Alone Together



Dear Friends,Like many of my other posts, I am writing this from a place where I am alone yet surrounded by dozens of other people. This particular morning I am in a coffee house in Burlington, VT.  I have written posts from planes, trains, and subways, as well as on sunny park benches and in cafes in Paris.  I have also enjoyed countless hours people-watching as a kind of meditative experience.

I have known and read about many other people (including J.K. Rowling) who did their writing in crowded places. Not only do I enjoy writing in such places, but I also like simply hanging out, relaxed and at ease surrounded by other people, even and especially when not interacting with them.

It is for this reason that I also love public transportation. Hours of solo time on a train or plane or even Megabus can be very therapeutic for me. My nervous system seems to calm when I can look around and see strangers living their lives just like me.  I feel like I belong. I went to college in a mid-size town, and when I felt stressed I would walk the 1/2-mile into the downtown and sit on a bench feeling, listening to, and watching the people all around me. When I was growing up, I found it easier to fall asleep with the slightly muffled sounds of people in another room than I did when it was silent.

Lately, while doing sitting meditation in a group, I noticed that my ease with sitting in a group is very similar to my ease with being anonymous in a city.  What is it about being alone and quiet around other people that I enjoy so much? Is there something about our undistracted aloneness that allows us to see the people around us as they are, and by seeing others' humanity feel more connected?

A flower cannot be by itself alone.  A flower can only inter-be with sunshine, with the rain, with the earth. So "to be" means "to inter-be." When we live the wisdom of interbeing in every minute, then we will not be caught in our small self. We will see that we are everywhere.. - Thich Nhat Hanh

I remember being alone on a train going through the Dordogne in France. Seats are assigned on this train, so I was in a single seat facing a stranger. I speak very little French, and the French I do speak is pretty indecipherable by most, and this man spoke English with about the same proficiency. We exchanged a pleasant smile as we sat down and then went back to our separate activities.  At that time I was in a Peanut M&M phase and had picked up a bag at the station to eat in the plane. When I opened them, I offered them out to my seatmate, and he smiled and shook his head. I continued to enjoy them. After an hour or two of clicking along the tracks, he got up and walked to another car.  A few minutes later, he returned and sat down. In his hand he held out the bag of Peanut M&Ms that he had just bought. We shared a chuckle that celebrated the subtle influence I had had on his decision and the interconnectedness of complete strangers. Though we may have been looking for happiness in a bag of M&Ms, we experienced together the truth (taught by the Buddha and others) that we are all just seeking a little happiness. And sharing that made me feel more connected.

Over years of dropping myself into these situations, I have learned so much from so many interesting people.  A few I connected to with words, but the majority just from watching and being present together.  Just as I accepted them as they were, they accepted me.  By being here, we allow ourselves to be part of an impermanent community that forms and dissolves in each moment. And in these communities I have shared joy, sadness and disappointment, without saying very much.

Hanging out in a coffee house or in a busy park is not so different from doing sitting mediation in a group. We are essentially alone with the ups and downs of our minds and our lives, but we are experiencing it all together. Everyone comes to sitting mediation seeking a little happiness. By doing this peacefully in the same space, we support and accept each other. The truth is that we only exist because of each other--I am in you and you are in me. And being together reminds us of this.

I guess this post could be seen as another apology for modern life where we don't have time to connect with people. Like when you see a group of friends together and each is texting on their own phone. But I'd like to think that we can do both. We can be together and interact, and we can be together and not interact, and both are okay.  There is something innately human about wanting to be in the same space as others even while we are doing our own thing. Perhaps is why we work in offices together, enjoy cooperative gardens, and why so many people are moving back into cities. Sometimes we just like to know we are part of a larger community.

Completely unsolicited by me, today my cab driver began to talk about how much he enjoyed spending time in Starbucks.  He said, "You look around and see family everywhere." Being in the vicinity of other people with nothing other than my compassionate presence can make everyone around me feel like family too.