All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone — Blaise Pascal
Let’s say it all falls apart. Maybe we suffer a serious illness, financial ruin or loss of a loved one. Whatever the case, the event is significant enough to be life changing, and we often suffer greatly.
Part of the suffering is the loss; we had something we valued, and now it is gone. We thus conclude our lives are worse than before, and this hurts.
Yet there’s another part of the pain that few may appreciate, and it too is loss. In this case it’s the loss of a distraction.
Very often, the things we seek distract us. Our friends give us companionship. Our career gives us a goal. Our TVs give us sensory stimulation. They all distract us. Take them away and we are left with life at it’s rawest.
Once we lose it all, life goes on. Often, we are still fine, but now face a void, a void that forces us to confront life sans distractions.
This is the empty room.
The things we seek are events that unfold in a background. This background is life. It isn’t life that’s “good”, but certain events in it. To truly think that life is good is to appreciate the background, to appreciate being, to be content in that empty room.
When we sit in an empty room with no distractions, we have nothing — no physical or mental stimulation. How many of us can contentedly do this? Imagine our bellies are full and that we are safe and comfortable. Can we be content? How many of us would feel boredom, fear, anxiety? How many of us would rather be somewhere else — even if that somewhere is an unpleasant place? Yes, how many of us would rather choose a stressful situation — as long as it’s a distraction? How many of us would rather be anywhere than in an empty room, quiet and alone?
The word alone seems like a pejorative doesn’t it? How often do we hear “he ended up miserable and alone?”. Or “one day, you will be all alone”? Being alone is not just about not having others, it can also mean not having personal distractions.
This is another angle on Samsara. Samsara is a word often used in Buddhism and Hinduism to mean the cycle of existence, yet there is a different angle on it that I find much more useful. This angle defines Samsara as our requirement for this and that to be happy. Samsara is the rat race. Samsara is our seeking something, losing it (or getting bored), and seeking it again.
Samsara is our inability to sit in an empty room.
If I can sit in an empty room and be content, it means I can be content with nothing. It means I don’t need money, companionship, stimulation. I can just be, and be happy. Since I always am (by definition), and when I’m not, I’m not there to feel it, this means the ability to sit in an empty room is the ability to be immune to fate.
If I can sit in an empty room, I am no longer investing my happiness in events outside myself, events over which I ultimately have no control.
Sitting in an empty room bears a strong resemblance to meditation, and perhaps this is no coincidence? For isn’t meditation to bring us to Nirvana, and isn’t that unconditional contentment? Meditation is the ultimate not doing; it’s just sitting. How much more raw can life get?
For those who claim meditation is an escape, one could argue the opposite; meditation is the only authentic life and everything else is an escape. After all, to seek is to run away from life’s rawness. Every thing sought, every book read, every web page browsed, every bit of small talk is an attempt to avoid life, while to simply sit is to face life at its rawest, to see it all, to see the background.
Here’s another short article that takes Pascal’s empty room as a starting point: http://zenhabits.net/alone/