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Working Alone

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

I became aware this morning of how much time I spend alone. Maybe the big change this Fall has been in the increase in the amount of time I spend writing. I am enjoying my new discipline, but I am alone a lot, writing two to four hours a day, at least five days a week, and I’m still walking two hours a day, mostly solo, although Dee or Morri walks with me occasionally.

This is a big change for me. My lifelong preference has been to work with other people. As a kid I preferred team sports, despite my lack of skill. I did better in tennis and swimming, but I preferred basketball. It didn’t matter that I was too short and couldn’t jump. I found my college home in the theater. Theater was definitely a team sport. I have always been energized by collaboration.

But I didn’t really recognize my preference until after social work school when I got into mental health. I lucked into a job in the outpatient clinic of a community mental health center, and worked for a year as an outpatient therapist. As a therapist, it seems that you’re never alone, always with patients. The “with” is an illusion. In my psychotherapy practice, “with” was definitely the wrong preposition. I was more working “on” patients than “with” them. I was working alone. I kept thinking of something that Geri Fink, a psychiatrist/psychoanalyst on our community mental health team had said to me. “You know, I sit in my office and the patients come and go and I resent it. They get to leave after 50 minutes, and I have to sit there hour after hour.”

When after three years, the Universe took me to the inpatient psych unit, I knew immediately what I had been missing. Inpatient work was team practice, at least it was in those days of milieu therapy. I loved it. For three years, working halftime on inpatient, I wrote my dissertation. The dissertation was lonely work, but I was okay with it, I see now, because I was collaborating in the mornings on inpatient, going home to write in the afternoon.

When we started building our network of charter schools, I was thrilled to define education as a team practice. We spent a lot of time, developing practices which encouraged faculty sharing. I didn’t think of it then, but Bernie might have called them Upayas.

But here’s a strange thing. In my Zen practice, I was not a Sangha guy. For many years, I put that down to my social awkwardness. The thing I hated most about being president of the Zen community was the obligation to participate in potluck suppers. I had learned to handle other parties by bolting a few quick drinks. There was never any alcohol at the potlucks. I just hated them. I hadn’t come to Zen to find a girlfriend. I came to Zen for a reprieve from the busyness of my professional and personal life. I was looking for a place to sit still and shut up. I realize now that the Sangha practice seems much more a social thing than collaboration.

Maybe that’s in the nature of all spiritual practice. Although I wonder if singing in a church choir could be different, it’s certainly my experience of Zen that we all sit down alone on our cushions. Even if we believe that all the buddhas and bodhisattvas throughout space and time are sitting with us, each of us is sitting alone with them.

Bernie tried to envision a more collaborative approach to Zen practice. He talked for a while about no longer giving transmission to individuals but only to groups. He never went through with the idea. Zen remains a solo practice, even as I have discovered wonderful companions on the way. But we are not collaborating, even if we are studying together. We are not solving a problem together, even if we are encouraging each other on our individual journeys. It may look like we are playing together, but we are really playing alone, side-by-side.

Developmental psychologists call it “parallel play.” I am not unhappy playing that way.

Actually, I love it, but this way of Zen practice, my way of Zen practice, doesn’t bring me the joy of collaboration.

Walking along the ocean or through the woods, I am noticing what is missing in my life. I feel the void of collaborative practice. But at this moment, I am not looking to change anything. I am exhilarated by this new way (for me) of engaging with the Universe which, here in my second retirement, I have meandered into. I am writing. And I am enjoying the accomplishment, the accumulation of the words. I am frolicking in the advice — I think this came to me from Natalie Goldberg — “You just take care of the quantity. Let God (or the Universe) take care of the quality.” I need alone time, often as much as four hours a day, to get my 2,000 words.

Although writing is a solo flight, I could find others to walk with. I could find a training partner for my resistance workouts. But all this alone time gives me enormous flexibility. I get to the gym twice a week, mostly in the mornings, but I can flex the days and the times depending on what else is going on. I don’t have to worry about a training partner’s schedule. Same with my walks. “This,” as Paco used to say, “is not a J-O-B.” I don’t have to adhere rigidly to a schedule. I can respond to family requests for help. No worries. I can adjust my schedule to accommodate. It is so wonderful not to have to say, “Sorry, I have to work.”

But I am, nevertheless, feeling this unfilled place, this empty space, and sometimes as I’m walking the thought arises, “Maybe I should get involved as a volunteer in some community project, find an opportunity for the collaboration that I’m missing.” It’s a seductive thought.

For me anyway, collaboration has an addictive quality. Where would the time come from? Am I going to walk less? Am I going to write less? Should I skip the gym? Should I give that up so that I can throw myself into a new organization-building project?

I know I am missing the team joy, the rush of collaboration, but my answer right now is, “no.” I am doing something different with my life now than I have ever done before. It is new and exciting. Sometimes. And sometimes, it is new and uncomfortable. I have, as we say, taken myself outside my comfort zone.

Here I am. I am feeling an absence. Do I scramble to fill the gap?

I am smiling.

I am doing my Zen thing. I am just feeling the feeling.

There is no necessity to rush to do something about the feeling, to make the feeling go away. As Bernie would say, this feeling is now one of the ingredients of my life. I am practicing with it. And you know what? As I do my lonely fiction-writing practice, lots of my characters are struggling with the loneliness in their lives.

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