…are many. One of the hardest things for many people is to be silent and alone. This is what makes meditation so difficult for us at the beginning. Sitting in meditation may be the first time we have seen our habituated mind and body in action.

I tried to give up TV for a couple of months. I wasn’t doing this for any noble reason. I didn’t want to pay for cable when I watched so few channels and quality programs are so few. My budget is tight and this seemed like a good place to loosen it a bit.

Three things happened. I discovered the contents of my mind are worse than the contents on TV. I saw how addicted I was to TV and I replaced my addiction with the internet. I also saw how my mind was filled with negative thoughts. I live alone (even without a dog for the first time in 30 some years), so my habit in the evenings when I had no plans to get together with friends, has been to find some “connection” to the world via TV and internet. When I’ve lived with people or a partner, I didn’t use the tube as much, but then I was often addicted to whoever I was with, so that is not not necessarily the easy fix. It’s actually just another “fix,” in my case. Besides there is a lot I like about living alone too.

Though I switched my addiction from TV to internet, I still had more time that was not filled by either and what I saw on the big screen of my mind was not a pretty picture. My mind spewed forth negative thoughts like an opened fire hydrant and I was shocked.

Now I have not been what you might call a really jolly person for my 66 years on the planet. I’ve suffered with depression my entire life, but it’s treated it so I no longer start crying non-stop for no reason. Well, there was a reason and it was usually my thoughts. Dark thoughts of inadequacy. I was not enough, did not have enough and didn’t do enough to deserve life. I was surprised to find that my mind tuned into to the Not Enough Channel on nearly an hourly basis. In fact, my mind is like an analog channel, programmed to the same few old stories.

I started to want to sleep a lot. I felt heavy, deep fatigue and everything seemed difficult to do–even to call and correct my newspaper delivery. I was tuned in to Depression, the Lifetime Series. Starring me and my ego.Lost in SELF, I lamented aging and that I couldn’t stop working. I recalled the losses of my dogs and loves, my house. And my default setting was envying anyone who had what I did not have somehow. Like a puppet, my ego pulled the string that made me compare myself to those more wealthy or young or….on and on. I started to believe in this false self that had been built for many years and that I have been completely dismantling for the past three years.

I thought maybe my anti-depressant had stopped working and maybe I needed to call the doc for a change. I kept up my meditation and spiritual practices but did not recognize that I was being taught a major spiritual lesson: distractions were keeping me from knowing myself. I always knew I struggled with envy and feeling always “less than,” but I did not know the full extent of how prevalent, how much I still believed those things.

No, I did not come through the other side sans TV, enlightened, drinking my chai tea on my yoga mat. I took back the TV and, eureka! I cheered right up! However, I was mindful now; I recognized how I “used” and why. I am grateful for my two month adventure in the mindfield of my thoughts. I have information that I can use in my practice about the power of addiction to thoughts as well as TV.
I have decided to take a fellow-Buddhist friend’s advice to do a silent retreat, guided by my teacher at the”Empty Cloud” cottage of Florida Community of Mindfulness. Now that I know what to expect when silent and alone, I’m less afraid of doing that.

Friends, I leave you with this:

“There is nothing wrong with feeling the energies of fear, jealousy or attraction. It’s not your fault that such energies exist…They are not you. You are the one who’s watching, and that one is pure consciousness. Don’t think you’d be free if you just didn’t have these kinds of feelings. It’s not true. If you can be free even though you’re having these types of feelings, then you’re really free—because there will always be something. If you can learn to remain centered with the smaller things, you will see that you can also remain centered with the bigger things. You can be fine, deep inside, even in the face of a deep sense of loss.”—-Michael Singer, The Untethered Soul.


~Meister Eckhart (Christian mystic from 12th century)

He who would be what he ought to be must stop being what he is.

~Meister Eckhart

 Future Rock Star

Addicted to Thoughts



Robert Campbell Chodo began using amphetamines and alcohol at age 16. He continued using amphetamines until age 24, before moving on to cocaine for the next 10 years. In 1988, Campbell got sober after seeing a psychotherapist and joining Alcoholics Anonymous, where he attended meetings 3 times a week. While Campbell says that “AA unquestionably gave me the tools to make the life changes,” it wasn’t until he began his Zen practice in 1993 that he began to get “really, really sober.” Today Campbell is one of the Executive Directors for New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, an organization that provides direct care to the sick, dying, and suffering.

