Solitude and the mirror of relationship

reflecting solitude

by Ebru Sidar

A commenter on a previous post asked “I wonder if you have read the story of the great Zen master Bankei?” And then proceeds to tell the story: “He was on retreat for 10 years and nothing changed in his life. One day he discovered his own Unborn Buddha mind at the age of 26. From that time on he taught only that. He told others all the retreat and practices are basically meaningless. They are all just ‘Zen devices’. Retreat or no retreat makes no difference. The only people qualified to teach the Dharma are those who have experienced it directly, and then they do not teach. Those who know, do….those who do not know, teach.”

I wasn’t familiar with the story of Bankei, but it’s not an unfamiliar story generally speaking. Certainly the questions of whether retreat practice is important or not, or whether women or men are given equal opportunity as monastics, etc., are not remotely relevant in terms of absolute reality, but they do have bearing in terms of conventional reality; and since much of our lives operate within this plane, it may in fact be of some value to consider such questions. However, with that being said, in my own experience, practice is all of life, so at least the question to which the commenter is referring is sort of moot. It’s only in moments of doubt that the question even emerges: how am I living in this world?

I’m fascinated by the statement: “Those who have experienced it directly…teach. Those who know, do…those who do not know, teach.” But that’s not what I want to discuss.

I will discuss how intentionally living a life of solitude (in my case, initially on retreat and now less so, but still to a certain degree) has influenced my perspective on things. I also feel like it’s worth following up on another post, in which I discuss the difficulty of expectation, both in terms of practice and relationship – which are of course totally intertwined.

The question is what is relationship? Be related to everything. Relationship means care; care means attention; attention means love. That is why relationship is the basis of everything. If you miss that, you miss the whole thing.―J. Krishnamurti

If this practice isn’t about relationship, fundamentally, then I’d question what awakening means to the person who claims as much. Whether it’s realizing the no-self, the Self, or the nature of mind–whatever you want to call it, waking up has something to do with seeing the illusion of separation. Embedded in that is relationship. Relationship of observer to observed, of mind to object, of self to other. Buddhist practice and meditation are then not about disengaging with the world but rather engaging with it fully. But this daily life practice, practice in relationship (which is really all of practice, since the body and mind are always relating to experience), can be difficult to do with no support system, with no conditions ripe for cultivating stillness and solitude. Why? Because of deeply embedded habit patterns, grooves of behavior, conditioning. Because, from Reggie Ray: “Relationships stir up the toxins in us, to the surface.” Particularly those where physical intimacy is added to the equation, and much for that reason, I assume Joshu Sasaki says: “The best monastery for Americans might in fact be marriage.”

What’s so complicated is, while relationship itself is the default experience of life, we can’t entirely choose to be in romantic relationship. By far, more than any time in my life, there is real contentment in being alone. I have no interest in dating or casual encounters, certainly. And the prospect of having to make life decisions with only myself to consider is not as daunting as it once was. I credit intensive retreat practice and deep solitude with allowing this acceptance of what is, this clear seeing into our fundamental aloneness. Thanks to a couple of good friends for making me admit it, the undercurrent of my expectation post, however, was that I would like to have more intimacy in my life – namely because I see the mirror of relationship to be an important, if not the most important, element of this practice. And in order to spiritually evolve and grow as a human being, I think it’s essential to be in relationship; and those that trigger the difficult emotions which help us the most can be that much more valuable as a result. But how to want this without attaching to any particular expectation?

One might say that looking for love at all is looking for it in the wrong places, because behind that there is the idea that we can do something to make love happen or create it or somehow through a serious search, discover it or lure it out of hiding. This very activity of looking with a result in mind is somehow off the mark. In this there is something a bit too controlled or contrived; too much of “me”; that “me” that is the source of separation.―Doug Phillips

Meanwhile, I live my life between the extremes of solitude and engagement. I live in the woods, where I don’t see a whole lot of people. I don’t go to work every day, dealing with the ins and outs of those relationships. I’m not making many new physical connections. Much of the relating is actually virtual through social media and email. And then, 180 degrees away from that reality, I go to the nursing home. And I am present. I bear witness. I invest in a relationship that I know must end, and far too soon. I share intimately with another human being at a time when he or she is suffering immensely — physically, emotionally, spiritually. There is no expectation, there is no need for reward or acknowledgment, there is no distraction, no reactivity, no impatience. There is just being. Bringing loving attention. It is amazing practice. I hope to find a way to make this something which can also be a livelihood, as much as I wish it didn’t have to be that way. I’m working on it, slowly but surely.

At the same time, in the absence of a love relationship, I choose to be with my parents (among other practical concerns) because they have to be the next best thing to a partner in terms of drawing out the defilements, in terms of triggering all the habit patterns that I am most averse to in myself. It is ugly and painful much of the time, but it is also enriching, especially in those moments of clear seeing: ah, this is this several-decade old storyline, there’s nothing to believe here! But it has gotten to be a little much. And I’m taking a break.

Back to Burma in less than two weeks. One and a half months is all I can do this time, because of an obligation here at home, though self-retreat may follow that period. Like an introvert needs time alone to recharge, this practitioner needs retreat to calm the storms that have begun to brew as the momentum of prior conditioning has grown stronger. So too, retreat from this forum for a while. I’ll check in from time to time, if not here, then Twitter or Tumblr or Facebook.

Do I think we need retreat to wake up? No. Do I think we need relationship to wake up? Yes. Can we entirely control the way our life unfolds? Do we just go out shopping for a meaningful vocation? A spiritual partner? Enlightenment? Of course not. But, whatever life doles out, all of it is practice. All experience serves its purpose and we do our best to learn its lessons moment by moment. With an open heart and mind, to a continuing unknowing, this wanderer travels…

Ah, the wonders of social media: thanks to Dharma Ocean Foundation (via Facebook) for the Reggie Ray quote today and to Whiskey River (via Twitter) for the Joshu Sasaki quote, also today.

More Reading

J. Krishnamurti, “The Mirror of Relationship: Love, Sex and Chastity”, Bombay, February 13, 1966

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Sylvia Boorstein, John Tarrant, Polly Young-Eisendrath, Love & Relationships: What the Buddhists Teach, Shambhala Sun, November 2008

See also Susan Piver, e.g., “Love, Buddhism and Marriage Vows” and John Welwood, e.g., “Intimate Relationship as Spiritual Crucible”

Previous Post
Leave a comment


  1. I’m quite moved by this post. Its honesty, balance of views, and curiosity about these big questions. Thank you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: