The Sweet Confinement of Your Aloneness

Tuesday, March 14, 2017 - 5:00 am

The Sweet Confinement of Your Aloneness

There are times when you find yourself completely surrendered to the power of a moment. David Whyte’s voice filled the air one morning, as wave after wave of sound was the siren song turning my head. This was one of those moments. I plunged into the abyss of his words. And in wordless thought, I knew instinctively that here was another piece of home. I was captured, mulling over the rich tones of a haunted message:

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.”

Listening to David Whyte was a religious experience. While other Muslims knelt on a prayer mat, I answered to another call:

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness…”

I am a Muslim reformer, a conduit fostering a renewed spirit of questioning to a faith that was once rich with beautiful questions. The path I’m on is a painfully solitary one. It’s far removed from the fanfare of bylines and adoration of followers. My day-to-day is a space-time blur that finds me deeply knotted in my thoughts. And having been here for so long, I can no longer separate the film of normalcy with this new self marked by tireless inquiry and endless leaps of faith.

Though I know the world is carried by others who raise the torch of a question mark, others few and far who share our passion, it is still largely a very singular path. That is the most difficult thing about being a Muslim reformer — the vast loneliness of it.

When I heard David Whyte’s powerful line on darkness and being truly alive, there was a promise that I wasn’t quite alone in this sweet confinement. Here was this deeply grounded man, oak born of spirit and earth whose voice anchored me in the stillness and peace of a truth I felt so alone in living out.

A Radical Solitude

Referencing his friend and poet John O’Donohue, David Whyte points to a necessary task of a “…radical letting-alone of yourself in the world. Letting the world speak in its own voice and letting this deeper sense of yourself speak out.”

The aloneness is clearly essential. But why is this state of solitude — something that I would call both a gift and curse — so heavily critical for free thinkers? Sharing his belief on the value of silence, David reflects:

“In silence you find the death of the periphery, the outside concerns and the place where you’ve been building your personality and where you’ve been building who you are starts to atomize and fall apart…that giving over to something that seems like it’s going to be undermining you to begin with and lead to your demise. And the intuition unfortunately is correct. You are heading to your demise; it’s leading to a richer, deeper place that doesn’t get corroborated very much in our everyday outer world.”

Birthing another powerful theme in the conversation, it’s the aloneness that allows us to ask a “beautiful question.” The power of that question is in the asking, and not necessarily in the immediacy of any answers.

My own ability to invoke beautiful and more powerful questions over time is linked to the vast isolation that is a graveyard of the deconstructed self. Questions like, why are we experiencing the most chaotic outburst of religious fanaticism today during the most innovative period in modern history? Or, how can we look to past Islamic civilizations as a torch for moving out of this darkness? And, how can we use the tapestry of Islam’s origin story to weave a new narrative?

These are the questions that can be asked once “darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness” teach that a fixed identity is too small for you. It cannot bring you alive. It is the space in which you’re free to move outside yourself so that you can better survey the landscape that includes your own being.

The Self as a Moveable Frontier

David Whyte uses the term “a moveable frontier” to speak of his own complex linguistic identity. But to think of the self as a moveable frontier is a powerful crack in the gods our identities become, and the altars upon which we sacrifice beautiful questions.

That takes deep meditative attention, a space that is provided only in solitude. As David Whyte adds:

“As you deepen this intentionality and attention, you started to broaden and deepen your own sense of presence…The only place where things were actually real were at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you.”

The duality of a real self versus a constructed self is the most challenging obstacle in the last evolution of man. It’s a complex labyrinth of illusion between a self that is awake and a shadow self that merely exists. The shadow self is a tulpa, an imaginary construct that’s real only because we believe it to be real. But alone in a tundra of ice and dark where there is nothing for it to feed off it, it eventually succumbs to the nothingness by becoming part of it. It atomizes.

Instead we have something transformative. We have something exploratory and full of possibility. We have a “sense of horizon, distance and invitation” that offers the vastness of space needed to meet the greatness we know lies within us.

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Contributor

is a writer and Director of Muslim Matters at America Matters. She is currently working on her first book, Islam’s Origin Story.

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Reflections

  • Ivan Hestdahl

    SHIREEN QUDOSI, thank you for this beautiful post. Your hommage to David Whyte`s poetry and reflections is so full of respect and understanding. It`s so easy to be lead astray by clever wordsmiths, promising, like your average politician, quick and easy cures to complex experiences. What I also gain from Whyte is a solid optimism and hopefulness. Which is exactly the same tone that crystalizes (as opposed to the “atomizing” you mentioned) so beautifully in the last sentence of your own post.

    • SHIREEN QUDOSI

      Thank you. It was such a challenge to choose just one element of the incredible and rich dialogue between David and Krista, which I fully recommend listening to if you haven’t already.

  • Gabby

    You write:”Though I know the world is carried by others who raise the torch of a question mark, others few and far who share our passion…” I don’t think people who are of a questioning nature are few and far between at all, though that may be true among those with whom you are most closely connected. Questioning, at least within ourselves, is close to universal, I believe, not to mention encouraged within many cultural traditions.

    I don’t think it takes anything away from the questioner to acknowledge being one of many. We lose nothing by recognizing we are part of a broader us even as each of us is singular, a mere copy of no one.

    Reflection is by its nature solitary for each of us and requires some privacy to do it. One can think of this as being radically alone, but really it is the same for all of us that we are partly alone in our thoughts with no one understanding us totally or thinking exactly as we do but also perpetually connected to other living things if we choose to feel that.

    • SHIREEN QUDOSI

      Agreed. This is not about me as an individual. It is about many individuals.
      The sea in a drop as much as drops in a sea.

  • Gregory

    A beautifully written piece that resonates deeply within me. Likewise, I have loved the David Whyte passages quoted. Just read your coming of age story at your website. What a fascinating journey thus far!

    • SHIREEN QUDOSI

      Thank you. I’m so glad to hear it resonated with you.

  • corey949

    I’m deeply moved by your piece. Your identity as a “Muslim reformer” strikes a chord in me as a Jew who has spent years exploring parts of our history and culture that are often considered outside the “mainstream” — everything from the mysticism of the Kabbalists and early Hasidim to the secular Yiddish-speaking poets and revolutionaries of 19th century Eastern Europe. Between 1979 and 2012 I was a founding member of Traveling Jewish Theatre. We took up these themes at a time when many young American Jews were searching for deeper connections to their tradition and protesting the rightward drift of Israel’s governments. The “Jewish Renewal” movement had a real effect on American Jewish culture as it brought values of inclusion, equality and connection to the fore. The recent alliances between American Muslim and Jewish communities in response to threats from white “Christian” supremacists has been one of the most positive developments I’ve experienced since the election. Thank you so much for your eloquence and courage.

    • SHIREEN QUDOSI

      Thank you for such a thoughtful message. Jewish mysticism is fascinating and I’m grateful that intelligent minds have found ways to simplify the message of Kabbalah for the rest of us. That core message is one of the simplest most powerful testaments to faith.

  • Ron Davis

    Your piece was exactly what I needed to read this morning. I am a practicing Soto Zen Buddhist, and the paragraph, “The duality of a real self versus a constructed self…” pointed directly at where I am in my practice. Thank you.

  • kdlr

    Beautiful – resonates with my current experience; not in the sense that I am a religious or cultural reformer, but in the definition of “aloneness”. I loved how it turns this somewhat melancholic state of being into a state of beautiful rebirth.