From Trycicle online:

What’s your experience with addiction? For me “addiction” is an odd word, because it’s such a catchall. When it comes to addiction we’re usually talking about alcohol or substance abuse, but there can also be an addictive quality to our thinking. When I latch on to thoughts, either positive or negative, and they become obsessive, it has the same quality as getting the fix—“I hate this, love that, want it, don’t want it; why is this happening to me, why is my life so difficult, why can’t I be more this or less that?”— and on and on.

As a kid I can remember thinking, “I’ve got to get the hell out of here.” I come from a long line of addicted family members, running the gamut from smoking and drinking to gambling and drug dealing. More often than not there is a fair amount of violent behavior that is the norm in this kind of environment. So my earliest thoughts were of running away. The endless loop was, ironically, a healthy stream of obsessive thinking: “This is not healthy. I am not going to survive. I need to get out of here in order to survive.” And later that turned into “All I have to do is survive.” And then that opened the door to the life of addiction. In order to survive, I had to anesthetize myself with substances or behaviors.

Did Buddhism play a role in your recovery? Not in the beginning. I was five years sober before I found my Buddhist path and met my first Zen teacher, Dai En Friedman. I was in supervisory training at an analytic institute on Long Island, and every week when leaving supervision I would see this woman coming into the office. She was really amazing-looking—bald with piercing blue eyes— and I thought, “Wow. She’s someone I’d like to know.” The next time I saw her, I said, “Hi. I’d love to introduce myself to you,” and she said, “OK.” And I said, “My name’s Bob. I’m living out here, training in this institute, and I hear you’re a Buddhist monk.” She said, “Yes,” and I said, “Well, I’d love to learn a little bit about that.” Then for some reason I just blurted it all out: “I’ve been sober for five years, and I’m having a really hard time with it. I’m so depressed, and my childhood was terrible with incest and drugs and this and that. And I come from this long line of alcoholics and violence.” Basically, I just vomited all over this woman. Her response was the catalyst for my shift in consciousness: “You know what you need to do? You need to shut up. You need to shut up, and shut up long enough to hear your story, because it’s just a story, and you’ve been carrying it around now for what, 35 years, 40 years? And that’s what you’re living out of, so how about rather than acting out of it, listen to it and take a look at it?” “How do I do that?” I asked “Just come to the zendo,” she said, “and let’s see what happens.”

She told you to shut up. Yep! And you know, sometimes we need to shut up. Actually nobody cares as much as you do about your story. It’s not that interesting to anybody else.

That moment was as important on your path as the Twelve Step program? Oh, yes. It turned my life around. I was sober, living a very comfortable life, and I was depressed as hell. I remember thinking, “If this is sobriety, I’m going back to drinking, because this is not fun. This is not the life I had imagined being sober was about.” Sure, I had the material gifts, but I was so unhappy. I hadn’t yet found the spiritual component you hear about in the Twelve Step programs. Yes, I knew all about Higher Power and didn’t question the concept, but it just wasn’t enough for me. When I started to meditate, things started to become clearer for me, and I was listening to someone who was speaking to me in a language that I could understand. I was listening to me with a fresh understanding of life. We could call it acceptance. It was real to-the-gut: “Sit down, shut up, stop with the story, and just take a breath. You’re addicted to the story. Start to unravel all that.” And that’s when I think that I really began to get sober, really sober.

You were five years sober before finding Zen. Did Alcoholics Anonymous work? I vacillate back and forth over this question. Did AA work, or did I walk into the right place at the right time and hear the right words? I went to my first AA meeting in a church on Park Avenue, with all these women in fancy coats and business guys from Wall Street, and here’s me from my world, which was very different from that. And the minute I walked into the room, I’m thinking, “What am I doing here? This is not me.” But someone was telling their story, and I thought, “Wow. Actually, you know what? This is me—the same story, just dressed up differently.” So for a while I kept going back, as they say, to more meetings. So did AA help me? On one level absolutely: it kept me out of the bars and gave me a direction, but at a certain point I was like, “I can’t hear any more of these stories.”

When you talk about Zen practice and the Twelve Steps, it makes me think about self-power versus other-power in dealing with addiction. Can we say that Zen emphasizes self-power and that you believe that you have to deal with your addictions yourself? I would hate to come across as saying that I could’ve done this without any help from AA and the other programs. For sure, in the first years of sobriety what kept me coming to the meetings was the friends I made—the other comrades in the battle, if you like—who were also fighting their own addictions. We had this beautiful group of addicts together in recovery, and that’s what kept me in the rooms. It was not so much what I was hearing from the Big Book [Alcoholics Anonymous, the Twelve Step sourcebook]—in fact, I hated Big Book meetings—but what I was hearing from other travelers on the road, all their war stories.

