Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/14/2011

A tautological confusion. Who, me?

People who believe in the direct effects of prayer have some experience of the holy that I’ve never quite been able to figure out. One of the people whose judgment I value about anything having to do with getting through this life in one piece advised me that I should pray for what I want. He didn’t mean the kind of prayer that sociopaths like Pat Robertson practice—praying for hurricanes to destroy cities they have decided deserve “God’s” wrath. He meant I should be intentionally mindful of what I want. Whether he thinks that will help me be aware of it when I see it or that somehow my mindfulness will align my wishes with the universe and they will be more likely to come to fruition, I’m not sure. 

I have only two basic wishes. I wish I knew for sure what my place (and yours, too) in the universe is—how we connect to what is—and I wish I didn’t feel so physically alone so much of the time. How praying for either of those wishes is going to fulfill them, I haven’t a clue. 

Some of the time I relish my aloneness. I call it solitude. However, without saying I agree with the references to God, I understand that one can easily circumvent the 

. . . sense of Gods absence and the accompanying feelings of loneliness and alienation that are, for many, so deeply woven into the experience of solitude. Without an honest reckoning with the desolation of solitude, with the real sense of abandonment that so often colors this experience, we risk losing who and what God can become for the one who ventures into this lonely place (1). 

I reserve the right to withhold judgment concerning God. But I also know well “the desolation of solitude,” and it is not simply the desolation of the absence of human contact. During the short periods I’ve spent in real physical isolation—mostly sojourns at monasteries—I have usually begun to feel desolate in a way I do not feel at home alone.  Granted, such places are generally devised to elicit a response of solitude—but I doubt many people who visit them do so with the intention of experiencing desolation. Maybe so. Dunno. The other guests I’ve talked to later have experienced peace, tranquility, and oneness with God or nature or. . . 

I make no claim of being one of those “solitaries” who goes to the desert and finds God or some other expression of the “meaning of life” or “ultimate reality” or any of those things. I am not one of those who is reborn or who discovers 

. . . the loneliness and desolation of solitude, the unraveling of the self that one sometimes experiences there, the terror, the fear, the emptiness. . . the wildness of solitude,  [the]necessary and persistent dimensions of the experience, apart from which the solitary will never understand its deeper promise of freedom (2). 

No, I’ve never really understood the “deeper promise of freedom” Burton-Christie says is result of solitude. Remember, I said I understand what it is to circumvent all of that. I do, however, experience what he calls the desolation—without much promise. I don’t know why I ever put myself through the trouble of driving down a 20-mile dirt road in the wilds of New Mexico to experience what I can generally find at home—desolation. 

The road to solitude

The road to solitude

Look. I’m not saying I’m miserable. I’m not depressed (at least for this past year and a half). I’m not terrified. I am simply (and I do mean the reality is simple) mystified to the point of near-terror. Desolation. Aloneness that carries with it little of the blessed  connotation of “solitude.” And I’m not sure where that aloneness comes from. It is not from any modern (postmodern, New Age, or whatever ideology—couched in the claim to non-ideology) nihilism or agnosticism. Not from what Raymond Lee describes as 

the quest for systematic control in the modern world [that inhibits] all ‘‘magical elements of thought’’. . . the epitome of disenchantment. . . the suppression of the supernatural in the modern world. . . disenchantment [that] contributes to the maintenance of a hard-nosed empiricism that emphasizes the correspondence between one’s presence and the multiple objects within the range of personal control. (3) 

My desolation does not come from a loss of “the range of personal control.” At least not for me. It comes simply from the inability to know much of anything for sure. And aloneness (or solitude, either one) brings me face to face with that inability to know. 

I know nothing about Buddhism except the kind of vague misrepresentations that most Americans, I think, have. I’m learning—reading, that is. I’m not becoming a Buddhist. But I find great comfort in some ideas I read. 

The Buddhist doctrine of no-self states that neither within the physical and mental phenomena of existence, nor outside of them, can anything be found that in the ultimate sense might be regarded as a selfexisting, real ego-entity, a soul, or any other abiding substance. Lacking a permanent and independent nature, nothing in the world exhibits any form of unchanging reality (4). 

My sense that “nothing in the world exhibits any form of unchanging reality” does not lead me to embrace beliefs that 

. . . tend to emphasize the celebration of the self in a context of detraditionalized spirituality. . . [an] approach [which] generally addresses the meaning of religious individualism and choice in expanding fields of innovative salvation rather than the individual’s inevitable confrontation with death (5).

Ah! There’s the desolation. I don’t understand “religious individualism.” I don’t understand participating in “fields of innovative salvation” to avoid the desolation of death.  I am probably using a definition of desolation that’s quirky. But I use it in the sense of 

“without companions,” also “uninhabited,” from L. desolatus, pp. of desolare “leave alone, desert,” from de– “completely” (see de-) + solare “make lonely,” from solus “alone” (6) 

Solitude or desolation

Solitude or desolation

Without companions. Alone and deserted. So I have written here a tautology. When I am alone I feel desolate, that is, alone. This says nothing about my ultimate belief in God or anything else. Simply that when I am alone, I feel alone. But the great paradox is that my sense of aloneness is in the context of intuiting that I have no “selfexist[ence], real ego-entity” with which to be alone. This is not enlightenment but confusion.
(1) Burton-Christie, Douglas. “The Work of Loneliness: Solitude, Emptiness, and Compassion.” Anglican Theological Review 88.1 (2006): 25-45.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Lee, Raymond L.M. Mortality and Re-enchantment: Conscious Dying as Individualized Spirituality.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 22.2 (May 2007): 221–234.
(4) Verhoven, Martin. Buddhist. “Ideas about No-Self and the Person.” Religion East & West 6 (October 2006).
(5) Lee. Idem.
(6) “desolation.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Compiled by Douglas Harper. 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2011.


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