We’re All In This Together – by Alice Maxwell
In recent months the term “isolation” has become synonymous with the grim reality of living with Covid 19. The word has come to evoke people dying alone, without the support of their loved ones, families separated, and an increase in mental illness caused by intense loneliness.
The Collins dictionary defines “isolation” as the condition of being alone, especially without friends or help.
But does the word only have negative connotations? Spiritual seekers from almost all the major world faiths have valued time spent in isolation. Undistracted by the hustle and bustle of worldly affairs they spend time alone in contemplation, meditation and prayer in order to experience a feeling of oneness with the universe, a union with God, and a realization that our sense of “separateness” is deeply flawed and the cause of a great deal of suffering.
We humans are entirely dependent on each other and on all the other creatures on this planet. Since the industrial revolution we have increasingly begun to think of ourselves as individuals, rather than communal beings, resulting in Margaret Thatcher’s capitalist cry “there is no such thing as society”. Yet what do us humans, and indeed all the creatures we share the planet with, have in common? More than we may think. We all wish to be happy, we all do our best to avoid suffering. We all breathe the same air, and indeed an oxygen molecule I breathe in today could be pulsing round the body of Boris Johnson tomorrow.
The Dalai Lama advises us to think of ourselves as a family of humans, and to drop feelings of separateness. In his book “The Book of Joy” he describes how as a young child he had to preside over huge ceremonies in Tibet. This made him incredibly nervous, as he felt he had to live up to the Tibetans’ belief that he was someone special and different. Only when he changed his perspective and thought of himself as a simple monk, life become much easier as he had dropped the idea of separation between self and others.
If we are to thank those involved in producing our bowl of morning porridge, who do we come up with? Farm workers, shop keepers, truck drivers, oil-refinery workers, cutlery and oven makers, electricity producers, education and health care providers; also the soil, the sun, the rain, the insects and mother earth herself – to name but a few. Then if we venture into deep time and appreciate that our current situation could not have happened without predecessors, it becomes clear that the list is literally endless and all-inclusive.
The Dalai Lama recently said that Donald Trump’s “America First” policy would create great suffering for the American people. A stance of selfishness, and aggression towards other countries cannot lead to any form of happiness, as it is fuelled by fear, competition, anger and jealousy. These are emotions which keep us constantly running, constantly trying to change everyone and everything – except ourselves. They give no room for peace of mind or contentment.
Once we come to see ourselves as a tiny part of the human race, we come to understand that everything we do and think effects everyone else. We naturally become more responsible and compassionate.
Theoretically this may seem obvious, but mystics and saints of present and past felt that to gain a true understanding of the union of all life, a period of isolation was necessary. Jesus spent time alone in the desert inspiring Christian mystics to follow suit, the Buddha meditated for many years in the forests of India before his final enlightenment. Here on Arran the Buddhist tradition of long-term meditation retreat is being continued at the south end of Holy Isle and the Buddhist retreat at Glenscorrodale on the Ross Road.
Holy Isle has long been as a place of spiritual contemplation and for several years it was home to the Irish Saint Molaise in the late 6th century. He rejected the throne of Ulster in favour of a secluded religious life. Inspired by Celtic Christianity, at the age of twenty he took up residence in a cave on Holy Isle. The Celtic church believed that the presence of God could be felt most immediately in nature, and that the creation must be understood in order to understand the creator. Molaise’s cave, cut off from human conveniences and in the midst of wild Scottish nature, was a perfect place for such contemplation. Molaise was well loved amongst the people of Arran, who sailed across to hear him preach on Judgement Rock, just below his cave. Next to this Rock is a Healing well, and the saint used its waters to heal the sick.
It is an interesting paradox that for many saints, mystics and meditators, time in isolation leads to a profound understanding of togetherness. And while for most of us the life of a recluse does not appeal, our present enforced isolation has given us the space to deeply appreciate our fellow creatures on whom we depend for our very survival, and with whom we share our beautiful planet. As the pandemic rips through the entire world, the expression “we are all in this together” has perhaps never been more relevant.
John Donne (1572 – 1631) sums this up wonderfully in his poem “No man is an Island”.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.