A Little Bit of Solitude Words & Music by Steve Gillette & Charles John Quarto
We've all experienced that sensation of sudden awareness, a moment of clarity that may come to us at the top of a long climb, or in a quiet, unhurried time of reflection. We talk about a radical solution, radical in the sense of the shortest route to the center of the problem. I'm sure we've all been curious about the working of the mind, and especially about ways to have more of the benefits of clear thinking.
People have been investigating the seemingly magic functions of the mind for thousands of years. Some venerable schools of thought have emerged, and science has taken a role. Still, there's confusion about whether we are talking about thinking, imagining, problem solving, visualization, or prayer and where they may overlap.
Meditation is a discipline which has occupied that space for more than five thousand years. Transcendental meditation is a term which has been more recently coined to describe the ability to see beyond, to rise above, or transcend the momentary distractions and disturbances of the day. Some technique of meditation is practiced in virtually every community throughout the world. When practiced within a religious context, meditation supports a deeper connection with the Divine.
In non-theistic traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism, meditation is more focused on self-awareness and self-actualization. In that sense, non-theistic spiritual meditation supports practitioners in becoming the best human beings that they can be. Whether secular or non-secular, the insights that are brought to light through spiritual meditation can help us develop qualities of benevolence and connection.
The practice as a formal component of a spiritual path is probably most closely associated with Buddhism. The Buddha lived and taught in Southeast Asia about 2600 years ago. From the territories of modern-day Afghanistan to Mongolia and from Japan to Indonesia, Buddhism has adapted to the cultures of the regions where it has taken root.
An example of this is Zen meditation. In the 7th century, the Japanese monk Dosho traveled to China where he studied Buddhism under the great master Hsuan Tsang. Upon returning to Japan, he opened a meditation hall and started teaching a form of sitting meditation that became known as zazen. This has given rise to generations of Japanese monks and nuns whose primary practice is sitting meditation.
Christian scholars describe a practice called Lectio Divina, or 'divine reading.' Its four formal steps described as a 'ladder' were defined by the monk Guigo II in the 12th century with the Latin terms lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio (read, ponder, pray, contemplate). Christian meditation was further taught by saints such as Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila in the 16th century. In very early works the practice is referred to by the Latin 'meditatum,' meaning 'to ponder.'
In modern times, the art of meditation has mainly been associated with Asian spiritual traditions such as Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism. Western interest in Eastern religions and philosophies seems to have begun in earnest in the 19th century due to colonialism and improved means of transportation and communication. In those days it was mainly the domain of scholars and missionaries.
Eastern philosophy caught the attention of western 'seekers' and artists as early as the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that meditation became popularized in the West. This period saw the arrival of meditation masters from the East who were invited to share their skills and knowledge with interested students. There are several steps to follow if you want to become skilled at this technique. These from Mindworks include:
- Acknowledging your reality, beginning with being mindful of your body and thoughts;
- Observing your mind and recognizing each thought that arises without judging or manipulating it;
- Coming back to the object of meditation, such as the breath; and
- Learning to rest in and appreciate the present moment.
Trying to stop thinking completely is futile and often serves to intensify unwanted thoughts. Instead, the key is to notice when the mind wanders and bring the attention back to the meditation practice.
Practicing meditation can help clear away the mind’s chatter, increase focus, reduce stress, and promote calmness. Studies show that meditating even for as little as 10 minutes increases the brain's alpha waves (associated with relaxation) and decreases anxiety and depression. Harvard offers several mindfulness and meditation classes, including a spring break retreat held in March for students through the Center for Wellness and Health Promotion.
Harvard Researcher Gaelle Desbordes is part of a community of researchers that in recent decades has been probing mindfulness meditation’s effect on depression, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to take before and after images of the brains of depressed patients who’ve learned to meditate.
Desbordes took before-and-after scans of subjects who learned to meditate over the course of two months. She scanned them not while they were meditating, but while they were performing everyday tasks. The scans still detected changes in the subjects’ brain activation patterns from the beginning to the end of the study, the first time such a change in a part of the brain called the amygdala had been detected.
The amygdala is often referred to in the singular, but is actually a pair of small organs behind the eyes. Wikipedia offers this description: “Shown to perform a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional responses (including fear, anxiety, and aggression), the amygdalae are considered part of the limbic system.”
It's thought that they act as a kind of filter of visual information, controlling the way the brain receives and possibly reacts to visual stimuli.
The amygdala has been characterized as a kind of fuse that can shut down dangerous or painful input, but I believe there is also a more positive function having to do with connecting the emotions with perception in a creative way.
Again, I'm sure this is a much more complicated process involving parts of the brain that are only beginning to be understood, with much more to be revealed. But it seems that meditation has for centuries been the pathway to a proactive partnership with the brain.
In any study of the working of the mind and the source of inspiration and invention, a sense of reverence begins to adhere. It's understandable that we would have a special feeling about how these gifts might have come to us and how we might be able to encourage the process to continue to yield a favorable result. This begins to suggest a sacred nature of consciousness and it's easy to see how a person would be suggestible as to whom he might be indebted for this gift.
They say that gratitude is a good emotional platform from which to begin to write. When we're not in reaction to the storms outside of that quiet place at our center; when we're not answering imagined insults and skepticism but coming from a place of balanced emotional and intellectual processes, we can bring something forth that has about it the gift. Who do we thank? Does this necessarily mean that we and the process are beholden to any man's idea of a higher power?
Might the nature of that power be so immense that to comprehend it at all confronts us with all our frailties including the willingness to be exploited and to exploit others? It would be wrong to make others into followers and take advantage of their fears and doubts to deny them the freedom of thought we value so highly for ourselves. I have no doubt there are higher powers, but my sense is that they reveal themselves every moment of every day, especially when I am listening deeply, but this gentle revelation is constant and reassuring and never takes the form of duress.
If gratitude is one pole, I would suggest that fear is the other. One attracts and one repels. Out of fear we cling to superstition and the safety of a kind of bondage. But to be truly self-actualized we have to take off the training wheels, strike out on our own and take on the fear and sense of insecurity that any true originality will require. Is meditation a power? Power doesn't seem like the right way to describe it, and yet it's empowering to be sure; a way of making progress toward clarity and resolution. But questions will come forward too. It is a form of work. And in work there is satisfaction and joy. I always think of the way a dog loves to retrieve a ball or Frisbee; it's work, but it's their joy.
Is it like 'the force?' Oh yes, but force seems to be the wrong word again. We have the tendency to expect results only from struggle or violent attacks on a problem, where meditation seems to be more of a cooperative activity with the processes of the mind.
This is not a great song. It's not quite successful in terms of its message; it's more of a peace song. I'm sure it could be improved, but it serves as a benchmark for the time we wrote it, and as a starting point for this discussion. It might even be that a song that truly conveys the feeling of the meditative moment would have no words at all.
My friend Del Kauffman and his wife Helen lived in a commune with their kids for a time. Helen talks about the moment when all would sit down to dinner and everyone would participate in a long chant of the sacred sound of om. No one wanted to be the first to stop and so it would go on for some time. Eventually the kids would start to complain that they were hungry and didn't want to wait any longer. Can you om with your mouth full?
Here is a video of the song with images from NASA and the Monterey Aquarium:
Steve Gillette's recording of "A Little Bit of Solitude." Video by Steve
"A Little Bit of Solitude" is available on my CD, The Ways Of The World, which can be purchased as a CD or MP3 album here.
For those who might want to sing the song here are the lyrics and chords:
It takes an
And it takes a
It takes a
'Cause it takes a
It takes a
It takes a
It takes a
© 1990, Foreshadow Songs, BMI