Busy in Solitude

Back in 2010 I was sitting in a doctors surgery, and actually found an article that interested me, ‘Time bandits stifle innovation’ by D’Angelo Fisher (BRW, July 15, 2010). Fisher’s title sets the theme, that employees are so lacking in discretionary time to think, ponder or work through issues creatively, that there is no possibility of innovation let alone productivity (although there is an argument to explore here whereby we can say that some people work well under pressure).Fisher’s solution, of course, is to suggest that companies who desire to be innovative, especially in the wake of the GFC, would be to counter busyness by providing discretionary time for their staff.

There is a resonance for me as our bishop has been particularly encouraging in trying to get all his clergy to cultivate the traditional practice of being unproductive in order to be more productive in the things that matter. We are being encouraged to take time to reflect and contemplate. It is from such a place that we can speak of God, can hear the depth of our own workings, and be able to listen in to the stories of others. I don’t disagree with that at all, I embrace it wholly.

However there is a tension for me. It is the sense that I can hardly sit by while others are rushing about. Yet part of that problem is not just my reaction to how I will be viewed, it is also that there is a communication problem for anyone wanting solitude. It revolves around framing language within a context and trying to explain (as opposed to justify) it to those outside that context. Easier said than done. The repetitive question I often hear after a retreat is “so how was your holiday?”

Although neither Fisher or my Bishop use the term solitude, that’s how I relate to time for reflection, meditation, prayer, contemplation, sacred reading or Lectio. Solitude is time to draw aside, to regroup, to sense direction.

The danger is, perhaps, to compare and contrast, even demonise what we call busyness in order to provoke the thought that solitude is necessary.

My own view is, perhaps ironically, that busyness and solitude need each other in order for either to function and bring balance. Hedley Galt (corporate facilitator and coach) expresses this in the metaphor of dance; “A life that’s full and yet balanced is like a dance: you need to be able to step forward and embrace experiences, and also to step back to regroup or change direction.”

For many people solitude is daunting. Of course there are those who suffer a phobia such as monophobia (the fear of being alone) or isolophobia (the fear of being isolated) which (without treatment) precludes the sufferer from enjoying even the thought of solitude. Yet for most people there is no phobia, but rather the need to learn the dance steps for a balanced life.

The steps towards putting things on hold daunt many. A friend in management once confided that it exhausted him just to think about reorganising his life even just for a few days off so that it seemed less complicated to stay at work! Others are concerned for their reputation (a concern founded in the past and which is lived in the present) for some that reputation is wholly vested in busyness. Others might well be driven, feeding off the energy that comes from work, new ideas, and a plethora of directions and projects (a little like anxiety in that drivenness is a concern for the future). Does anyone live in the present?

We are distracted by the past (the self-perpetuating culture of retro-capitalism intrudes here) and drawn by the future. It is this busyness that I believe affects our ability to simply be, and to live in the present moment. Physical busyness alone may be demanding, but not (in the normal scheme of things) debilitating. In the metaphor of dance, it might mean for some engaged in purely emotional and mental tasks that a physical task may be the change necessary, the step to embrace. For those in purely physical work it may be to withdraw and contemplate, a step back. But either can be experienced in solitude.

For me the most meaningful solitude is when I am hiking in the bush. It is as if the motion of walking is the mantra and the scenery an organic sign of God and God’s creative work a feast for the eyes and yet more than a sign because I am in the midst of it. While I am walking I can pray and reflect, and in setting camp for the night I can undertake an Examen. But it is the physical act of hiking that facilitates the solitude I thrive in. I still enjoy mediation, and silent retreat, quiet days and the like, but I am at home walking and sitting in the bush.

The point I am making is that while some might question hiking in the bush as a form of solitude because, for some reason, there is little stillness, I believe that solitude, and thereby contemplation, can be active. However, being active doesn’t mean that you are busy! Both yoga and meditation involve action (mantra for one, movement for the other).The busyness that I think we really battle is not the ordinary tasks of life and domesticity, or work, it is the busyness of the ego and its ally the mind.

So unproductive time, discretionary time, is certainly important for contemplation which can lead to creativity and spiritual flow, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we have to be still or completely restricted in activity to do that. Indeed, the opposite is true for me on many occasions.

Paul

Notes: Leo D’Angelo Fisher ‘Time Bandits Stifle Innovation’ BRW July 15, 2010; Hedley Galt ‘Solitude’ Nature & Health, June -July 2007

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