“There is this cave / In the air behind my body / That nobody is going to touch: / A cloister, a silence / Closing around a blossom of fire.”* So wrote the American poet James Wright (1927-1980) in his poem “The Jewel.” Wright’s images are enigmatic, in the way dreams are, but their import is clear. They evoke a place in the self that is silent, luminous, and inviolate.
“The Jewel” appeared in Wright’s third collection of poems, The Branch Will Not Break, in 1963. Fifty years on, it is an open question whether the space envisioned by Wright is still to be found—or whether it is much valued in contemporary culture. On one side, there are the incursions of the State, the illicit wiretappings of the Bush years being the most obvious example. On another, there are the watchful eyes of the multinational corporations, whose databases abound with information once considered private. No less disturbing, at least to some of us, is the widespread, voluntary relinquishment of personal privacy to social media. As the psychologist and media analyst Sherry Turkle has observed, the Internet has proposed itself as the “architect of our intimacies.” And for many people, especially the young people Turkle has interviewed in her research, the disclosure of once-private feelings by means of Facebook or Twitter has become integral to the establishment of those feelings. It is not enough to feel at loose ends on a Saturday morning. You must publish that feeling to the wide world and await a virtual response.
As both an astute social observer and the mother of a daughter who spends much of her life online, Sherry Turkle views the erosion of personal privacy with concern. Citing Mark Zuckerberg’s pronouncement that privacy is “part of the discourse of the past,” she urges a return to older norms of privacy, such as she knew in her youth, and a relearning of the “virtues of solitude.”** Unless I miss my guess, the first of those objectives is already out of reach. It would require a societal shift of attitude, a turning back of the modern tide. But where the reclaiming of solitude is concerned, change is not only possible but readily at hand. And toward that end, the great contemplative traditions, Zen included, have much to offer, both in general outlook and in concrete daily practices.
To begin with, the posture of meditation provides both sustenance and a sense of personal sovereignty. Sitting in an upright, relaxed position, cross-legged or on a chair, we nourish and renew our minds and bodies. We open the channels of breath and energy. And by adopting this posture, not only on the cushion but periodically throughout the day, we also restore our stability, physical and emotional. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh recommends that as we sit, we recite the verses, “Aware of my stability, I breathe in / Enjoying the stability, I breathe out.” By so doing, we become “masters of [our] minds and bodies” and “are not pulled hither and thither by the different actions of body, speech, and mind, in which [we] might otherwise drown.”*** Well established in mindful awareness, we can freely choose whether to speak or act or go online—or divulge private information about our lives.
Beyond the restoration of stability, meditative practice also opens a private interior space, where thoughts and feelings can arrive, abide, and run their course, unhindered by judgment or repression. As Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, puts it, meditative space “doesn’t do—it allows.” It “allows objects to come into being, to function, to expand, to contract, to move around, and to disappear without interference.”**** For those unaccustomed to prolonged sitting, one of those “objects” might be the impulse to do something—anything—beside sit still: to ”tweet” or “text” a friend, or otherwise reconnect with the outer world. Within the openness of meditative space, however, that impulse can be allowed to announce itself, make its case, and gradually dissipate, precipitating no immediate action. Later on, having gained some insight into our mental activities, we can indeed reconnect with other people, perhaps at a deeper level than we would have, had we merely obeyed a passing impulse or indulged a habit of connectivity.
And should we continue to reclaim the “virtues of solitude” through meditative practice, we may also find ourselves connecting vertically as well as horizontally, which is to say, connecting to what the Zen tradition calls sunyata, or absolute reality. Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi has likened that experience to sinking a taproot deeply into the soil, even as we sit. By giving full attention to the flux of our experience, we eventually reconnect with the ground of being, the realm of non-duality. Having deeply experienced that connection, we may wish more than ever to reconnect with others, but we will bring to our encounters more than our ego’s usual striving. We will bring the wisdom of liberation, or what one school of Zen calls silent illumination.
Something of that kind occurs to the speaker of “The Jewel” in the closing lines of James Wright’s poem. “When I stand upright in the wind,” he reports, “My bones turn to dark emeralds.” Whatever that image might mean to the individual reader, it embodies the insight of a man who knows the virtues of solitude and has kept the jewel of his private life intact. Having inhabited the cave that nobody is going to touch, he has made that experience present to the reader.
*James Wright, Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1971), 114.
**Sherry Turkle, Alone Together (Basic Books, 2011), Kindle edition, 296.
***Thich Nhat Hanh, The Blooming of a Lotus (Beacon, 1993), 18-20.
****Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, ” The Power of an Open Question,” The Best Buddhist Writing 2011, ed. Melvin McLeod (Shambhala, 2011), 139.
Photo by Bert Kaufmann