Could I have done it by myself? No. The rooms definitely got me to a certain point. But as I said, at five years sober I still did not feel that I was alive in the world.

Just Shut UpSo maybe the other-power doesn’t have to be God, but it’s there. Perhaps that’s where the sangha comes in. The power for me is definitely not God. God played no part in it. Perhaps one day I will change my mind about that but a lot more healing has to take place. For me the power was the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, the community. My community was in the zendo. When I moved back to Manhattan in 1998 I was fortunate enough to meet my current teacher, Enkyo Roshi. She has had her own experience of addiction, so it was an easy fit. I could bring my questions about practice as a recovering addict to interview.

If “addiction” is a catchall, as you say, should we employ different techniques when trying to work with our various addictions? Or is there a common approach that we can use, whether we’re addicted to, say, alcohol or compulsive eating or thinking or going to the gym? I think it’s in realizing that we always have a choice. Even when we’re at the height of our addictions, most of us might think, “I have no choice, so this is all I can do.” I think we always have a choice. My path was that I chose to do more cocaine. I chose to do more drugs. I chose to behave in ways that were not skillful. I chose to put myself into dangerous places, knowing all the time that I didn’t have to do that.

We always have a choice? Many people would say that being addicted to something means that it’s out of our hands. I know that it’s not a popular foundation to stand on. I can only speak about myself, and I always knew I had a choice. My choice was to get fucked up. My choice was to do whatever I needed to do to put myself in another place physically, emotionally, psychologically. When I reached my bottom, to use Twelve Step terminology, that was the bottom that motivated me into to go into Twelve Step recovery. But was that my worst bottom? Was that the worst situation I’d ever been in? No. I actually woke up after a blackout on the corner of Thompson and Bleecker Streets, after being out all night. Was that the worst situation I’ve ever been in? No. And it certainly wasn’t the most dangerous. But I came out of that blackout, and I very vividly remember thinking, “This has to stop. I don’t want to do this anymore.” It was a very definite choice on my part to not continue in that way.

I’ve worked with so many addicts over the years, from crackheads, prostitutes, and ex-prisoners to crystal-meth addicts and overspenders, and what I’ve almost always found is there’s a part of that person that doesn’t want to do it—whatever that “it” is. Doesn’t want to shoot up again, doesn’t want to go out on the streets to cop, is tired of the meth scene. To me, that implies that they realize they have a choice. If I think to myself, “This is all I can do. This is all I know. There’s no other way,” then I’m leaving choice out of it. But if I have the capacity to think “Actually, it could be different. Do I have to do this?” there is a choice.

But I would also say: Don’t confuse choice for control. You don’t approach this head on and say, “I’m in charge now. I’m going to stop,” and everything is hunky dory from then on. Ego is not going to give up so easily. But something is going to happen. You reach the point where the only thing to do is to not do it, and stop talking and shut up. You shut up. You put your money where your mouth is. Don’t tell me you want to stop and then not stop. The talking is smoke and mirrors. Why would you talk about it?

In Buddhism, within the framework of karma, yes, there is a choice. But there’s a certain sense of serendipity when a person says “enough,” or when that moment of choice presents itself. Why now and not before, or later? There’s a window of opportunity that somehow opens up because of causes and conditions that we don’t quite understand. Is there room for the idea of a moment of grace? Or karma? Maybe there is an opening into…My Buddha nature was there as the alcoholic. I was in Buddha nature in my blackout. But yes, in coming out of that blackout there was grace.

How do you understand this moment of choice from a Buddhist perspective? We learn the first noble truth: There is suffering. And we can look at our dependencies, if you like, as a form of suffering. I now understand that suffering is not permanent, that nothing is permanent. This is not going to last; I can move away from this. These feelings, these cravings for alcohol, cocaine, sex—whatever the drugs—these feelings aren’t undying. They will subside if only for a moment. In the early days of recovery, a moment of relief felt like a lifetime.

The other side of that coin is that the relief isn’t permanent. I could be sitting there thinking, “Wow, I’ve got this totally licked. I haven’t had a drink today,” and then in the next breath I’d be saying, “Fuck, I don’t want this. I want a drink.” So it’s not only the suffering that is impermanent; it’s also the relief that’s impermanent. It’s a constant back and forth. Drink, don’t drink; shoot up, don’t shoot up; wake up, don’t wake up. For all of us, not just the addict, it really is life and death in each moment. The choice is yours.

