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Speaking of preferences… Do you prefer to meditate alone or with others? And why?
Some people find meditating with others to be beneficial because the presence of others helps them to strengthen the basic disciplines of the practice, like regularity, punctuality, physical stillness and meditating for the full time. If you are part of a group, say on a retreat or in a community meditating at regular times during the day, when you see the time or hear the bell calling, some additional force kicks in to pull you to the meditation space. You feel physically and emotionally part of something and your presence with the others in the group completes it. You may even feel that it is when people meditate in each other’s presence that ‘meditation is creating community’. In physical ways during the meditation, the discipline of stillness, of body and mind, work together. Controlling your coughing, throat clearing, sneezing and scratching becomes a generous part of your contribution to the peaceful stillness of all the others around you.
On the other hand…
I prefer meditating alone because it is a solitary practice. I can’t meditate for you, nor can you for me. Yes, we can meditate together but then there are even more distractions. What if I am next to someone with an itchy skin complaint, a noisy tummy or a persistent cough or who shifts their sitting posture every few minutes? I could remind myself of a zen story that puts the blame on me. The anger I feel is already inside me, etc. I found some truth in this when I realised that the irritation arises mostly when you yourself are mentally distracted; but when your mind is calm, external distractions can pass without hooking your negativity. Nevertheless, you need some time to get to that calm spirit of attention and if you are irritated and distracted by your neighbour from the beginning you may not reach anywhere near that restful green valley. ‘I’m surrounded by noise and other people all day. Meditation is my time for solitude, to get away to my cave in the Himalayas, the cave of my heart.’ Meditation as someone once innocently said, is my ‘me time’.
How do we balance the advantages and disadvantages of each way of meditating? Is it just a matter of temperament? We could also ask if there is an either-or-ness about meditating alone or with others.
When I meditate alone I enter the particular space-time of solitude which is the cure for loneliness. Solitude is the discovery, recognition and embrace of our eternal uniqueness. This is far from the ego’s rabid defence of its individuality. In my uniqueness ego has been dethroned and I am capable of relationship, communion, of a depth and meaning the ego has no knowledge of. The peace in solitude is an emanation of my participation in the great shalom of the cosmos, the oneness in which fear, desire and conflict dissolve. Solitude therefore, as Keats said in his poem to her, can be shared: ‘…it sure must be, Almost the highest bliss of human-kind, When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee’.
Meditating alone I am in communion with others. Meditating with others I am part of the making of communion. Seeing that truth, rage at a neighbour’s fidgetiness or rumbling stomach can be harnessed and turned into patience and compassion for someone who is already part of me.
Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2024
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