JUNE 28, 2020
AS I WRITE THESE words, a significant part of humanity finds itself in the curious state of “social isolation.” The term carries the paradoxical inanity of a college advertising tagline and is as close to the truth. We are not truly isolated. Many of us now spend most of our waking hours in the presence of people we used to see for only a fraction of each day. Others live alone but tune into the pounding static of social media, news websites, television, and podcasts for a sense of connection to the world outside their windows. Silence feels as distant as it ever was. Nor are we social, exactly, though we do try. Zoom and Skype and Instagram live beam faces and voices into our rooms, but we miss touch and scent of skin, the warmth of another’s body, the easy energy of a conversation in place. We are neither with one another nor alone with ourselves, neither imprisoned nor truly free.
As new as this situation feels, the frustrations it provokes are ancient. The question is how to be alone, and the answer, as Stephen Batchelor suggests in his new book, The Art of Solitude, ultimately has little to do with the place one inhabits or the other people in it. Batchelor considers solitude not as a state of mind, but “as a practice, a way of life — as understood by the Buddha and Montaigne alike.” It is not isolation or alienation, though these are its shadow side. Rather, it is a way of caring for one’s soul, of sheltering it from noise and agitation, of directing it toward its authentic purpose. Batchelor is less interested in defining an ideal form of solitude than in meditating on the ways it can be practiced and exercised, lost and regained.
The Scottish-born Batchelor moved to India at age 18 and was ordained a novice Buddhist monk two years later. His travels took him to Tibetan Buddhist centers in Switzerland and Germany, to a Zen Buddhist monastery in South Korea, to Hong Kong and England and France. Along the way he received full ordination, disrobed, and married. The Art of Solitude is infused with a lifetime of Buddhist thought and practice, but, as this biographical sketch suggests, also stands at odds to it. Batchelor’s stance is not of faith but of inquiry, and he seeks his inspirations widely. The short meditations in this book skip from the paintings of Agnes Martin and Johannes Vermeer to the Pali Khuddaka Nikāya; from the essays of Michel de Montaigne to vivid recollections of Batchelor’s experiences using psychedelics in guided spiritual journeys. Batchelor seems like a restless soul; when he quotes Montaigne’s description of his mind galloping like a runaway horse, the affinity becomes clear. Still, while Montaigne bemoaned the monsters that came out of his head without order or form, Batchelor makes a virtue of his chaos.
The Art of Solitude offers no absorbing, linear narrative. Inspired by his artistic practice of collage making, Batchelor arranges the book’s sections into a partly random mosaic of found objects: memories, reflections, favorite quotations. He is guided by a principle of non-contiguity: no two chapters on the same theme appear together. His goal is to reduce his own authorial control and allow the reader to make meaning out of the disparate parts, perhaps even finding gems that had escaped the author’s notice. The book thus resembles much of contemporary nonfiction — Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks come to mind, though the examples are many. An ungenerous reader, perhaps one who had at some point struggled to find a coherent structure for her own writing, might suspect this is an easy way out. In a better mood, she might reflect that a book written for people who cannot find repose or concentration is best delivered in manageable chunks, that fragmented forms are all our shattered attention spans can manage nowadays. There is something more here, however.
As befits a former monk, Batchelor keeps returning to cells. In a captivating chapter, he describes a visit to the Bedse Caves, a rock-cut monastic complex in Maharashtra, India, dating to the first century BCE. Standing in a cool room carved into the hillside, he reflects on the limits of seeking spiritual improvement by escaping society: “Once the novelty wears off, you discover how seclusion magnifies the pressures and demands you feel.” Even with the body contained, the mind wanders along its maddening old paths. At the same time, the ancient walls remind Batchelor of a universal connection in the desire for ascetic experience: “Shaven-headed, ochre-robed mendicants sat cross-legged in these cells while Jesus spent forty days in the Judaean desert, fasting and being tempted by Satan.”
The cell restricts, but in doing so it allows a move outward, beyond the limitations of one’s own body and time. Recalling W. H. Auden’s praise of “metrical rules that forbid automatic responses,” Batchelor finds freedom in formally structured stanzas: “The verse form becomes an equivalent of the rock-cut cell: a confined space of solitude and contemplation that opens up the possibility of saying something that is not determined by familiar desires, fears, and aversions.” I have had this feeling when writing Elizabethan sonnets: the strictures of rhyme and meter pulled me in unexpected directions, my subconscious offered up unbidden words that suited my sense, if not my intention. Batchelor’s short chapters are fragments of a larger story, but they are also small rooms in which unexpected connections can happen.
My favorite chapter in the book, “on solitude,” is a collection of 16 passages from Montaigne, unadorned with any commentary by Batchelor, though the translation seems to be his. The margins of my copy of the book are filled here with underlining and reader’s marks: yes! amazing. *[. Here is Montaigne on the difficulty of laying aside the ambitions, desires, and fears learned in the court and the marketplace:
That is why it is not enough to remove oneself from people, not enough to go somewhere else. We have to remove ourselves from the habits of the populace that are within us. We have to isolate our own self and return it to our possession. We carry our chains with us; we are not entirely free. We keep returning our gaze to the things we have left behind.
The issue, however, is not other people tout court. It lies in finding kindred spirits, those with whom conversation — in its richest sense — is possible. “At home, in a busy household with many visitors,” remarks Montaigne, “I see plenty of people but rarely those with whom I love to talk.” Perhaps part of the practice of solitude lies not simply in being alone, but in forging connections with those with whom we do love to talk. As I read these quotes from the Essays, I find myself in them, and in finding myself in them I forge a different kind of bond with the author who collected them, one that feels more authentic because less forced. Batchelor has not lectured me, but has let me read his commonplace book, as if over his shoulder. This is quiet colloquy, an invitation to think together in a small space.
Most of The Art of Solitude treads well-known ground. Batchelor’s observations on mindfulness and detachment from the passions might be found in any self-help book or podcast today. They would have been familiar on an ancient Stoa or in a monastic cell as well. Inventing a new way to be is not the point here; rediscovering what is already known about how to live is. This is one of Batchelor’s insights, not so much stated as accumulated through his contraposition of Eastern and Western traditions, scenes ancient and contemporary, examples from the worlds of religion and art: in learning how to separate ourselves from the cacophony of the crowd — or the Twitter feed — we join a different, invisible community. These are the individuals who have struggled as we do to listen to something beneath the noise. “Look long and hard enough at yourself in isolation,” writes Batchelor, “and suddenly you will see the rest of humanity staring back.” Turn “social isolation” inside out, and it begins to ring true.