—Sam Mowe and James Shaheen

Artwork by Edouard Fraipont.

cboshelle's picture

I recently lost my best friend for all of my life to alcohol. It seems to me that he was actually addicted by his story, animated by it, terribly attracted to it. Early trauma was the catalyst for this story and for over 50 years the wheel kept turning, bringing more trauma until the story seemed to take over the man. The story was pain, the alcohol kept the story going and now it’s over. I deeply appreciate the perspective you have on the shadow of addiction, of how easy it is to confuse choice with control. I won’t ever know if there was a point of decision or even if my friend did chose to die. I can’t help but think it was really about playing chicken and finally losing.

Vito the Enforcer

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

My mind is trying to do me in. Notice, I do not say it is trying to kill me, but it wants me just at the edge of the abyss. We have been dancing to the edge and back all of my life.

Allow me to introduce you. My mind’s name is Vito the Enforcer, or Vito for short. He goes by a stereotyped mafia persona because he is both a bully but also has that weird, false sentimental side—he showers me with approval when I am a success in his eyes, but then could break my metaphoric legs in the next moment just because he can. Since I am a female, I sometimes wonder why my mind takes this masculine form, but I now understand. It’s all about who dominates. Vito is that part of me that is tough and unforgiving. He also has dominated my thinking all my life, ridiculing my instinctual/heart-centered tendencies.

Now, you might assume that the other “part” of me is feminine, supportive and gentle. There you would be wrong. This other part– the one Vito can’t stand– is genderless, though it resembles the feminine due to its compassion and love. Vito would like it better if she was indeed clearly “feminine,” more of what he can deal with, a womanly woman, all soft, docile, quiet, her only power sexual. This aspect of my self has a name as well,not Darshan, an entity with a Sanskrit name meaning something like “looking into the divine.”

Darshan is hard to pin down, which drives Vito crazy. It’s neither male nor female, good or bad, not this or that. You see, Darshan has no sense of the duality Vito holds to so tightly. For Vito there is us and them. And plenty of reasons for lingering disputes and resentments. For Darshan there is only us. You might say this entity is a spirit of some sort or an energy of some type, but no definition is adequate. This is intolerable for Vito, who has defined every living thing he sees. When he is not ridiculing Darshan, he simply ignores it, pretends it does not exist. That is kind of funny since Vito himself, as the mind full of thoughts that he is, resembles a cloud than a person. He can seem solid, even dark and scary when all clumped together with drama or angst, but like the cloud, he has no real substance. Whereas Darshan is quite real and lives in atoms and molecules, protons, neutrons, blood and oxygen. Darshan even has a face and a body, unlike Vito, that you can see when you look at a tree or a weed or a bug.

Unfortunately, I have been in cahoots with Vito and belittled Darshan as well; he and I diminished its power over the years so much that I barely knew she still existed until a few years ago. Alas, I still too often have more Vito than Darshan in my life.

Here’s some irony; you’d think it was my father who brought Vito into my life, but it was my mother. Turns out he was the motivating force for generations on that side of the family. He had abused her as well. My father, who favored the weaker spirit self, was no match since he cowered before Vito and his emotionally and physically violent relatives.

Vito ignores Darshan entirely and after many years of following Vito’s loudly proclaimed beliefs, I have developed the same habit. Most of the time I do not hear or heed her. This leaves plenty of room for Vito to stomp around in his snakeskin boots and spew thoughts of regret and self-recrimination into my mind. He blows these dark thoughts like smoke in my face from his big cigar. Then, he settles back in his barcalounger and tells me tales of my past humiliations and failures. Those are the stories he favors as he has no use for the present. The present is heart territory, the place where Darshan lives. When he goes there he gets nervous and paces a lot because he doesn’t need to do or be anything special, which of course makes him feel utterly lost. The present, Darshan’s reality, can be painful sometimes too and Vito, though he loves to create painful thoughts, also knows that he doesn’t know what to do with them if has to spend time with them. Vito’s modus operandi is to keep the misery moving but don’t look at it or its source.

So Vito drags me to the past all the time. The past is where Vito feels most alive. He feels secure on that terrain because the past is full of facts and certainty and he loves certainty. In contrast, the present is not static, so there is nowhere he can plant a flag that will stay planted. In the present things move and shift like sand. Now light coming in the window, next clouds cover the sun. Now a sweet moment, next someone is crying…but not forever, not for long. Darshan is like the wind: constantly changing, ever present.

