Isolation is tool, much like a hammer. And like a hammer, it’s only called for in one case out of a hundred (also people are apt to reach for it before any other tool). Why even those who aren’t mechanically inclined have a hammer standing by, just in case they need to fix something. However, isolation, like a hammer, is also a tool you should never use on yourself… It’s a bad idea. Even people who love isolating when they’re upset will advise you: Never, ever do it!

Isolation shouldn’t be confused with solitude either. To me isolation denotes self-sequestering for the purposes of emotionally withdrawing from as many things as possible. Whereas solitude, while also self-imposed, is usually sought for much heathier reasons. Solitude speaks of retreats, walks in the woods, or just getting away from it all. Isolation, on the other hand, is emotionally and physically withdrawing from the world out of pain, misery, and self-absorption. When we isolate, we like to think of ourselves as brave little monks, single-handedly battling with our inner demons, not some clinical depressive subsisting on pizza and fruit punch in a back room somewhere. To me, the difference completely lies in our inner condition when we choose to leave the company of others. A while ago I tried to capture my thoughts in a far more succinct method than blogging on it, so I wrote it in haiku. Why? Because I could. I’m not sure whether or not it works for you, but I liked it well enough that I’m going to put it in here:

lonely emotions
becomes solitude with work
on the internal

Like many of the other reactions we have to negative emotions when they crop up, isolation has its uses. But also like those other reactions, they can be harmful when allowed to dominate the landscape of our emotional reactions. The mind contains great power. It gives us the power to create art, and comprehend science. It can be a valuable companion, giving us sound advice and insight when it’s behaving, but if it’s not finely tuned it can cause great damage.

During the 19th Century when railroads were king, the steam engine was the work horse. The power that drove these engines were their massive boilers. A boiler would build up so much pressure, that when harnessed, it could pull the engine, the cars, and their entire contents over mountains. The trick was, of course, keeping the power harnessed and under control. Because that same power, if not controlled, had the ability to completely destroy the very same engine that it was meant to serve (see above photo).

The mind is essentially the same way. Most of us can barely grasp how powerful the mind is because we live so closely with it, that we actually think it is who we are, rather than it really just being one part of us. And when the mind is not tethered or controlled, and it’s allowed to go anywhere, do anything, and say whatever the hell it wants… it is capable of great damage.

When kept in isolation, the mind only has one target, us. And while sometimes it may seem as if we’re concentrating on secondary targets (sample of actual internal dialogue: “I’ll show them! They can’t treat me like this!”), in fact what’s really happening is that our mind is pulling us back into another internal battle, simply meant to elevate our ego. The part of the mind that tells us there is a separate “me” does so because it believes its job is to help me feel more unique than those other people. Notice I didn’t say that we are better than them, just that it wants to make us think we are unique from them, we are separate. And when we feel separate from the rules that guide others, then they need not apply to us. It’s as if we are subconsciously saying to ourselves, “I am better than you, and therefore I can’t do what’s expected of me.”, or maybe, “I am worse than you, and therefore I can’t do what’s expected of me either.” And so, we isolate. And while we isolate, we reinforce the walls that we’ve built to surround us and protect us from others. We see the pain coming from their actions and words, but in reality, it comes from our own reactions to the things we find objectionable. Suffering is an emotional hell that we construct, and it is built using the worst fears we have about ourselves.

And when (if) we finally emerge from our self-imposed prison, and begin to talk to one person who don’t hate entirely, we realize how starved we have been for human contact. In time, we may also see that not only do we function better when we are around others, but we also see that our lives take on meaning. And meaning begins to emerge in our lives when we start to lose that intense focus we’ve had on ourselves and begin to point it back out at the world. And it’s this absence of self-centered focus that reveals the final evidence that we are not alone. We are not unique. We are not an individual. We are part of something much larger, and if we are willing to learn what, we need never go back into isolation.

By my count I find at least three questions I’ve left unanswered. They are: How do we tune our mind? How do you tether a mind? How do we learn that we are part of something much larger? Since the answers to those come from future blog posts in this series, before closing I will let someone much wiser than I give you some idea where we are headed. 

“Enlightenment, for a wave in the ocean, is the moment the wave realizes it is water. When we realize, we are not separate, but a part of the huge ocean of everything, we become enlightened. We realize this through practice, and we remain awake and aware of this through more practice.”  – Thich Nhat Hanh