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PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | August 2004  












     Going to holiday resorts, participation in retreats and seeking solitude are some well-known attempts at stress relief. People do get some relief out of all this, but the effect usually wears off in no time; the situation is back to normal soon after one gets busy with ones usual activities back home. How does solitude influence our mind? Can it further our inner growth? What is true solitude? We shall examine these questions in the light of Vedanta.




     Varied Effects of Solitude




     A brief retreat to a quiet place does refresh our mind and help us meet the challenges of life once again. But it is also true that the duration of this effect depends largely on our mental state. A turbulent or sense-bound mind may derive little benefit from solitude. We are inseparably bound with our mind. It does not let us alone despite a change of place, influencing our behaviour all the time. Our mind and senses are by nature outward-going: the mind is ever eager to be in contact with the sense organs, which in turn are happy to meet their sense objects. We are accustomed to living in company and relish talking to others, sometimes possibly on no subject. The mind loathes retreating into solitude, leaving its accustomed outward mode. Sometimes, thanks to its vagaries, we could strike a discordant note in quiet places, a retreat exclusively meant for studies, prayer and meditation, for example.


     Again, an attempt at meditation without proper preparation and discipline can unsettle us, since the mental churning involved will bring to the fore hitherto-unknown strange and frightening things stored in the deeper recesses of the mind. Incidentally, this scary possibility and the consequent inability to sit quiet are the reasons why some people are always busy with some activity or other, or tend to be nosy about others.


     Solitude has its own effect on the guilty and those with strained relationships: their mind starts working against them in solitude. The story goes that a dying woman told her husband that she would haunt him if he married or fell in love with someone after she was gone. A few months after she died, he did fall in love with a lady. That very night, he was terrified to see his wifes ghost walk into his house and accuse him of infidelity. This went on for a week. He couldnt take it any longer and consulted a Zen guru. The guru asked him, How are you sure that it is her ghost? He replied, She knows and describes to me everything Ive said and done and thought and felt. The holy man gave him a bag of soya beans and said, Make sure you dont open it. When she appears before you tonight ask her how many beans are there in the bag. The man did as he was told. And the ghost fled for good. Why? he asked the guru when he met him next. He smiled and asked him, Isnt it strange that the ghost knew only what you knew?




     Solitude and Mental Restlessness




     Resorting to a solitary place (vivikta-desha-sevitvam) is extolled as a sign of Knowledge in the Bhagavadgita. (1) Solitude here refers to river banks, forests, temples (2) - any place that is pure and conducive to calmness of mind. (3) But a novice in spiritual life may not reap the benefit of solitude till he attains some semblance of calmness, learns to separate himself from his mind and witness its workings. Till then, thanks to his poor will power, he is sucked into his mental vortex and feels miserable identifying himself with it. Let alone getting benefited by solitude, he will hardly be aware that he is in solitude in the first place.




     Advantages of Solitude




     Though the effects of solitude vary depending on our mental state, life in solitude grants us two significant benefits: 1) we begin to know the workings of our mind and that it takes us for a ride - not a small gain considering that it is difficult to have this knowledge amid the whirlpool of everyday activities; 2) we become aware of our strengths and limitations. Those who complain about inadequate time for japa, meditation and studies due to pressure of work realize in solitude that this complaining is also a trick of the mind. We understand how long and how satisfactorily we can devote ourselves to these pursuits when there is no other demand on our time. Then we discover how restless our mind is, how much it lets us sit still, let alone meditate. If we are true to ourselves, we will be humbled by the findings, stop complaining about our work and environment, and try to assume more responsibility towards ourselves. We will develop a proper attitude towards work and strive to convert it into a spiritual discipline, (4) besides, of course, being regular in our prayer, meditation and studies to the best of our abilities.




