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The Benefits of Meditative Seclusion

Gil Fronsdal

Seclusion is an invaluable support for meditation. The types of seclusion emphasized in
Buddhism are those associated with inner freedom, wholeness, and peace. While the
word can have negative connotations in other usages, in Buddhist practice “seclusion”
has positive meanings; it refers to being apart from things that are stressful enough to
interfere with deepening meditation practice and with realizing greater inner freedom.
Meditative seclusion occurs together with feelings of satisfaction, safety, and
contentment. To dip into the fullness of seclusion in meditation is to tap into feelings of
mental health and harmony.

The Buddhist word for seclusion is viveka, which etymologically means to “separate
apart.” In addition to “seclusion”, viveka refers to the mindful separating apart or
distinguishing of different aspects of our experience. By seeing the difference between
healthy and unhealthy impulses, meditators have a better chance of avoiding getting
involved with the unhealthy ones, i.e., they can remain secluded from them. By
distinguishing mental freedom from mental attachments, one can discover how
choosing freedom provides beneficial seclusion from attachments.

The most basic seclusion useful for meditation is physical seclusion, meditating in a
place and time away from the distracting activities of daily life. Some meditators will go
to a quiet room, a relatively empty or uncluttered place, or somewhere outdoors
removed from ordinary hustle and bustle. Some find a wonderful seclusion by
meditating early in the morning when there is quiet and stillness. Such physical
solitude allows for a greater focus on one’s meditation practice. Connecting to the
immediacy of one’s experience is easier when one is surrounded by quiet and stillness
rather than people talking or busy with activity. Meditation can also be easier when we
are removed from — i.e., secluded from — beckoning smartphones, tempting TV shows,
and pinging emails.

One form of physical seclusion is meditation retreats. Retreating from everyday life is
not meant to be an escape or rejection of this life. Rather, it is a way to heal the
fragmentation and self-alienation many people experience in the midst of a busy
everyday life. Meditation retreats are a time to get back in touch with oneself, to become
whole again. One dictionary definition for viveka is “singleness of heart.” I understand
this to be a description of our deepest inner life becoming unified, whole, and available
for wisdom and love. In this sense, meditation retreats are a retreating back to a more
authentic way of being. It is a seclusion which allows for a reconnecting to aspects of
ourselves lost in a life of distraction and preoccupation.

The inner unification and “singleness of heart” possible in meditation is supported by a
reduced mental involvement with sense experience. While this is sometimes described
as seclusion from sense experience, it is more accurately a seclusion from any
preoccupation with what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and, in deep meditation,
felt in the body. As the mind settles into a sense of peace, contentment and safety, it
does not look toward sense experience for pleasure, fulfillment, or improvement. When
there is less mental involvement with reacting, adjusting, and thinking about physical
sensations, it is easier to let go of common preoccupations of the mind. The process of
sensory seclusion is not a rejection or avoiding of sense experience. Rather it is a
natural consequence of the mind becoming increasingly settled in itself without
awareness actively directed outward through the five senses.

As meditation deepens, the mind tends to lose interest in discursive thinking, i.e.,
ongoing thinking that involves talking to oneself, carrying on conversations with others,
or providing commentary about something. Such thinking starts to be seen as a kind of
outward-directed attention by which one loses a deeper sense of wholeness or
connection to oneself. As thinking quiets during meditation, a meditator can experience
mental seclusion from discursive thinking. When this includes no longer thinking about
the past or the future, being settled in the present allows for increasing degrees of
clarity and peace. In such mental seclusion, there may be quieter and more subtle
thinking about the meditation experience itself that does not disconnect us from the
settling process of meditation.

An important form of seclusion is seclusion from the hindrances. Often occurring with
discursive thinking, the hindrances are powerful preoccupations with desire, aversion,
sloth, impatience, regrets, and doubts. These are usually outward directed fixations of
the mind. A big part of meditation practice is to first learn to recognize the hindrances
and then to learn how little value there is in being preoccupied with them. Much more
valuable is separating oneself from involvement with them so that one can have a
deeper intimacy with one’s immediate, direct experience.

These various forms of seclusion contribute to a greater clarity of awareness. When
attention is not crowded with hindrances, thinking, and fixation with sense experience,
awareness can become steady and clear enough for insight. One primary insight is
seeing how the mind clings and what it clings to. In the Buddhist analysis of the mind,
clinging is understood to be all the ways the mind gets attached, strains, resists, pushes
away, shuts down, or pretends what is not true to be true.

When this is seen clearly enough, the meditative mind begins a process of relaxing and
letting go of clinging. This leads to two forms of seclusion from clinging. The first is
temporary, the second is permanent. In meditation, the temporary seclusion of mind is
when a meditator is settled deeply enough into the meditation that there is no
involvement with or tendency to cling. To have a significant experience of temporary
seclusion from clinging can be transformative. A person can then know that clinging is
optional and that the mind does have the capacity to be free of clinging. In addition,
one’s hope, expectation, and heavy investment in clinging can be questioned: does
clinging ever live up to the promise that seems to accompany it?

The permanent seclusion from clinging is what Buddhism refers to as awakening. Often
described as an “uprooting”, this is an ending of one’s tendency to cling. Small
awakenings can do away with minor clinging; fuller awakenings uproot major
attachments. The seclusion that follows from this uprooting is not a retreating or
avoiding of the world; it allows a person to be in the middle of the world without clinging
to any of it (and therefore, not entangled in it).

Understanding the usefulness of the various forms of seclusion — physical seclusion,
sensory seclusion, and seclusion from discursive thinking, hindrances and
attachments — can lead a meditator to value experiences of seclusion as they occur. As
they are recognized and appreciated, it can be easier to avoid getting involved with
concerns that cause one to lose the seclusion. Through recognition, the mind is more
likely to settle into a wholesome and beneficial seclusion. With recognition, we can also
guide the mind toward further freedom from attachments. Wise seclusion is a stepping
stone to freedom and a form of freedom in itself. With the help of seclusion, meditation
is a path to fuller and fuller experiences of freedom.