreme. You’ve decided instead of being overly dependent on others' approval, you've decided to withdraw yourself from others altogether and try to just live on your own terms. That often becomes another form of alienation.

MM: Let's talk about intoxicants on the spiritual path. You're the only well-known Buddhist teacher who has been willing to come out about your use of certain substances, like ayahuasca and cannabis, and how they've informed your practice. Could you talk a little bit about your experience and how others can engage with intoxicants without losing clarity or balance? 

SB: Well, like many in my generation, one of the things in our experience as teenagers that led us in this direction in the first place was taking things like LSD and smoking cannabis. From my perspective, from when I was 16 or 17, the world of Eastern spirituality and the world of psychedelics were very much interfused. One of the key works that really moved my life on this path was Ram Dass' Be Here Now. It leads you to realize that you can see and be in the world in a way that's quite different from that of everyday, ordinary consciousness of a middle-class young person from North London.

Of course, that perspective doesn't last, but it's not something that many of us want to forget. In fact, it was like opening the doors of perception. For a moment at least, we had a vision of another way of being in the world.There are other modalities of consciousness that are available to us and have been known about for centuries amongst native indigenous peoples in South America, Asia, as well as within the contemplative traditions, particularly in India. Remember, if you go to India today, the Sadhus are sitting around smoking ganja. That's not seen to them to be something that breaks a precept. It's part and parcel of how they pursue their spiritual life.

I've always felt that the states of mind in which you can find yourself through the judicious use of psychoactive substances is a frame of awareness that is very close to many of the experiences I have found through meditation and through philosophical reflection. I find that these entheogens used particularly within the framework of a spiritual practice can help us towards gaining insight. We can use them as elements of sacred ritual.

Five years ago, at the age of 60. I took a year off and just decided I wanted to revisit my experiences with psychedelics, but to do so in the context of a religious ceremony, rather than just taking a bunch of pills with some friends in my apartment. This led me to Mexico to take peyote and then subsequently, on a couple of occasions in Europe, to participate in ayahuasca ceremonies. I found this enormously helpful.

One thing I do want to make very, very clear is that I do not believe that simply taking a substance will make you enlightened or more loving or wise. You cannot separate these substances from the setting of your own specific life. For someone who's been meditating for 40 years, who's developed quite a well-articulated philosophy of life, to take one of these substances in a ceremonial setting is not really comparable to a 16-year-old taking some pill on the street in New York.  In many ways, these experiences have served for me as a purification, the purging of unhealthy attachments. The use of cannabis has been always a component element of my thinking, of my practice, of my reflection, of my meditation. I don't see these things as somewhat at odds with one another. Buddhism doesn't really give us much help at all in actually working with these forms of medication. It's basically abstinence.  Don't do it. 

MM: Do you catch a lot of flak from conservative circles?

SB: Well, it's probably not too surprising to discover that Buddhists are very good at passive aggression. [laughs]  My Buddhist friends and the Buddhist community as a whole is genuinely made up of very well-meaning, good-hearted people. They don't like criticizing others, at least in public. The response to a lot of my work is like the silent closing of doors. In other words, it's about exclusion. I find myself just not really welcome in many Buddhist forums, but I've never been told to my face by these people that they don't want me. It's just that it doesn't happen.

The positive side is that by speaking out, I find that I'm actually voicing other people's own frustrations and doubts and fears. I seem to, in a way, validate things that people feel deep down themselves to be true, but they don't find an affirmation coming from their community or their religion. I'm serving in that sense as the kind of person who stands as an example, to take a stand yourself, to find your own voice. To me, that is so absolutely essential in this place.

A living tradition is one that can't just keep repeating the same things. It's about maintaining a live conversation with your own past as a tradition. It's constantly about renewal and that means, in any new generation, about finding one's own voice, about somehow becoming one's own teacher in many ways. Spiritual life is not about achieving some preconceived idea of what it means to be enlightened, or about fitting yourself into a position in which you'll be recognized and honored and accepted within your community and then you can just repeat, repeat, repeat, down the generations.

It's about really finding out who you really are and honoring that uniqueness of individuality in all members of your community. A living spiritual community is one in which groups of individual men and women come together in order to help each other become more truly who they are in themselves. If an aim of the game is to get everybody to agree on everything, it's a not a living community. That, to me, is dead.  As soon as people start talking about preserving the dharma, we're basically in the business of pickling.

MM: One last question.  When you imagine a spirituality for the future, what do you see? 

SB: One word I would use is post-creedal. It will be a spirituality no longer primarily tied to a particular creed, be that the Buddhist creed, the Christian creed, the Jewish creed, the Muslim creed. I think it might be a spirituality in which people find a much greater resource in what goes on between traditions, rather than within traditions. I might call myself a Buddhist, but frankly, I spend most of my time not in a Buddhist space. I read literature. I watch movies. I take ayahuasca.

Where I feel most fully alive, where I feel that my life is flourishing, is generally not in a Buddhist space, though Buddhism has provided me with a sense of rootedness, discipline, a certain belonging to a tradition. Which is all very important, but it's important to learn to distinguish between being rooted in a tradition and being stuck in a tradition.

One of the great richnesses of this time is that we find ourselves exposed to such an amazing set of resources from all over the world, secular, religious, and so forth. This to me leads to a notion of spirituality that becomes increasingly individuated. The Dharma needs to be individuated in the Jungian sense, meaning differentiating yourself from the collective, from archetypes, from the norms or traditions, and so forth, in such a way that you become increasingly your own person.

That doesn't mean you become an egoist, but it means that you've teased out your potential in such a way that you can optimally flourish to be the person that you aspire to be, that may have elements of Buddhism or Christianity or socialism or whatever fed into it. The mix is uniquely your own. It's your own voice that you find. That, to me, would be a vision of where we're going. We have to avoid falling into the very traps that we seek to free ourselves from, and that's tricky.

One of my heroes is St. Francis of Assisi, who founded the Franciscan Order during his lifetime. Within two or three years before he died, he left it. He was sick of it. He had to abandon it. I like that. That, to me, is a living spirituality.