Human beings are social beings. The now famous and resurgent philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, an unwitting co-founder of a body of philosophy now known as “stoicism” knew as much when he wrote: “Now every rational being, by virtue of its rationality, is also a social being” (Meditations, 10.2) So, in this light, how can it be true that doing the opposite, isolating from social interactions, is also a “good thing”? This apparent contradiction is something I will delve deeper into, in the following paragraphs.
Firstly, let’s set some ground rules for this exploration. I understand everything in the context of me. I think we are all mainly able to understand only from our own perspective, which is determined by our perception. Some perceptions have been refined and honed through generations of right action which the wisest parents have managed to disseminate to their children and so on and so on. Other’s perceptions are honed by (and sometimes in addition to the aforementioned): adventure, failure, tragedy and loss. And still others, who have neither been refined over centuries, nor been tested, might maintain the most limited perspective. In the micro sense, the most limited perspective is that initial reaction, which is often negative. It’s the feeling in your gut when you receive honest feedback that doesn’t fit with your expectations or assaults your ego. In my experience, only people who truly love you will tell you something you don’t want to hear. Keep those people close, they are more valuable than gold. Two quotes come to mind, one by Anais Nin who wrote: “we don’t understand the world as it is, only as we are.” The other quotation is “How can we decide what comes from the inside and what come from the outside, the extra-sensory perceptions or hallucinatory projections?” – Gilles Deleuze (which I first saw at a Stanley Kubrick exhibit at LACMA). The first quotation speaks to the paragraph which I just wrote, is self-explanatory and is a quotation to meditate on. The latter quotation speaks to where this post is going once I end this tangent. Ok, tangent over!
Back to the topic at hand: How can man be a social being and yet social isolation is somehow also a good thing? Or more directly: can social isolation be both good and bad? I think that the labels of “good” and “bad” are too derivative for any discussion. Anything is everything, depending on the intention and the degree of application. Too much sun and you get burned, not enough and you get sick (vitamin D being essential to immune function.) So if the point of life is to be social, then isolation seems to be a practical necessity simply because the reservoir to be social must be refilled in isolation. Years ago I read Bill Clinton’s autobiography and I was astounded to learn that even as President of the United States, Mr. Clinton had the wisdom to set aside 2 hours everyday as free time, for himself. Can you imagine having the kind of schedule and pressure and to-do list as the leader of the free world and still carving out 2 hours a day for yourself? During that time he would follow his whim, if he felt like reading he would read, if he felt like napping he would nap, if he felt like playing the saxophone he would play the saxophone, if he felt like playing with Monica he would… Anyway… Impeachment aside, Bill Clinton’s schedule takes away any of our excuses doesn’t it? If the leader of the free world, with all of his obligations, all in addition to his obligations as a father and a husband can carve out 2 hours a day, then what is my excuse? What is your excuse?
In yogic philosophy the idea of isolation is certainly a foundation. In fact, the very act of arriving on your mat, even in a busy yoga class, should be a holy experience of entering isolation. The very activity of yoga, no matter the setting, is naturally an isolation. The intention being to elevate the internal conversation, to reduce the outside influences and the noise created through externalizations thereby releasing any attachments we seem to naturally accrue over time. Every single philosopher talks about the same ideas in different ways. If human nature is one that is social, and yet being social can be just as harmful as it can be good, then it is important to balance out social behavior, almost equally, with “antisocial” behavior, the degree of which is determined by the individual’s position on the scale of well-being. Might some people find it easier to transition from social to isolation, even from breath to breath? I’d say so, I’ve personally witnessed people who seemed strong enough to find their own space, amid a single breath. This seems to be a more rare trait, from my standpoint, and perhaps it is one that requires refinement over time. Ralph Waldo Emerson put the task best in his essay “Self-Reliance” when he wrote “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion, it is easy in solitude to live after our own, but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude…” The task of maintaining this essence of solitude is a tall task for me, I fail at it very regularly, but perhaps not all ideals are meant to be achieved, perhaps some are simply meant to aim us in the right direction?
The reason for this post is that I feel the necessity to introduce a bit of intention to this “social distancing” movement. That is, let us make the most of our current circumstances and embrace this time in a mindful way. Instead of reaching for the next distraction what if you simply did something to strengthen your individual resolve, something to fill your social cup? Who knows what that might be? Only you do. For me it’s practicing/teaching yoga and meditation. For you it might be a mindful walk in your breath or even a good book that offers you some insight into your own psychology. A mentor in yoga once said to me: “find your yoga.” I think he meant, find that which brings you into your meditative state, that which allows you to be the best version of yourself.