Offered by Cole Mannella on April 8, 2021
island of self
When we walk into our own home, we can relax, let our hair down, and just be ourselves. We feel warm, comfortable, safe, and content. Home is a place where loneliness can disappear. But where is home, really?
Our true home is what the Buddha called "the island of self," the peaceful place inside of us. Oftentimes we don’t notice it’s there; we don’t even really know where we are, because our outer or inner environment is filled with noise. We need some quietness to find that island of self.
Every time you feel unwell, agitated, sad, afraid, or worried—these are times to use mindful breathing to go back home to your island of mindfulness. If you regularly practice mindfulness, going back to your island at the times when you aren’t experiencing difficulty, then when you do have a problem it will be much easier and more enjoyable to find that safe place and go home again.
You are fortunate enough to know the practice of mindfulness; please make good use of the practice to strengthen the connection to your true home. Do not wait until you are hit by a giant wave to try to go back to your island. Practice going back as often as you can by living the ordinary moments of your life mindfully. Then when, inevitably, difficult moments in life do arrive, going home will be natural and easy to do.
Walking, breathing, sitting, eating, and drinking tea in mindfulness—all these are concrete practices of taking refuge that you can enjoy many times every day. You have the seed of mindfulness in you; that seed is always there. Your in-breath and out-breath are always available. You have the island within yourself. Taking refuge on that island through mindfulness is a matter of daily practice.
When people hear the phrase “the island of self,” they often think it means they have to live alone and have to shut people and everything else out of their life. But this practice, this kind of “living alone,” doesn’t mean there’s no one around you. It only means that you are established firmly in the here and now; you are aware of everything that is happening in the present moment.
You use your mindfulness to become aware of everything, of every feeling, every perception in yourself, as well as what’s happening around you in your community. You are always with yourself; you don’t lose yourself. That is the deeper way of living a life of solitude.
To practice solitude is to practice being in this singular moment, not caught in the past, not carried away by the future, and most of all, not carried away by the crowd. You don’t have to go to the forest. You can live with people, you can go to the grocery store, you can walk with others—and you can still enjoy silence and solitude. In today’s society, with so many things around you clamoring for your attention and your reaction, that inner solitude is something you have to learn.
It is good to spend some time physically alone each day as well. You might think that you can be joyful only when you are with other people, talking and laughing and playing around. But joy and happiness can be very great in solitude as well—so deep that you are more able to share. If you have deep joy and happiness, developed in solitude, then you have a lot to give. Without the capacity for being alone, you become more and more depleted. And when you don’t have enough nourishment for yourself, you don’t have much to offer others. That’s why learning to live in solitude is important.
Each day, devote some time to being physically alone, because that makes it easier to practice nourishing yourself and looking deeply. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to practice being alone and looking deeply when you’re with a crowd of people. It is possible. Even if you’re sitting in the marketplace, you can be alone and not be carried away by the crowd. You are still yourself, still the master of yourself. Likewise, you can still be yourself even if you are in a lively group discussion and even if there is a strong collective emotion. You can continue to dwell safely and solidly in your own island.
These are the two dimensions of solitude, and they are both important. The first is to be alone physically. The second is to be able to be yourself and stay centered even in the midst of a group. It is because you are comfortable in solitude that you can be in communion with the world. I feel connected to you because I am fully myself. It’s simple: to really relate to the world, you have to first go back and relate to yourself.
In Plum Village, we have a song called “The Island of Self.” You might like to use it as a guided meditation as you sit or walk in mindfulness.
I go back to the island within myself.
There are beautiful trees within the island.
There are clear streams of water;
there are birds, sunshine, and fresh air.
Breathing out, I feel safe.
I enjoy going back to my island.