Vito’s role in this life is to defeat me. He has honed my perspective with his sharp and deadly blade: I wrote a book and got an agent, but I didn’t stick with it and get it published. A victory for Vito; I succumbed to self-doubt, never thought I was worth a mentor who might have championed me, and never pursued it further. I published in small presses instead, and Vito told me that wasn’t good enough. He continues to laugh at my attempts to publish and tells me I will never be as good as “they” are. This is the same “they” who are better than me in every other way also. I chose loveless men as my partners and Vito was pleased. Vito belittles the passion I put into working with working class kids who were on their way to jail or suicide when I was in my twenties. He dismisses as naïve how I wanted to do work that served others in some way, and reminds me of how I wasn’t savvy about making money.

Sometimes, even now, Vito likes to put on old Sinatra albums (that I love too!) and force the issue of my single, unmarried state. Of course his view of “love” is like a hit-man’s: you do for me or else. He only implies that of course, with Frank singing about not being able to live without love. Vito never sees the contradiction of “love “ that makes you so desperately dependent that you want to kill yourself when it’s gone.

I wrote a book exposing Vito, but he is confident it won’t see the light of day. These days it’s aging he uses to pummel me with. He tells me there is no place for someone my age since I don’t have grandchildren. After sex appeal goes, the grandchildren become the focus, he tells me. That is the natural way, he says. Then he calls me names like spinster and old crone. He tells me I am every young woman’s nightmare.

Vito is loud, muscular, wrong and only in my mind.

Darshan’s role in this life is to make me laugh. Darshan sometimes dresses up in lederhosen and does a polka at a hipster’s cool gathering where everyone else is in understated black. Darshan comes to boogey at a staid awards ceremony.
Darshan is not like Don Rickles, the joke is never mean, but more like Robin Williams when he was full of life and compassion for our absurdity. Darshan sings and writes and paints. It knows that I am, as the song says, “like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.” It knows how I long for that freedom, that for me it’s often been true that “I’ve been down so long it looks like up to me.” It knows all this and more.

Darshan is kind, right, and everywhere. Even within Vito the Enforcer.

Circle Revisited

No Birth, No Death


Everything is a circle


A mandala


A Sufi in the middle


A round of white skirt






Like the earth




And sun


Illuminated circumferences


Consistent rings of light.


Tell me,


where is the start


or end


of the ocean?

Blow Your MInd…:)


My Way May Not be Your Way, But It’s Alright….

How to Help Others: Gandhi, Ram Dass

Blog – Open Heart Extra – Facing Your Fear & Suffering


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Posted February 6, 2013

Suffering seems to be a fact of life. How do we face it? Clearly it is a stranger to none of us. Perhaps we’ve not experienced the corrosive pain of illness, persecution, starvation, or violence. We may not have lived with the deterioration and loss of a loved one. Few of us have seen the charred face of a burned child. But each of us has experienced our fair share of not getting what we want or having to deal with what we don’t want. In this, we all know suffering.

The way in which we deal with suffering has much to do with the way in which we are able to be of service to others. Of course, not all helping revolves around suffering. Much of what we offer may be in the nature of simple support or guidance: moving a friend’s new furniture, teaching a child to read. But it is the affliction of others that most directly awakens in us the desire to be of care and comfort.

The impulse to do all we can to relieve another’s pain is the automatic response of our native compassion. But the experience of suffering — in ourselves and in others — triggers off complicated reactions. To investigate these is itself an act of compassion, an essential step toward becoming more effective instruments of mutual support and healing. How then do we respond to the pain we see all around us? And, once we have investigated this response, how do we respond to our own afflictions?

As Gandhi said, “Fearlessness is the first prerequisite of a spiritual life.” Fear means we’re either worried about something that’s already taken place, or anxious about things that haven’t even happened. Bringing ourselves into the present moment can help us to loosen fear’s stranglehold. . . .

In the process of learning to be mindful, and to age in a conscious way, fearlessness is an essential ingredient. This fearlessness involves the willingness to tell the truth, to ourselves and others, and to confront the contents of our minds. We must be willing to look at everything — our own suffering as well as the suffering around us — without averting our gaze, and allow it to be in the present moment. Rather than closing ourselves to fear, we learn to open to it, to sit with it, allowing it to arise and pass in its own time. By simply looking, with no push or pull, mindfulness is strengthened. You will find that the moment you enter this witness state, the boundaries of the Ego are loosened and fear begins to change. You will discover that the fearful thought you are looking at is quite different from the fear you’ve run away from; the minute you look at it and embrace it, the power is yours. I’m not suggesting that once this has happened, the same fear will not arise again, but you’ll be seeing it from a different point of view. Rather than being some awful Goliath, your fears will become like little shmoos.

