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A Month of Sort-of Solitude

July 4, 2018

In her book, Quiet, Susan Cain reminds us that for introverts there is little that is more nourishing than solitude.

I needed this reminder. I needed the reminder that the winds of social normativity blow towards extroversion. I can enjoy those winds, and even bend with them from time to time, but they need not steer my course. I am a better, saner, happier, and more productive person when I grow towards my own nature.

Part of my new position in New York is an 11-month contract. This is fairly standard in academia, where faculty and staff typically take months off in the summer when students are away. I chose to take my hiatus during the month of June.

For the past five years, I have worked full-time, taught part-time, and maintained continuous enrollment as a full-time doctoral student. My habitual inclination was to fill this month with personal projects and socializing to establish a network in our new home. But I was also just plain tired.

Thankfully, I resisted that habit. Buddhist practice has helped me develop a more critical awareness of such habits, first by just noticing that I have them, then by discovering where they come from, evaluating their benefits and drawbacks, and consciously deciding what to do about them. This time, I consciously decided to do, well, almost nothing.

I wrote down everything I could or wanted to do during June into a categorized to-do list. It covered many pages. Then I put it away an didn’t constantly refer to it. I used it as a brain dump to judge my expectations for myself and then let go of my attachment to achieving those expectations.

Instead, I gave myself very modest goals: 1) write a little every day, 2) walk, hike, or run a lot every day, 3) eat healthy, and 4) do a chore or two around the house. This is the exact opposite of the usual type of goals I set myself or the type of goal-setting I teach to students. They’re hardly specific or measurable, but that, too, was part of the mental rest I needed.

Being social was nowhere among those goals, though, in theory I ought to have plenty of energy for it. In actuality, I even curtailed my social media use, staying off Facebook during the week, and taking a fast from Reddit towards the end of the month.

Instead, Archer and I explored the many parks of the Rochester area alone (dogs being a kind of company that soothes introverted senses). We kept mostly to city and county parks, saving the more scenic state and national parks to share with my partner Colin. Archer is learning all the new sights, smells, and sounds of this land, including toads and sing like plucked guitar strings and woodpeckers that sound like taiko drums. We put many miles under out feet and paws.

June Trails 2018

The many parts in and around our home. Photos by the author. 2018.

Early in the month, I attended a one day teaching and retreat at Dharma Refuge, the Tibetan (American) Buddhist community near our home. I spend a lovely day learning about the 37 bodhisattva practices. But that was enough.

Earlier in May, as my hiatus approached, I had considered spending some of the time in formal retreat, looking at nearby programs for group or solitary practice. Ultimately, I decided against it for financial reasons, but now I think that was the best decision for other factors.

As Buddhists, we are no less prone to spiritual materialism than others. Going on retreat often takes on the quality of “collecting merit” or leveling-up one’s spiritual fitness. We bring an avaricious mindset to the cushion itself. I have seen how just saying there are five levels of something automatically makes me want to achieve them all. This was a chance for me to let go of my attachment to getting stuff done, to goals, and deadlines and productivity.

The idea of going on retreat is to step out of our everyday lives and habitual patterns, to create new conditions conducive to our spiritual lives. Some find it very challenging to create those conditions at home. After all, home is where all the triggers for our existing habitual patterns live.

A habit is composed of three aggregates: 1) a cue to trigger an 2) action that leads to a 3) reward that reinforces the habit. In the morning my alarm (the cue) goes off. I hit the snooze twice and get up on the third alarm, put on my robe, and go downstairs (the action). Then I get my coffee (the reward). This example is simple and easy to spot.

Most habits are not so easy to spot. The subject of money comes up between me and my partner (the cue), I feel embarrassed and uneasy about my financial situation so I act defensively (the action), and we drop the subject (the reward). At first, this doesn’t even seem like a habit. Until I start remembering how money was discussed (or not really discussed) in my family when I was growing up.

Some habits are embedded deep in our subconscious and retreats can help us establish both literal and mental/emotional distance in order to see them more clearly. Yet this is not the only purpose for a retreat nor the only way to achieve this particular purpose.

In fact, for introverts, who are generally (though not always) introspective by nature, sometimes being tossed into an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people leads to the opposite effect. We’re so busy learning about this new place and paying careful attention to these new people, that we actually have less time and mental/emotional energy to be introspective.

Solitude, in contrast, is a great opportunity to examine how our habitual patterns play out in our lives, especially our social patterns. That may sound paradoxical, but it’s only when I’ve been by myself for a while that I start to notice how I behave around others. When I’m finally around someone else, it’s like putting on an old pair of shoes that I haven’t worn in a while. The fit is right, but they seem just unfamiliar enough that I notice. I sort to notice all kinds of odd patterns of thought, speech, and behavior I’d previously overlooked and to dig down into their root causes. (This works for extroverts, too, by the way. Though they may prefer smaller doses.)

Solitude does other important things for introverts that retreats are also supposed to do, like recharging and re-centering.

I, like most western Buddhists who go on retreat, usually end up in a small group setting (20-100 people) in some nice rural Dharma center.¬†On the one hand, these kind of retreats are very nourishing. It’s wonderful to be around fellow practitioners and hear and discuss teachings together. The sense of community often gives me a boost.

On the other hand, people are tiring. They just are. And some people, especially strangers, more than others. Occasionally, I even want the people I love most to just go away because they’re, well, people.

Solitude is, happy sigh, almost inexpressibly delightful in contrast, especially given that I have a people-focused job the rest of the year. And that delight reminds me of many of the things I value most and energizes me to return to my work.

The Dharma instructs us to serve others and to value others as equal to or above ourselves. I can’t really tell if this last month has been about self-care in service of others or simple self-indulgence because it felt good. It’s probably a bit of both. My motives are far from pure, but I hope they’re generally moving in the right direction.

I don’t think introversion is inherent to my nature. It’s just a quirk of how this brain, body, and adrenal system are wired, a cause and condition of my aggregates. Even within this life, it is subject to change. I’ve become far more extroverted as I’ve aged.

Please don’t mistake my discussion of introversion or extroversion as reifying some false self concept. I put it about on par with saying I have thick wavy hair. I had to learn how to take care of my hair properly as I got older. Different hair needs different things. So do different brains.

I hope introverts also learn how to take care of themselves and tailor their Buddhist practice accordingly and free from guilt. Group practice is wonderful, but so are long walks in the woods. Chanting, rituals, and empowerments can be sublime, but so can wandering in wetlands with no particular agenda.

We need to learn about one other with a splendid urgency, but we also need to learn about ourselves. So enjoy a little solitude now and then, if you can, introverts and extroverts and ambiverts alike. And a good walk with a trusty dog.

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