by Thich Nhat Hanh
excerpt from Silence

“When people hear the phrase “the island of self’, they often think it means they have to live alone and have to shut people and everything else out of their life. But this practice, this kind of “living alone”, doesn’t mean there’s no one around you. It only means that you are established firmly in the here and now; you are aware of everything that is happening in the present moment.

You use your mindfulness to become aware of everything, of every feeling, every perception in yourself, as well as what’s happening around you in your community. You are always with yourself; you don’t love yourself. That is the deeper way of living a life of solitude.

To practice solitude is to practice being in this singular moment, not caught in the past, not carried away by the future, and most of all, not carried away by the crowd. You don’t have to go to the forest. You can live with people, you can go to the grocery store, you can walk with others – and you can still enjoy silence and solitude. In today’s society, with so many things around you clamoring for your attention and your reaction, that inner solitude is something you have to learn.

It is good to spend some time physically alone each day as well. You might think that you can be joyful only when you are with other people, talking and laughing and playing around. But joy and happiness can be very great in solitude as well – so deep that you are more able to share. If you have deep joy and happiness, developed in solitude, then you have a lot to give. Without the capacity for being alone, you become more and more depleted. And when you don’t have enough nourishment for yourself, you don’t have much to offer others. That’s why learning to live in solitude is important.

Each day, devote some time to being physically alone, because that makes it easier to practice nourishing yourself and looking deeply.  That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to practice being alone and looking deeply when you’re with a crowd of people. It is possible. Even if you’re sitting in the marketplace, you can be alone and not be carried away by the crowd. You are still yourself, still the master of yourself. Likewise, you can still be yourself even if you are in a lively group discussion and even if there is a strong collective emotion. You can continue to dwell safely and solidly in your own island.

There are the two dimensions of solitude, and they are both important. The first is to be alone physically. The second is to be able to be yourself and stay centered even in the midst of a group. It is because you are comfortable in solitude that you can be in communion with the world. I feel connected to you because I am fully myself. It’s simple: to really relate to the world, you have to first go back and relate to yourself.”