~Ram Dass

The Bias Against Being Alone


“We live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.”

If the odds of finding one’s soul mate are so dreadfully dismal and the secret of lasting love is largely a matter of concession, is it any wonder that a growing number of people choose to go solo? The choice of solitude, of active aloneness, has relevance not only to romance but to all human bonds — even Emerson, perhaps the most eloquent champion of friendship in the English language, lived a significant portion of his life in active solitude, the very state that enabled him to produce his enduring essays and journals. And yet that choice is one our culture treats with equal parts apprehension and contempt, particularly in our age of fetishistic connectivity. Hemingway’s famous assertion that solitude is essential for creative work is perhaps so oft-cited precisely because it is so radical and unnerving in its proposition.

A friend recently relayed an illustrative anecdote: One evening during a short retreat in Mexico by herself, she entered the local restaurant and asked to be seated. Upon realizing she was to dine alone, the waitstaff escorted her to the back with a blend of puzzlement and pity, so as not to dilute the resort’s carefully engineered illusory landscape of coupled bliss. (It’s worth noting that this unsettling incident, which is as much about the stigma of being single as about the profound failure to honor the art of being alone, is one women are still far more likely to confront than men; some live to tell about it.)

Solitude, the kind we elect ourselves, is met with judgement and enslaved by stigma. It is also a capacity absolutely essential for a full life.

That paradox is what British author Sara Maitland explores in How to Be Alone (public library) — the latest installment in The School of Life’s thoughtful crusade to reclaim the traditional self-help genre in a series of intelligent, non-self-helpy yet immeasurably helpful guides to such aspects of modern living as finding fulfilling work, cultivating a healthier relationship with sex, worrying less about money, and staying sane.

While Maitland lives in a region of Scotland with one of the lowest population densities in Europe, where the nearest supermarket is more than twenty miles away and there is no cell service (pause on that for a moment), she wasn’t always a loner — she grew up in a big, close-knit family as one of six children. It was only when she became transfixed by the notion of silence, the subject of her previous book, that she arrived, obliquely, at solitude. She writes:

I got fascinated by silence; by what happens to the human spirit, to identity and personality when the talking stops, when you press the off button, when you venture out into that enormous emptiness. I was interested in silence as a lost cultural phenomenon, as a thing of beauty and as a space that had been explored and used over and over again by different individuals, for different reasons and with wildly differing results. I began to use my own life as a sort of laboratory to test some ideas and to find out what it felt like. Almost to my surprise, I found I loved silence. It suited me. I got greedy for more. In my hunt for more silence, I found this valley and built a house here, on the ruins of an old shepherd’s cottage.

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from ‘The River.’ Click image for more.

Maitland’s interest in solitude, however, is somewhat different from that in silence — while private in its origin, it springs from a public-facing concern about the need to address “a serious social and psychological problem around solitude,” a desire to “allay people’s fears and then help them actively enjoy time spent in solitude.” And so she does, posing the central, “slippery” question of this predicament:

Being alone in our present society raises an important question about identity and well-being.


How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfillment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?


We live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.

We see moral and social conventions as inhibitions on our personal freedoms, and yet we are frightened of anyone who goes away from the crowd and develops “eccentric” habits.

We believe that everyone has a singular personal “voice” and is, moreover, unquestionably creative, but we treat with dark suspicion (at best) anyone who uses one of the most clearly established methods of developing that creativity — solitude.

We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone.


We are supposed now to seek our own fulfillment, to act on our feelings, to achieve authenticity and personal happiness — but mysteriously not do it on our own.

Today, more than ever, the charge carries both moral judgement and weak logic.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘Open House for Butterflies’ by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Curiously, and importantly, mastering the art of solitude doesn’t make us more antisocial but, to the contrary, better able to connect. By being intimate with our own inner life — that frightening and often foreign landscape that philosopher Martha Nussbaum so eloquently urged us to explore despite our fear — frees us to reach greater, more dimensional intimacy with others. Maitland writes:

Nothing is more destructive of warm relations than the person who endlessly “doesn’t mind.” They do not seem to be a full individual if they have nothing of their own to “bring to the table,” so to speak. This suggests that even those who know that they are best and most fully themselves in relationships (of whatever kind) need a capacity to be alone, and probably at least some occasions to use that ability. If you know who you are and know that you are relating to others because you want to, rather than because you are trapped (unfree), in desperate need and greed, because you fear you will not exist without someone to affirm that fact, then you are free. Some solitude can in fact create better relationships, because they will be freer ones.

