Los Angeles, CA – “What? You’re not meditating?” demanded a recent article. It went on to explore today’s “mindfulness meditation” mania, so popular that it has already sparked the backlash that we fickle beings accord anything that captivates us for longer than a news cycle.
(I’ll say this for our hyper-connected world: These days the backlash comes so fast that there’s less danger of your having overinvested in the original craze it’s lashing back at.)
As a devoted practitioner of meditation, I understand how it brilliantly serves the purposes of relaxation and renewal, and it has the advantage of being practicable anytime and anywhere. It relieves stress. It helps prepare us mentally for a dreaded encounter or a high stakes meeting. It tunes out the incessant distractions. Tethered to always-on devices, addicted to social media, and ensconced in ever less private workspaces, we find ourselves battling to keep our minds on our chosen topic. Meditation helps us stay in the moment.
But (you knew there was a “but” coming) there’s another equally powerful practice that should more often go hand in hand with meditation. I’m talking about seeking solitude.
Solitude could use some better PR. These days most people seem to dread being alone. Maybe they worry they will appear friendless. Maybe they conflate alone with loneliness. Or maybe they are simply habituated to the distraction of others.
So they flee from solitude when they would do well to seek it out. Sometimes there is simply no substitute for being alone with one’s thoughts. For secluding oneself for the sole purpose of arriving at an important decision undisturbed by the endless stream of arbitrary, uninvited data that assails us in our hyper-connected lives.
The last thing you want to do in those situations is exactly what many do. Frustrated by the dilemma or embarrassed by their indecision, they just pick a course. Go with their gut. Throw a Hail Mary pass as far down the field as they can and then turn back to the distraction of the moment.
Lord knows I sympathize. As a business founder, teacher, consultant, author, and father, I’m continually looked to for decisions big and small. The temptation is to deliver one on demand – not to dither but come out confidently with a firm, “THIS is what we’ll do.”
That is fine for a lot of day to day decisions. But more significant decisions simply can’t be made without withdrawing from the fray. Is it time to quit your job? Should you blow the whistle on some malfeasance? Is it time to fire this person? Is this relationship a healthy one? Surgery or not?
When you face decisions like that, “being in the moment” doesn’t help you delve into these questions. Instead you want to deliberately and systematically set aside the present moment to think through future matters (the potential outcomes of your possible decision) and past matters (your experience in similar situations and how they turned out). Can I bear losing my work friends if I blow the whistle? Have I given this person, who supports a young family, all the chances I can to succeed here? What if the surgery leaves me worse off? Am I the flawed one in this relationship?
You need to confront yourself. Just the two of you, alone, where you can focal lock – that is, train your mind on the big decision. Once secluded, you can perform what I call “Meditative Relaxercising” practices to keep your mind relaxed. I don’t think of solitude as a vacuum but as a sumptuous place where I can bring together my training in meditation, yoga, and mental hygiene. I’ve written about having survived a desperate period of claustrophobic confinement by drawing on hatha yoga – a holistic form of yoga that encompasses discipline, posture, purification, gestures, breathing, and meditation – and Ujjayi breathing, a type of Pranayama breathing that brings bliss. I embrace my Quiet Time as a poet embraces a muse.
And isn’t that what these momentous decisions need? A little bliss and a generous muse? You don’t want your solitude to be just a silent, sterile place where you coolly select one option or the other. You want it to enrich your options. When you marry meditation to solitude, you free your mind to consider solutions that you hadn’t entertained before.
Look, I’m not saying every important decision requires a half day off or a solitary hike or a retreat to Walden Pond. Maybe you are confronted by consequential decisions all day long, and you’d soon run out of PTO before you ever took a vacation. In such cases, you still don’t want to Hail Mary your decision, nor count on a meditative mind to provide the answer. But what you can do is use the Psychological Martial Arts that I wrote about in my book to still the outside world and create the illusion of seclusion, so that you can focus on the questions at hand.
By all means, cultivate your meditative practices. But don’t short yourself or those around you when you have momentous decisions to make. Embrace solitude with meditation and let them lead you.