After nearly two hours overlooking the volcanic gorge without a soul in sight, the solitude is palpable. It’s neither inside or outside, but both. Strange how solitude, aloneness and loneliness are distinct phenomena.
It’s windy in the canyon, and the wind stirs up the contents of consciousness, both within oneself in the Upper Park, and collectively in people town. Gusts buffet me as I sit on the lip of the dark-walled gorge within the much larger fan-shaped canyon. But despite being late-fall, the sun is warmish on my back, and I don’t get chilly in an hour and half.
Nearly a hundred meters below, the last of the large-leafed oaks at streamside cling to their colors, allowing the wind to strip them of just one or two leaves at a time. I can make out individual leaves in the air, disappearing as soon as they fall into the rushing stream.
At first I feel alone, but not lonely. Aloneness is just a fact, like being alive. We’re all alone essentially, though some more than others. Conformity gives us the illusion of being part of a group, a member of a ‘community,’ but the drug of sociality soon wears off, and we’re left where we were and are—alone.
There’s an anecdote about Beethoven (perhaps it was Goethe…it doesn’t really matter, some genius that had no equals) walking with a friend. He turns to his friend and asks, “Have you ever felt alone?” “Yes, sometimes,” the friend replies meaninglessly. “I am utterly alone,” Beethoven responds.
One of the species of hawks and birds that love the wind soars by at eye-level a few meters from where I stand. Down canyon, a number of them circle at elevation, riding the currents looking for something to scavenge. It’s hard to see them without the implicit associations that come with the word ‘vulture,’ but observing them, the conditioned response falls away. They really are masters of the air.
Shortly after starting my walk, I stand high above the favorite swimming spot of college students, Salmon Hole, now a mirror of light and shadow on a late afternoon at the end of autumn. Waves of solitude wash over me like warm surf, washing away the detritus of experience.
Tellingly, the word alone means all one. Solitude is a blessing. There is completeness in it. Wanting for nothing in a state of solitude, one seeks nothing to make oneself whole, and so is happy, at least for a while. Accepting aloneness fully, there is the blessing of solitude.
If I go to a café for tea after an immersion in solitude, I feel fully present and open, but different without being apart. Most people appear separate and lonely, and sometimes that triggers the same feelings in me. When one feels connected to everything and everyone however, it’s impossible to feel lonely.
Not facing the fact, not wanting not to be inwardly alone, loneliness sets it. Perhaps it’s the core trait of the human condition. Loneliness is suffering in isolation, and isolation in suffering, rendered by not facing our essential aloneness.
I wonder about our distant ancestors in the Pleistocene. They banded and bonded together for the sake of survival. They had to communicate, collaborate and commune, or they would all die.
Except for shamans, did they experience a moment of aloneness? Did they ever know the blessing of solitude? Then again, few modern people experience the immensity of solitude, such as I felt today.
We are still creatures of the group, ‘social animals’ in the rationalizing vernacular. Many people fear inward aloneness, even as they embrace it outwardly as ‘independence.’
Perhaps we are social animals only superficially in the digital age. We are individuals now, for better but far more often for worse.
The separate man or woman believes they are their own person apart, when actually they are enmeshed in a chaotic colony far more than the individuals of the Stone Age, who needed the group to stay alive. The individual is the highest principle, but individualism is the greatest illusion. The difference is essential—between separateness and wholeness.
Reaching the road still in a meditative state so strong that I’m acutely aware of each step, I note the depth of the bicycle tracks after the rain—the first storm of the season, which closes the park road. A young cyclist, in full regalia, rides up alongside me. His ‘hello’ is uttered like a question, and leaves me aware of difference, without any sense of loneliness.
Perhaps that’s why so few embrace aloneness, and so many seek the escape of the group. Each undivided individual (a redundancy, since ‘individual’ means ‘not divided’) is different, and despite the falsehood of the uniqueness of every individual, the vast majority of people are just like everyone else.
It’s hard to confront loneliness, though it shadows everyone. It’s more comforting to be like everyone else, though that too is also getting harder.