And yet the value of aloneness has descended into a downward spiral of social judgment over the course of humanity. Citing the rise of “male spinsters” in the U.S. census — men over forty who never married, up from 6% in 1980 to 16% today — Maitland traces the odd cultural distortion of the concept itself:

In the Middle Ages the word “spinster” was a compliment. A spinster was someone, usually a woman, who could spin well: a woman who could spin well was financially self-sufficient — it was one of the very few ways that mediaeval women could achieve economic independence. The word was generously applied to all women at the point of marriage as a way of saying they came into the relationship freely, from personal choice, not financial desperation. Now it is an insult, because we fear “for” such women — and now men as well — who are probably “sociopaths.”

This fairly modern attitude, which casts voluntary aloneness as a toxic trifecta of “sad, mad, and bad” — is reinforced via rather dogmatic circular logic that doesn’t afford those who choose solitude the basic dignity of their own choice. Reflecting on the prevalent response of pity — triggered by the “sad” portion of the dogma — Maitland plays out the exasperating impossibility of refuting such social assumptions:

If you say, “Well, no actually; I am very happy,” the denial is held to prove the case. Recently someone trying to condole with me in my misery said, when I assured them I was in fact happy, “You may think you are.” But happiness is a feeling. I do not think it — I feel it. I may, of course, be living in a fool’s paradise and the whole edifice of joy and contentment is going to crash around my ears sometime soon, but at the moment I am either lying or reporting the truth. My happiness cannot, by the very nature of happiness, be something I think I feel but don’t really feel. There is no possible response that does not descend almost immediately to the school-playground level of “Did, didn’t; did, didn’t.”

Underlying these attitudes, Maitland argues, is the central driver of fear — fear of those radically different from us, who make choices we don’t necessarily understand. This drives us, in turn, to project our fright onto others, often in the form of anger — a manifestation, at once sad, mad, and bad, of Anaïs Nin’s memorable observation that “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.”

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from ‘The Lion and the Bird.’ Click image for more.

These persistently reinforced social fears, she notes, have chilling consequences:

If you tell people enough times that they are unhappy, incomplete, possibly insane and definitely selfish there is bound to come a grey morning when they wake up with the beginning of a nasty cold and wonder if they are lonely rather than simply “alone.”

(This crucial difference between aloneness and loneliness, in fact, is not only central to our psychological unease but also enacted even in our bodies — while solitude may be essential for creativity and key to the mythology of genius, loneliness, scientists have found, has deadly physical consequences on our risk for everything from heart disease to dementia.)

Paradoxically, Maitland points out, many of our most celebrated cultural icons had solitude embedded in their lifestyle and spirit, from great explorers and adventurers to famous “geniuses.” She cites the great silent film actor Greta Garbo, a famous loner, as a particularly poignant example:

Garbo introduced a subtlety of expression to the art of silent acting and that its effect on audiences cannot be exaggerated… In retirement she adopted a lifestyle of both simplicity and leisure, sometimes just ‘drifting’. But she always had close friends with whom she socialized and travelled. She did not marry but did have serious love affairs with both men and women. She collected art. She walked, alone and with companions, especially in New York. She was a skillful paparazzi-avoider. Since she chose to retire, and for the rest of her life consistently declined opportunities to make further films, it is reasonable to suppose that she was content with that choice.

It is in fact evident that a great many people, for many different reasons, throughout history and across cultures, have sought out solitude to the extent that Garbo did, and after experiencing that lifestyle for a while continue to uphold their choices, even when they have perfectly good opportunities to live more social lives.

So how did our present attitudes toward solitude emerge? Maitland argues that our lamentable refusal to afford those who choose aloneness “the normal tolerance of difference on which we pride ourselves elsewhere” is the result of a “very deep cultural confusion”:

For two millennia, at least, we have been trying to live with two radically contrasting and opposed models of what the good life would or should be. Culturally, there is a slightly slick tendency to blame all our woes, and especially our social difficulties, either on a crude social Darwinism or on an ill-defined package called the “Judaeo-Christian paradigm” or “tradition.” Apparently this is why, among other things, we have so much difficulty with sex (both other people’s and our own); why women remain unequal; why we are committed to world domination and ecological destruction; and why we are not as perfectly happy as we deserve. I, for one, do not believe this — but I do believe that we suffer from trying to hold together the values of Judaeo-Christianity (inasmuch as we understand them) and the values of classical civilization, and they really do not fit.