     True Solitude




     We saw that a restless mind prevents us from reaping the benefit of solitude. That is because true solitude lies within us, not outside. We experience this inner solitude to the extent we are able to detach ourselves from our mind and witness its gyrations. As long as we identify ourselves with the mind, this inner solitude remains just a concept for us. Vedanta says that we are essentially the Spirit, the Atman, the immortal core of our personality and the source of infinite Knowledge and Bliss. It is the ignorance of our spiritual nature that makes us identify ourselves with our body and mind; we think that we are different entities - Johns, Joans or Jeans.




     The Determinant of Inner Solitude




     Two significant functions of the mind are relevant to our discussion. When the mind is in a flux or is busy analysing the pros and cons of an issue, it is called manas or the deliberative faculty. When it exercises discrimination or takes decisions, it is called buddhi or the discriminative faculty. What is called will is the dynamic aspect of buddhi. The more awakened the buddhi, the stronger the will power. As long as the mind is not disciplined it remains sense-bound and drags us towards sense enjoyment. In the process, buddhi lies dormant and the will remains weak. Life in such circumstances is led by the mind and the senses. Selfishness remains the core value, and circumstances dictate our behaviour. Things appear to be fine as long as we are party to this slavish existence. The mind is accustomed to the path of least resistance: senses, objects and enjoyment. Once we try to train the mind, it rebels with all its might, advancing all plausible excuses not to lose its upper hand over us. Nor does it cooperate with us in acquiring good habits or kicking bad ones.


     Such a mind the Bhagavadgita calls our enemy, and teaches us to how to befriend it: by discipline and control. (5) The only tool for this mind discipline is our buddhi or a strong will. Every exercise of discrimination, conscious thinking and decisive action goes to strengthen our will. With this will we learn to patiently bring back the straying mind to the task in hand or to the divine form we try to meditate on. Every success in this attempt, again, goes to fortify our will against the minds lures. The purer the buddhi and stronger the will, the more will our identification be with the divine core of our personality and less with our body, mind and senses. Such a purified will paves the way to inner solitude; we learn to remain unshaken by circumstances, good and bad. When the mind is fully purified, says Sri Ramakrishna, there is nothing to distinguish it from the Atman. (6) The Upanishads say that the Atman (or Brahman) is one without a second, (7) and a knower of Brahman becomes Brahman. (8) The knower is truly alone in that blessed state of Oneness. True solitude thus really refers to that state of Self-realization.




     Effects of True Solitude




     How does a person who has attained true Solitude live and move about? The answer is in the second chapter of the Gita, where the Lord describes the characteristics of a man of steady Wisdom. (9) Right, but how to cultivate these seemingly superhuman virtues? The all-pervading, supreme Reality assumes, out of compassion, a human form now and then to teach us the way to that true Solitude. And in Sri Ramakrishnas words, such a divine being is the doorway to the Infinite.


     Holy Mother Sarada Devi lived such an ideal life of true Solitude. She did not renounce the world, but lived in it and braved its problems, with her mind deeply rooted in the state of Oneness. Her share of worldly problems was much more than that of any average human being. But, always oriented towards God, her pure mind helped her remain unnerved by the untoward happenings around her. Like all of us she did laugh and cry in certain situations. Her cries, however, were more due to her empathy with the suffering, which lightened their grief in the process. She demonstrated in her life how, rooted in true Solitude, one can remain detached even when the body and mind are active. A discerning study of her life and message can help us find our spiritual mooring in the vicissitudes of life.




     Effective Use of External Solitude




     Sri Ramakrishna advised his householder disciples to retreat into solitude now and then. He also taught them how to make use of this retreat: Whenever you have leisure, go into solitude for a day or two. At that time dont have any relations with the outside world and dont hold any conversation with worldly people on worldly affairs. You must live either in solitude or in the company of holy men. (10) By meditating on God in solitude the mind acquires knowledge, dispassion, and devotion. But the very same mind goes downward if it dwells in the world. (82)


     Prayer for love of God: Even if one lives in the world, one must go into solitude now and then. It will be of great help to a man if he goes away from his family, lives alone, and weeps for God even for three days. Even if he thinks of God for one day in solitude, when he has the leisure, that too will do him good. People shed a whole jug of tears for wife and children. But who cries for the Lord? Now and then one must go into solitude and practise spiritual discipline to realize God. (138)


