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How To Sit Quietly
In A Room Alone
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I made a phone call to apologize to someone. I’d been a little rude, was short with this person, had a “tone” in my voice; as the British say, was "in a state."
“Well, you’re about 98% perfect,” came the gracious response.
“Yeah, but, it’s that 2% that keeps on derailing me.”
To make myself feel better, I could say that I've known darker days. But this check of relative merit is hard to cash at the bank. Somebody once said, “A good man spends the second half of his life making up for the sins of the first half.” I understand this message. In that “first half,” I was often angry but didn’t know why (and, in this process, made life unpleasant for those around me); and when you’re angry a lot, I’m not sure that even the whole “second half” can make up for it.
Sometimes, I think I’m doing alright. To most people, I appear to be, you know, a fairly put-together kinda guy. And during those times of equanimity, I feel almost sane. But then, there’s that unruly “2%,” like a volcano without a schedule, which so often undermines me. It comes out of the blue. One moment I’m feeling pretty good, but, the next minute, someone says something, or something happens, and then I start to boil over. During my times of civility, I promise myself, “you’re not going to get mad again, you’re not gonna to do that again.” And I sincerely mean it. But, the well-intentioned part within me, making the promise, is not the same entity, at the right triggering moment, that will lash out again.
Benjamin Franklin, in his autobiography, speaks of something similar. He’d diligently set upon a spiritual perfection program. After making a list of his faults, he planned on zeroing-in on one of them for a period of many days, after which sustained effort, he presumed, enough victory would have been garnered allowing him to move down the list to another character-sin. His plan failed. After expending a great deal of energy, a steel-eyed resolve, to better himself, he realized that he was making little progress; no real long-term change for his trouble.
Will-power as avenue to moral perfection has always failed. Probably, the greatest effort in history, a herculean endeavor, in this regard, was that of the ancient Jewish doctors of the law. They would memorize, word for word, vast sections of the holy Torah; moreover, they would count each word, tally the number, could tell you the middle word or letter in the entire library of scrolls – all this exactitude, an effort to perfect themselves as God’s clergy. But, there is no evidence that any of this prayerful scholarship resulted in moral perfection; after all, these were they who offered the trumped-up charges against Joshua-ben-Joseph.
There are thousands upon thousands of world religions that speak to, and promise, moral perfection if their particular creeds and doctrines are implemented. Added to these are vast numbers of philosophies and political programs offering, in some sense or fashion, the same holy grail. But, in the history of the world, can anyone point to a single set of teachings that has delivered on such promises? Will-power, a gritting of the teeth, a fortitudinous resolve, even with the best of intentions, will not take us to where we want to go; not without something else.
“How to sit quietly in a room alone” is not about being complacent or passive. Quite the opposite, it’s a metaphor of greatest strength, of personal mastery, of achieving something close to godhood - yet, we were designed to win this elusive prize. It's called a flowering of one's "made in the image" capacities.
Alexander the Great found himself forced to embark upon conquering the world, not because of personal greatness but because of an inner neediness, in that he could not sit quietly in a room alone. And when, to his dismay, he’d conquered all worlds, and thus retiring to an intolerable solitude, he promptly drank himself to death, evincing his inability to sit quietly in a small room alone. Pascal was right.
People cannot sit quietly in a small room alone because their inner demons, so to speak, will not allow it. The unenlightened mind seeks for a multitude of distraction, all designed to keep oneself off-balance and bemused, intoxicated and sedated, in search for the next bromide, far from coherent thought and the “still small voice within.”
Personal mastery of one’s emotions, the strength to manage oneself, to direct one’s power and energy, to control and eviscerate the inner monsters of base passions, is the absolute first priority, the first goal to realize, by anyone hoping to live life successfully. Without this most basic information and skill, this excellence of spirit and soul, nothing else of lasting import will be accomplished. Is this not one of the primal lessons of history?
The ability to sit quietly in a small room alone, to feel good about it, to enjoy the vivifying companionship and solace of one’s own person, is an art accomplished by virtually no one. However, without this skill, there will be no authentic advancement for oneself, and no true happiness, even in the next world; there, we find those who “cannot sit quietly alone,” those who exalt "doing" over "being," slowly drifting into an egoic insanity.