Illustration by Hoi
Chan/ All rights reserved
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Years ago, I worked with a woman from Finland. She’d spent her
teenage years dreaming of moving to Dublin, and now here she was.
Somehow, though, the self she thought Dublin would make her was not
showing up. Dublin had been such a yearning for her that she’d piled
hopes of who she could be into geography: when I get there I’ll find
it easier to make friends; when I get there I’ll find it easier to
leave Helsinki behind; when I get there I’ll get over that thing that
I can’t get over.
Anyway, we were talking, and she was telling me that Dublin wasn’t
all her dreams had made it out to be.
We never became close friends; we were just pleasant acquaintances.
I’ve thought about her for years, though. She’d moved to Dublin only
to realize it wasn’t the place she’d dreamt it’d be. I still remember
the way she described how the future and home she’d imagined was being
unimagined in her. It had been hard, she said, but she didn’t regret
So much of life is a process of becoming attached — to a person, a
thing, a place, an idea — and then learning to deepen the wisdom of
that attachment. Our guest for this week is Stephen
Batchelor, a co-founder and faculty member of Bodhi
College, and author of many books exploring secular approaches to
Buddhism, as well as his most recent, The
Art of Solitude. He has been intrigued by the big questions
of life for much of his life: he speaks about doing poorly in school
because he couldn’t understand why the teachers weren’t asking the
questions about “what it’s actually like to be a person, from the
Stephen and Krista reference various languages where the word for
“solitude” is the same as the word for “lonely.” English is fairly
unique in the concepts that separate solitude from loneliness. Stephen
Batchelor considers being alone as a source — a source of inspiration,
imagination, of creativity. Or, to make that last sentence more
accurate, he considers that being alone can be a source of
these great things, depending on how the experience of being alone is
this hour of conversation, Stephen and Krista discuss Buddhist
philosophy, secular humanism, Rilke, the Skeptics, Nelson Mandela, and
Stephen’s great inspiration, Michel de Montaigne, the mid-16th century
French aristocrat and philosopher. In considerations of relationships,
ethics, art, and friendships, they consider “the art of being alone
with oneself” — a direct rendering of Die Kunst, mit zie selbst
allein zu sein, the title of the German translation of Stephen's
Michel de Montaigne noted that the “greatest thing in the world is
to know how to be yourself,” and spoke too of the “soul’s capacity to
keep itself company.” Such concepts are, we know, filled with human
projections: a person sits to meditate and enjoy the pleasure of their
soul’s company, but within half a minute is flooded with everything
they’re carrying with them, inside themself: their concerns, pains,
anxieties, demands, and responsibilities. Stephen Batchelor is wise
about the reasons for learning this art of aloneness. Of course, it
helps a person in their own life, and in the life of their family and
friendships, and their spiritual path, too. But it also informs the
ethical life of a person: the world is full of demands, full of
competing markets vying for our loyalty. Making an ethical decision
may be helped by a capacity to engage with the echo of those inner
voices, but not in such a way as to engage with those voices only. We
will get things wrong, Stephen says; therefore, we must learn to think
and reflect well in order to learn, to consider, to notice, and to try
In a pandemic era where social isolation, distance, and aloneness
have been uppermost in news cycles, workplaces, places of religion,
exercise, and transport, it is helpful to take a deep dive into the
wisdom of aloneness. This conversation with Stephen Batchelor is a
kind and wise invitation into our own solitude, and we wish you all
the support and calm and joy along the way as you keep your self
Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry
P.S. In your podcast feed this week, you’ll also notice the
trailer for the new season of Poetry Unbound. The first episode
airs on Monday, September 27th, with new episodes every Monday and
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News From the Wisdom App
One of the great values of becoming a full member of the Wisdom app
is having access to our monthly Practice Space, a supportive
environment for members across the globe to gather and build muscle
around particular pieces of wisdom, together.
Our second Practice Space will be held on Monday, September 27th.
This time, we’ll explore the relationship between grief and hope —
turning to the “Grief Is a Companion to Hope” session featuring Joanna
Macy, from the Hope Is a Muscle course, to guide us.
Become a member by Monday, September 27th to receive an invitation.
Wisdom app page on our website to learn more and invest in
membership. Or, sample the first few course sessions for free by downloading
through the app store on your phone.
note about why this project and why now.
This Week at The On Being Project
Our Latest Episode
On Being with Krista
Ease in Aloneness”
The Buddhist teacher on the art of
solitude, drawing on teachers across the ages, and from monasticism to
Listen in as renowned poets, Naomi Shihab-Nye & Pádraig Ó Tuama
deeply reflect on where we find ourselves as a people and a planet.
Hosted by Compassionate San Antonio.