Tao of Social Isolation
Isolation or Meditation?
It is normal to feel anxious when forced into social isolation. The history of the human journey reveals how social exchanges and storytelling around the fire gave us language and allowed humans to develop spiritual meaning in life.
We are social creatures and over time, our social interactions led to the development of societies, laws and our ultimate sense of comfort. We thrived from belonging to groups, so going long periods without human interaction can lead to the fear and anxiety that undermines our sense of peace.
Fire Contributed to Human Development
Fire was initially used for protection and to make our foods more digestable. It is believed that fire created a more refined diet that actually allowed the brain to develop in its complexity.
In later periods, our gatherings around the fire led to the bond we feel as humans. We may be afraid of strangers, but we have come to rely on the strength we get from interacting with those in our social circle.
The Power of Touch
Science shows how touching between a mother and her infant releases oxytocin, which stimulates a bond that also plays a role in sexual arousal and trust as we grow. Today, however, we are not even allowed to shake hands. Without human touch, our levels of oxytocin are reduced, which can lead to an increase in stress and anxiety.
We are accustomed to stroking each other, whether through hugs, handshakes or even through our social exchanges. Anyone in solitary confinement – not by choice – will agree that social isolation can test the resilience of the psyche.
The Tao of Social Isolation
When opening to a Taoist perspective, social isolation can actually become an opportunity for increased enlightenment. Taoists practice Wu Wei, or not embroiling in social exchanges. This can require a period of retreat to understand our internal dynamics and the drama we can make out of life.
In Western psychology, we would call this 'owning our condition' where we acknowledge our Shadow projections and stop reacting or perpetuating the drama. Instead of constantly reacting to what we experience ‘out there,’ we stop to consider how we are feeling ‘in here.’ Kung fu Tzu said: "when meeting contention in another, one would do well to examine the Self."
We can disengage from playing the role in a story that simply affirms the only reality we know. We recognize that when someone is pushing our buttons, perhaps there is something meaningful about us that might be discovered. This time of social isolation can be a time of self-discovery.
Normally, we are a slave to the responses we feel in our social interactions, but suddenly, we are placed in a time out. This might be an opportunity to reboot our responses, prior to going back into our daily rituals, which will come in time.
Cold Mountain by Han Shan
Hanshan was a Taoist poet who lived during the 9th century. His poem about living on Cold Mountain is a metaphor for living in isolation, where the 'coldness' can be the lack of the fire of human interaction. This poem can actually allow us to understand how this type of isolation can lead to enlightenment and inner peace.
He shares the wisdom that can only come from deep periods of introspection:
I’m on the trail to Cold Mountain.
Cold Mountain trail never ends.
Long clefts thick with rock and stones,
Wide streams buried in dense grass.
Slippery moss, but there’s been no rain,
Pine trees sigh, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s net,
Sit here in the white clouds with me?
Leap the World's Net
The world’s net is the way we get trapped in our story. Learning to overcome our illusion of deficiency is the reason we would give up comfort and embark on a journey to Cold Mountain. The journey never ends because we must check the mind to keep it without blemish and clear.
Why is the moss slippery without rain? We create our own self-limiting beliefs that trip us up and send us skidding down the mountain.
Why do pine trees sigh without wind? We hear our own story in what we witness, which has nothing to do with what the natural world is revealing to us. To sit in the white clouds is to rise above our perpetual need to react. We achieve inner purity of thought.
Cold Mountain holds a naked bug,
Its body’s white, its head is black.
In its hands a pair of scrolls,
One the Way and one its Power.
It needs no pots or stove.
Without clothes it wanders on,
But it carries Wisdom’s blade,
To cut down mindless craving.
Become the Guest, Not the Host
Han Shan used a black and white bug as a metaphor for the Great Ultimate. In Taoism, we understand two fundamental forces as Yin and Yang. The Great Ultimate refers to their state in terms of undifferentiated absolutes. It is the infinite potential when their duality is reconciled with oneness. In their oneness, they are Tao.
Yang is the active force in nature, while Yin is the receptive field of potential. Like electromagnetism, Yin is the field that is both created by and entices the force forward. One does not exist without the other. In gravity, Yang is the fullness or mass of a body moving through space, while Yin is the gravitational field that is created and coaxes other bodies into its orbit.
Rather than act as the host and exercise a type of power or control, we become the guest and follow the Way. Tao needs no pots or stoves, because it isn’t created – it just is. "Go up to it and you will not see its head. Follow behind and you will not see its tail."
Without definition (or clothes) the Way or Tao wanders on. Tao may give shape to the myriad of things, but it exists as the uncarved block.
Isolation is an Opportunity for Meditation
We have the opportunity to understand how meditation, which is really a lot like isolation, can clear the mind of it’s misunderstandings and confusion:
Bright water shimmers like crystal,
Translucent to the furthest depth.
Mind is free of every thought
Unmoved by the myriad things.
Since it can never be stirred
It will always stay like this.
Knowing, this way, you can see,
There is no within, no without.
And this is perhaps the ‘gold’ of the disciple’s journey into Taoism. Because the mind is behaves like a 'mysterious mirror,' reflecting its condition on what we experience, we make it clear, and free from how we habitually judge what is happening around us.
The mind without blemish shimmers like crystal.
Returning to our center, where nothing anyone says or does can make or break our day, we are not stirred by the myriad of things.
We might take this opportunity to witness how life mirrors our inner world – whether by smiling to see how the world responds – or whether this ‘time out’ gives us an opportunity to reboot how we view life.
Life is purposeful in how it unfolds, and to be present means to accept that what is unfolding is perfect for us in the here and now.
This open and grateful approach creates a reflection that can never be stirred. It simply shines and is translucent to the furthest depths.
Within and Without - There is no Separation
Eventually, we will discover that there is no 'in here', and 'out there'. The lines separating our thoughts from the way they reflect upon our experiences is an illusion.
When we can achieve this inner stillness, it will stay like this, with no need to defend anything. "To the mind that is still, the entire universe surrenders." The universe surrenders because the mind is not caught up in the illusion that the universe is fighting it.
Perhaps this lockdown and social isolation is a gift from life as an opportunity to slow down and meet ourselves?
We have always come together to share the fire in our gatherings, taking the embers home as a symbol of our unity.
Perhaps as we walk on Cold Mountain, we will discover the sound of our own thoughts.