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The Independence of Solitude

March 2, 2009

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Reading these words this morning from The Spiritual Emerson: Essential Works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, I was reminded yet again of the great work we are all faced with: to be and to manifest who we really are, to welcome consciously the spontaneous movement of the life force through us in its full breadth and with its full power.

To do so, of course, one cannot be a “conformist.” To be a conformist, “to live after the world’s opinion,” is to be just another cog in society’s complex machinery–dead to the human spirit within. When we look around today we see such death at every corner. Instead of a spirit of discovery and truth, we stumble over the dead carcasses of social, political, and spiritual correctness. Instead of the willingness to contradict ourselves and our beliefs when we are faced with new insights and discoveries, we most often find ourselves either burying our new insights deep within our solitude so as to remain in harmony with whatever “crowd” we identify with, or grafting our insights for public consumption onto our old memories and beliefs in such a way that they lose all power to help us or anyone else think, feel, and sense the truth.

It does not matter whether the “world” Emerson speaks of is the larger world composed of diverse nations filled with people who call themselves “patriots” or the smaller world of diverse spiritual groups filled with people who call themselves “followers.” There is, in my estimation, little intrinsic difference between patriots and followers; both are examples of what Eric Hoffer called The True Believer. In both cases people take on the larger, more-comfortable perspective of a nation or group or teaching without realizing that in so doing they may well have cut themselves off from the less-comfortable perspective of truth itself.

When I was studying at the University of Wisconsin (back in the late 1950s), I joined a fraternity, where I lived, studied, and partied for more than a year. One day, in my solitude, I reached a decision to go to a political demonstration I had heard about (my first real flicker of political awareness). When I brought this decision to the larger world of the fraternity and suggested that perhaps others should go too, the vice president of the fraternity told me that he didn’t approve of my going–that it was against the ideals and rules of the fraternity–and that if I did go I should definitely not wear my fraternity pin (or ring, I don’t remember). I got very angry and told him that I didn’t have one (which was true and probably why I don’t remember) and that even if I did have one I would definitely wear it if I wanted to. He then told me that if I went I would be kicked out of the fraternity. I resigned from the fraternity on the spot, found a new place to live, and took part in the demonstration, which I felt in my heart of hearts was a true expression of who I was at that time.

Was I a “great man” in Emerson’s words? Absolutely not! Instead of keeping “with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” “in the midst of the crowd,” I was a good example of an angry unconscious young man, without much “sweetness.” And yet, in spite of this, something of the truth awakened in me and began to manifest more and more often–the realization that, as difficult and revealing as it would be, it was necessary for me to attempt to live my own life as consciously as possible unencumbered by the opinions of others, no matter where that led and what difficulties it brought.

Since those early years, I have been involved for many years with teachings and groups (concerned with awakening) that helped in ways that I will not discuss in detail here. I am thankful for what I received through these teachings, especially from my teachers who showed how it is possible “in the midst of the crowd” to keep “with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” This is meditation in action–the natural and spontaneous state of those who have awakened to who they really are.

Copyright 2009 by Dennis Lewis

One Comment leave one →
  1. Veronica permalink
    December 6, 2010 9:26 am

    Thank you Dennis,

    I am currently facing the choice of voicing out what I see is a discrepancy of one leader’s actions vs. the organization’s principles or walking away to find another organization. What I really want to do, is voice my observations to the group at large. I have approached this leader in private and presented my views. The leader neither acknowledged nor dismissed my argument and the presentation of the facts. Rather, she talked about praying for the reasons she has made the sacrifices she has made (why she is not acting in accordance with the principles of the organization), and implied that I avoid judging others, and keep the focus on me. This is a group lead organization. I dread to confront the leader in front of the group, and I am afraid of how the group will respond. Yet, I BELIEVE that if I do not make an effort to exercise my right to speak, and if I make no use of my observations, I am contributing to an environment in which I could feel dis-empowered. Ultimately, the choice is of the group, and I may end up walking away.

    I landed in your essay after searching for the words “independence of solitude.” I did not quite understand what this meant. After having read your refleccion: “it was necessary for me to attempt to live my own life as consciously as possible unencumbered by the opinions of others, no matter where that led and what difficulties it brought” I have a better idea of the meaning of these words.

    Again, thank you

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