[The Balance Point]
Seclusion And Pandemic [How Neil Young Has Got It Right]
I would like to address something that will have been occupying all of us over the last year or so—the pandemic. I don't particularly want to hash over the political questions over masks and vaccinations, too many people are fighting over those subjects already.
I have my opinion on those subjects, as I am sure you have too. I believe we should accept masks, social distancing and vaccinations, but that is not what this letter is about.
However, before I continue I feel I must jump into the controversy started by Neil Young, and supported by Joni Mitchell, about Spotify, the music streaming service. Both Neil and Joni are from my era, and are around my age, so I particularly relate to them. Neither of them are what you would call establishment figures, Neil has always been a particular rebel. I relate to that, finding echoes of it in my own life.
I completely support his stand against Spotify and feel that his attitude is one we should all support. Not only is he right about vaccination, and related subjects, but he is right to make a public stand against mis-information and profiteering. Too many people and businesses are exploiting the pandemic for their own personal gain. In the UK many billions of pounds have disappeared into the pockets of friends and family of the Prime Minister and other members of the government. Spotify is an example of a company exploiting people's gullibility for financial gain. Neil and Joni are standing against that as much as anything else.
I go into this in a more general way later in this letter but first I want to look at what has been interesting for me and Urmila, and I am sure for others, that is the question of seclusion. I know that at least one of my readers is staying away from others, at the moment, through a concern for them. That is very admirable and sensible, but what I am interested is how seclusion affects us, how far do we accept or even welcome it? This is about the seclusion itself, not the health aspects of it.
In the early stages of lockdown, here in Andalucia, I didn't leave the house for many months. I survived it through the support of Urmila, through communication on zoom and through my own inner security, but in a larger sense what does it mean for people?
Seclusion as a Spiritual Practice
Paramahamsa Yogananda highly recommended the practice of seclusion. He is often quoted as saying, “Seclusion is the price of greatness”. Swami Kriyananda, from Ananda, urges us to take a week of seclusion yearly and more if we could. Spiritual retreats are a favourite form of seclusion for many people, but they are often far from secluded.
Nayaswami Sudarshan, from Ananda, said,
I have often thought of seclusion as a time to send our inner explorers into unknown spiritual territory so they can return to tell all our inner citizens of the wonders they have seen, the joys they have felt, and most importantly the transformations they have experienced. Then in our regular daily meditations, we can revisit those new realms and make them our own. Thus our yearly seclusions can bless us all the days of our lives.
Social isolation gives us similar opportunities. Yes, there is misunderstanding and disharmony these days. But beyond that, people are also discovering a greater sense of togetherness, of concern for and solidarity with others, and gratitude for the things in life that really matter.
A well-known example of voluntary seclusion is portrayed for us in Walden by Henry David Thoreau. In the book Thoreau details the time he spent—over two years—near the Walden pond. He lived in complete seclusion, to experience nature at its most intense. He worked on a scientific analysis of what was around him as well as writing about the experience of seclusion itself.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Henry David Thoreau
I am sure there are plenty of other examples of seclusion as a spiritual practice, and I am sure that some of you have practiced it, but is this relevant to dealing with restrictions imposed by the pandemic? While Nelson Mandela thrived on his 27 years in prison, there are many more examples of solitary confinement destroying people. Much has been made during the pandemic of the negative effects of social isolation—perhaps a more apt description of seclusion.
Better To Light A Candle
We all have a responsibility to take care with advice we receive. There is clearly the need to pass by harmful misinformation, but there is also a need to think carefully with honest well meaning advice. There is a danger it becomes a wariness against taking almost any advice, a great temptation in these times of confusion.
Virgil coined the phrase beware of Greeks bearing gifts about the ‘Trojan Horse’ left at the gates of Troy. The Trojans thought the Greeks had left a parting gift because they had given up and sailed home. They took it within their walls not knowing it was filled with armed soldiers who would destroy their city. Applying this means that you, the reader, is automatically suspicious of any advice given and that I, the writer, have the responsibility to show I am giving good advice. I find that responsibility hard to fulfil.
The hard thing about getting advice is, as humans, we have a tendency to ignore and discredit advice we don’t like, while heavily weighing advice we do like. The dangers of this approach are that we still don’t know what to do and end up just doing what we want.
There is a difference between expressing opinion and giving advice. As a writer I need to be clear when I am expressing an opinion rather than giving direct advice. Do you as the reader, though, have to be critical of what people are writing, can you not just trust your own responsibility for yourself. If you could trust everyone who writes on the internet there would be no issue, but this is clearly not possible. So do you just mistrust people and end up just doing what you want? That seems to be what many people today mean when they say, "Do your research!"
Is there another way? Could people not start with an open view and receive advice gratefully? Everyone has their agenda, could people not just accept that and look behind it? Comment on what people say and express their own opinions, but refrain from criticising people themselves.
Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
Wherever this saying comes from, it sets out an important idea. Instead of pushing things away and complaining could we not expose the truth as we see it? This is to be open and honest not closed and fearful.
Should this not be our approach? Look at what people say, how people think, what advice they give. Think about it, talk about it and expose what is there. Be forthright and honest, but don’t complain and criticise.
Nick Cave, the musician, said,
An artist’s duty is […] to stay open-minded and in a state where he can receive information and inspiration. You always have to be ready for that little artistic Epiphany.
Going back to Thoreau, he said in Walden,
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. By doing so, men may find happiness and self-fulfilment.
But just maybe, like me, you have found this period of seclusion a welcome introduction to a deepening of your spiritual life, or maybe it has just been an annoyance. I suspect that how this has affected you says more about you than about the pandemic.
Originally published on The Balance Point on Substack.