     Prayer to God to remember Him amid ones duties: Yes, you can perform them [worldly duties] too, but only as much as you need for your livelihood. At the same time, you must pray to God in solitude, with tears in your eyes, that you may be able to perform those duties in an unselfish manner. You should say to Him: O God, make my worldly duties fewer and fewer; otherwise, O Lord, I find that I forget Thee when I am involved in too many activities. (140)


     Reflection on the impermanence of life: The Gita describes the world as impermanent (11) and an abode of misery (8.15) and prescribes cultivation of non-attachment to and non-identification (of self) with son, wife, home and the rest. (13.9) In Sri Ramakrishnas words:


     The world is impermanent. One should constantly remember death. Remember this, O mind! Nobody is your own:/ Vain is your wandering in this world./ Trapped in the subtle snare of maya as you are,/ Do not forget the Mothers name. (12)



     A man must practise some spiritual discipline in order to be able to lead a detached life in the world. It is necessary for him to spend some time in solitude - be it a year, six months, three months, or even one month. In that solitude he should say to himself: There is nobody in this world who is my own. Those whom I call my own are here only for two days. God alone is my own. He alone is my all in all. Alas, how shall I realize Him? (856)




     Preparations for a Life in Solitude




     We saw that detachment of the will from the mind and the senses is fundamental to experiencing inner solitude. This detachment is not something to be strived after during meditation and lost sight of during other times. Constant wariness about the deceitful mind and alertness about its functioning is a prerequisite to the cultivation of true detachment. Here are some helps on the way.


     Detachment in everyday life: When M visited Sri Ramakrishna for the second time, he wanted to know how to live in the world. The Master replied:


     Do all your duties, but keep your mind on God. Live with all - with wife and children, father and mother - and serve them. Treat them as if they were very dear to you, but know in your heart of hearts that they do not belong to you.



     A maidservant in the house of a rich man performs all the household duties, but her thoughts are fixed on her own home in her native village. She brings up her masters children as if they were her own. She even speaks of them as my Rama or my Hari. But in her own mind she knows very well that they do not belong to her at all. (81)


     Proper attitude towards work: Doing our daily actions with the whole mind, not letting it think of anything else, is a good way to reduce the gyrations of the mind and strengthen our will. In his illuminating lectures on karma yoga, Swami Vivekananda lays down a golden rule: When you are doing any work, do not think of anything beyond. Do it as worship, as the highest worship, and devote your whole life to it for the time being. (13) Again, doing some selfless work without expectation of returns can reduce our selfishness and strengthen our will.


     Japa and prayer: Japa done with a prayerful attitude is another great help on the path to true Solitude. Holy Mother emphasized regularity in japa, meditation and prayer: One must practise these at least in the morning and evening. Such practice acts like the rudder of a boat. Unless you practise meditation morning and evening, along with your work, how can you know whether you are doing the right thing or the wrong? (14)



     ~ ~ ~



     For external solitude to effect inner transformation, we need to prepare ourselves by training and disciplining the mind. Minus this preparation, solitude could give us just some fleeting peace, but that would not be adequate to brave the challenges of life. The way to true Solitude is paved with mental alertness, discipline, detachment and regularity in spiritual practices.








     1. Bhagavadgita, 13.10.

     2. Sri Shankara on the said verse.

     3. Sri Shridhara Svamin on the said verse.

     4. See Making Work Work, editorial for January 2003.

     5. Gita, 6.6.

     6. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 844.

     7. Sadeva somya idam agra asit ekam eva advitiyam.

                                        - Chandogya Upanishad, 6.2.1.

     8. Brahmaveda brahmaiva bhavati.

                                  - Mundaka Upanishad, 3.2.9.

     9. Gita, 2.55-72.

     10. Gospel, 326.

     11. Gita, 9.33.

     12. Gospel, 589.

     13. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.71.

     14. Swami Nikhilananda, Holy Mother (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1962), 220.


International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015









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