George Clark, 27 February 2008
If one find friend with whom to fare
Rapt in the well-abiding, apt,
Surmounting dangers one and all,
With joy fare with him mindfully.
Finding none apt with whom to fare,
None in the well-abiding rapt,
As rajah quits the conquered realm,
Fare lonely as rhinoceros.
Plato reckoned that "When two upon a journey go one sees before the other". But much depends on the nature of the other.
There are Buddhist sutras that reckon that it is sometimes best to "Fare lonely as the rhinoceros." (see box).
So what are the relative merits of company for those who seek to transcend from the life of worldly busy-ness to that of spiritual peace?
Types of company
Most normal people are ill-abiding as licentious and hedonistic consumers. Many are close to pathological in their obsessiveness and addiction to fashionable distractions and stuff. They have no time to stand and stare. They are on to go in all their waking hours. No respite. Workaholics with long to-do-lists. Busy-bodies. Not apt companions.
However, those who are 'rapt in well-abiding' are not a problem other than that they are hard to find. They put aside quiet time of a regular basis. Their need for distraction and stuff is slight. These spiritually minded souls can be one-on-one colleagues or teachers. They can also be approached in more or less formal communities. In many parts of the world there are lay groups of aspirants which function without accredited teachers. There are also increasing numbers of established contemplative centres which cater to those who commit to a more or less 'monastic' life in retreat for various periods of time.
Types of aloneness
We live in increasingly individuated times. Extended families have given way to nuclear families and those to single parent families. More people now live alone than has ever been the case before. But we are by nature social animals. So there may be a pathological side to aloneness which is best dealt with in therapy. Arguably it is modern society itself which needs therapy. Is it desirable to be well adjusted to an insane world?
However, most cultures have reserved special spaces for their spiritual loners; for their hermits and recluses, their anchorites and ascetics. There are many long traditions in most parts of the world which allow for and encourage shamans and mystics to explore the arenas of uncommon sense. There is a long standing perennial philosophy which celebrates aloneness as a necessary foundation for achieving extraordinary insight. Going it alone is OK.
The relative merits
The task is to transcend from the life of worldly busy-ness to that of spiritual peace. This involves turning the mind around. This is generally thought to involve two main things (a) living a 'moral' life (eg obeying the ten commandments for Christians, following the noble eightfold-path for Buddhists): this makes it possible to find the peace for (b) reprogramming how the mind works: in essence seeing the illusory nature of the self and the world it presents to us.
A more or less formal community of like minded souls, if well led and managed, would be of great help to most individuals. Failing that a like minded friend would be a great boon. Failing that you had best fare lonely as the rhinoceros and draw sustenance from (a) the inspiring examples of great souls of the past, (b) the literature of the great mystical traditions and, most importantly, (c) the still small inner voice which can be heard once the busy, worldly mind has come to rest and there is abiding in passionless peace.
Free everywhere, at odds with none, And well content with this and that:
Enduring dangers undismayed, Fare lonely as the rhinoceros.