Last week I ended up going to a dharma talk here in NYC. It was the first meditation related thing I have done since a friend recommended I go to a Buddhist retreat out in California four summers ago. As a practitioner I have been spotty at best, most of the time allowing my concern to get to the office to over ride any chance of sitting for a quiet 20 minutes in the morning. At the dharma talk the speaker was a young well spoken man who presented slightly hip metaphors for attempting to find peace of mind. He remarked that he is observing more people in the subways in the morning on their smart phones or tablets; four, five, eight people in a row, more than even two years ago. His eventual point was that for New Yorkers to grab absolute quiet/ alone time now can feel more like some kind of rebellion with how the pace of our lives has sped up. It can be guilt inducing to shut your phone off for 3 hours at a time. I know this all too well, since I have clients who reach out to me early in the morning or late at night. I think it was Bukowski who said after three days of spending nothing but time with himself, that the world was almost perfect until that first moment when he looked out the window and saw someone else. He wasn’t espousing becoming a misanthrope. That’s not what he was referring to, but just to enjoy his solitude and the possibility of knowing you are here, present, and everywhere that can take you. He claims he never became lonely actually: “I hid in bars, because I didn’t want to hide in factories. That’s all. Sorry for all the millions but I’ve never been lonely. I like myself. I’m the best form of entertainment I have. Let’s drink more wine!”
This summer besides trying to inch my way into more quiet time I have spent it witnessing and reading how the poet Jack Gilbert did it in a way where all the chips he had went straight to the center of the table when it comes to a form of rebellion and being alone. Unlike what Bukowski has to say about himself, Gilbert did experience abject loneliness from time to time after retreating in what he described “as a self imposed isolation”. He spent months alone on Greek Islands in between lovers or friends or subsisting in Europe on little and even less social interaction for long periods. And it added up to a fierce portrait of a well observed life.
TWO POEMS BY JACK GILBERT
The Abandoned Valley
Can you understand being alone so long
you would go out in the middle of the night
and put a bucket into the well
so you could feel something down there
tug at the other end of the rope?
What to Want
The room was like getting married.
A landfall and the setting forth.
A dearness and vessel. A small room
eight by twelve, filled by the narrow iron bed.
Six stories up, under the roof
and no elevator. A maid's room long ago.
In the old quarter, on the other hill
with the famous city stretched out
below. His window like an ocean.
The great bells of the cathedral counting
the hours all night while everyone slept.
After two years, he had come to
the beginning. Past the villa at Como,
past the police moving him from jail
to jail to hide him from the embassy.
His first woman gone back to Manhattan,
the friends gone back to weddings
or graduate school. He was finally alone.
Without money. A wind blowing through
where much of him used to be. No longer
the habit of himself. The blinding intensity
giving way to presence. The budding
amid the random passion. Mortality like
a cello inside him. Like rain in the dark.
Sin a promise. What interested him
most was who he was about to become.