【Philosopher Café】The Dialectic between Solitude and Loneliness

【Reported by Ye Shuying】What caused the great participation in this month’s Philosopher’s Cafe? Was it the chill brought by the winter rain? Or was it the lonely hearts created by metropolitan life?

On November 19, 2011, the Philosopher’s Cafe held its monthly meeting at the Chan Cafe. Professor Gu began the session by asking participants to conceptualize the link between our inner-life and dogmas or public opinions. Enthusiastic discussions followed after this contemplation. Passing the microphone along, participants also passed along their reflections on solitude, loneliness, and inner-life journeys. In the not too long and not too short three hours, the atmosphere was without a trace of desolation and bleakness although the dialogue was surrounded with the topic of solitude and loneliness,. Participants not only enjoyed the intermittent whiff of coffee in the air, but also the warmth and caring conveyed through listening and speaking.

One of the most discussed topics was the popularity of internet addicts as a social group. These “homebound” internet addicts will post their daily life activities and viewpoints on the Net when they are lonesome. Their emotions are also influenced by the feedback of people from the chat rooms. A lack of positive feedback will trigger their sense of isolation and feeling of loneliness. This topic propelled everyone to mull over our “sense of connection/belonging,” including our self-recognition and recognition of others.

Participants also discussed the mutuality of solitude and loneliness. For example, an oral surgeon from Australia who came back to Taiwan to attend a conference shared her experience from a psychological and medical point of view. During surgery, even with a whole medical team working together, as a surgeon, he “alone” has to make instant judgments, but without any sense of loneliness. From this perspective, participants explored the conditions of loneliness, such as an unsatisfied need for companionship, and tried to define whether loneliness is an emotion or a perception. A high school student who accompanied her parents attending the workshop asked: “How does a person identify whether she is lonely or just alone?” Some shared a childhood experience that caused great sorrow. She did not realize, until many years later, that her tears of sadness were actually a longing for her mother’s companionship.  The participants’ discussion then turned to the necessity to distinguish among perceptions, phenomena, and their demarcations. 

Another participant wondered if loneliness is associated with meditation or creativity.  In response, Professor Gu posed the following questions to invite everyone’s deliberation: “Is loneliness a prerequisite of meditation or creativity?” “What is its relationship with people in the mundane world?” “Can anyone really live as an island?” Some opined that we should think in duality. If it is creativity or meditation, then solitude may be necessary. However, as creative material comes from a connection with people, then we cannot disengage from the social network. Chan  cultivation is also advanced through experiencing life. Chan practitioners often wish to share their awaking and invite others’ participation. These questions led to a discussion on the karmic relations in life.

At the end, Professor Gu shared a few philosophers’ interpretations on loneliness and solitude. She also used the four levels of self-reflections taught by Venerable Master Sheng Yen to juxtapose the connection and integration between self and others.  After such a warm and energetic discourse, Professor Gu left everyone with the question: “Are there any positive effects of loneliness and solitude? Why? Why?” All are expected to internalize the experiences and viewpoints of today’s participants to reflect upon the inner-self.