Members talk: Isolation – absence and presence

Juvenile Robin

I endeavour to share here some reflections on isolation which have gradually bubbled to the surface through these last few extraordinary weeks. I know for sure that many of us will likewise have been provoked to pause and give thought, as so much of our ‘normal’ has been stripped away. This is one possible fruitful side-effect of sudden, unexpected challenges. As Śrī Krishnamacharya said, ‘Thank God for duḥkha…’ – it wakes us up and gives us new eyes to see things afresh.

This phrase – ‘self-isolation’ – is heard regularly and immediately reminded me of Frans Moors’ translation of kaivalya as ‘liberating isolation’ in his excellent book on the Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali. So, if isolation is liberating, why is it so challenging? We feel a sense of loss, of absence, in our aloneness, but when we reflect, it is only the presence of love, caring, attachment to others which is the source of this suffering, not the absence itself. However, if we reflect again, perhaps we can see that, just as silence is not emptiness, isolation is not absence. Togetherness can be deeper than being within physical sight and sound of each other – it can happen in new electronic guises, and it can happen at deeper, less tangible levels. 

TKV Desikachar

TKV Desikachar was a very strong advocate for individual, face-to-face contact and the power of heart-to-heart connection when establishing any teaching or therapeutic relationship. However, there were many instances when this was not possible. At such times he would chant for someone who was not physically present as a healing offering. In this offering the mind is fully present, a kind of dhyānam, which potentially can allow us to briefly make contact with something beyond the normal constraints of time and place. Some of you may have felt this power; chanting is a special way of experiencing it and finding a profound sangha, or togetherness.

The physicist, Carlo Rovelli, wrote in his book:

As human beings we live by emotions and thoughts. We exchange them when we are in the same place at the same time, talking to each other, looking into each other’s eyes, brushing against each other’s skin. In reality we do not need to be in the same place at the same time. Thoughts and emotions that create bonds of attachment between us have no difficulty crossing seas, decades, centuries. We are part of a network that goes beyond the few years of our lives.

So, even if few of us are yet ready to experience the total renunciation of Patañjali’s kaivalya, perhaps some of this isolation can allow us to accept, get used to and even enjoy the absence of many of our attachments. Having to be creative and work hard to support ourselves and others, to make do with what is possible and endure insecurity and uncertainty can remind us of the true meaning and value of abhyāsa, (diligent effort) and vairāgya (letting go). Patañjali’s kriya yoga, with tapas (disciplined action), svadhyāya (reflection and self-study) and īśvarapranidhāna, (a humble acceptance of our own limitations) really support us here too – when most things are out of our control we must focus on what we can do, learning from the process. Perhaps we can also find new ways of being truly present, both with our own Self through sustaining our practice, and with others, not just by Zooming, but by linking in deeper ways, with faith, caring, compassion and empathy. We can hold and be held in the light by each other so that we can then offer to others – a global yājña. 

Article by Helen Macpherson 

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