She traces the evolution of that confusion all the way back to the Roman Empire, with its ideals of public and social life. Even the word “civilization” bespeaks these values — it comes from civis, Latin for “citizen.” (Though it warrants noting that one of the greatest and most enduring Roman exports issued the memorable admonition that “all those who call you to themselves draw you away from yourself.”) Still, the Romans were notorious for their lust for power, honor, and glory — ideals invariably social in nature and crucial to the political cohesion of society when confronted with the barbarians at the gate. Maitland writes:

In these circumstances solitude is threatening — without a common and embedded religious faith to give shared meaning to the choice, being alone is a challenge to the security of those clinging desperately to a sinking raft. People who pull out and “go solo” are exposing the danger while apparently escaping the engagement.

Maitland fast-forwards to our present predicament, the product of millennia of cultural baggage:

No wonder we are frightened of those who desire and aspire to be alone, if only a little more than has been acceptable in recent social forms. No wonder we want to establish solitude as “sad, mad and bad” — consciously or unconsciously, those of us who want to do something so markedly countercultural are exposing, and even widening, the rift lines.

But the truth is, the present paradigm is not really working. Despite the intense care and attention lavished on the individual ego; despite over a century of trying to “raise self-esteem” in the peculiar belief that it will simultaneously enhance individuality and create good citizens; despite valiant attempts to consolidate relationships and lower inhibitions; despite intimidating efforts to dragoon the more independent-minded and creative to become “team players”; despite the promises of personal freedom made to us by neoliberalism and the cult of individualism and rights — despite all this, the well seems to be running dry. We are living in a society marked by unhappy children, alienated youth, politically disengaged adults, stultifying consumerism, escalating inequality, deeply scary wobbles in the whole economic system, soaring rates of mental ill-health and a planet so damaged that we may well end up destroying the whole enterprise.

Of course we also live in a world of great beauty, sacrificial and passionate love, tenderness, prosperity, courage and joy. But quite a lot of all that seems to happen regardless of the paradigm and the high thoughts of philosophy. It has always happened. It is precisely because it has always happened that we go on wrestling with these issues in the hope that it can happen more often and for more people.

And wrestle we do, often trying to grasp and cling our way out of solitude — a state we don’t fully understand and can’t fully inhabit to reap its rewards. Our two most common tactics for shielding against solitude, Maitland notes, are the offensive fear-and-projection strategy, where we criticize those capable of finding joy in solitude and condemn them to the sad-mad-bad paradigm, and the defensive approach, where we attempt to insulate ourselves from the risk of aloneness by obsessively accumulating a vast network of social ties as a kind of “insurance policy.” In one of her most quietly poignant asides, Maitland whispers:

There is no number of friends on Facebook, contacts, connections or financial provision that can guarantee to protect us.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

Our cultural ambivalence is also manifested in our chronic bias for extraversion despite growing evidence for the power of introverts. Maitland writes:

At the same time as pursuing this “extrovert ideal,” society gives out an opposite — though more subterranean — message. Most people would still rather be described as sensitive, spiritual, reflective, having rich inner lives and being good listeners than the more extroverted opposites. I think we still admire the life of the intellectual over that of the salesman; of the composer over the performer (which is why pop stars constantly stress that they write their own songs); of the craftsman over the politician; of the solo adventurer over the package tourist… But the kind of unexamined but mixed messages that society offers us in relation to being alone add to the confusion; and confusion strengthens fear.

Among Maitland’s toolkit of “ideas for overturning negative views of solitude and developing a positive sense of aloneness and a true capacity to enjoy it” are the exploration of reverie and the practice of facing the fear. She enumerates the five basic categories of rewards to be reaped from unlearning our culturally conditioned fear of aloneness and learning how to “do” solitude well:

  1. A deeper consciousness of oneself
  2. A deeper attunement to nature
  3. A deeper relationship with the transcendent (the numinous, the divine, the spiritual)
  4. Increased creativity
  5. An increased sense of freedom

In the remainder of How to Be Alone, Maitland goes on to offer a series of “exercises” along each of these five directions of aspiration — psychological strategies for retuning our relationship with solitude.

Complement the book with other excellent installments in The School of Life’s series, including Philippa Perry’s How to Stay Sane, John Armstrong’s How to Worry Less About Money, Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex, and Roman Krznaric’s How to Find Fulfilling Work.

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