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 one’s 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.
Effects of Solitude
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.
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.
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 wife’s
ghost walk into his house and accuse him of infidelity. This
went on for a week. He couldn’t 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 I’ve said and done and thought and felt.’ The holy
man gave him a bag of soya beans and said, ‘Make sure you
don’t 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, ‘Isn’t it strange
that the ghost knew only what you knew?’
and Mental Restlessness
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.
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.
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.
Determinant of Inner Solitude
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.
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 mind’s 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.
of True Solitude
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 Ramakrishna’s words, such
a divine being is the doorway to the Infinite.
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
Use of External Solitude
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 don’t have any relations with
the outside world and don’t 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.’
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)
to God to remember Him amid one’s 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)
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
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 Mother’s name. (12)
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)
for a Life in Solitude
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.
in everyday life: When M visited Sri Ramakrishna for the
second time, he wanted to know how to live in the world. The
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.
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 master’s 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)
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.
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)
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.
Sri Shankara on the said verse.
Sri Shridhara Svamin on the said verse.
See ‘Making Work Work’, editorial for January 2003.
M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda
(Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 844.
Sadeva somya idam agra asit ekam eva advitiyam.
Chandogya Upanishad, 6.2.1.
Brahmaveda brahmaiva bhavati.
Mundaka Upanishad, 3.2.9.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.71.
Swami Nikhilananda, Holy Mother (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda
Center, 1962), 220.