As I tuned in, I noticed that I was hearing not only Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C. Major, but a cacophony of noise provided by my own mind.
I recently attended a concert by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. I went alone, but sat among 500 people. Cellist Amit Peled performed as soloist, but even he was not alone. Peled played beautifully against the background melody provided by the rest of the orchestra. Even though my attention focused on Peled, both the soloist and the musicians playing behind him created my musical experience. As I tuned in, I noticed that I was hearing not only Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C. Major, but a cacophony of noise provided by my own mind.
Just as the soloist was accompanied by dozens of other performers, my perception of the concert was accompanied by past mental structures. Thoughts, sensations, and images sounded, not always in harmony, with the orchestra. Even though most of my awareness was on the music, it did not take long for my mind to attribute the rising emotions to people outside the concert hall and for my eye to scan the room for familiar faces. Beautiful music, but I was not alone enough to enjoy it. The distractions came from within.
For the past year, I have been preparing for my qualifying exam for a PhD program in South Asian Studies. Almost every waking moment, aside from time to meditate and eat, was dedicating to reading long book lists for the exam and to meeting with my committee members to discuss what I was learning. I spent most of the year in a small studio apartment in the Berkeley hills, but because my mind was constantly mindful and engaged, I never felt alone.
… even though I spent more time with people, I felt more alone.
Ironically, it was not until after I passed the exam and took a couple weeks of vacation that I began to feel restless and lonely. In an effort to heal my tortured body, I slept in, read almost nothing, ate all my favorite foods, visited friends, and spent a lot of time in nature. In contrast to the intense focus of preparing for the exam, my mind spaced out and drifted away with my imagination. As a consequence, even though I spent more time with people, I felt more alone. Since my mind wandered aimlessly and with great distraction, I began to lose touch with my awareness of arising mental structures. In fact, in my desire to enjoy myself, I was almost ready to overlook them altogether.
Solitude is a state of mind more than a position of proximity. I have observed that my mind is constantly processing data. If I am attentive, I am able to catch the rising of karmic sensations before my discursive mind tries to rationalize the experience. If not, I face the consequence of my mind attributing meaning to the rising sensation. The trouble starts when I get attached to such meaning because it has no real relation to the present context. The attributed meaning is constructed by my mind, but confusedly felt to exist on the basis of the past karma being experienced. When I observe rising karmic structures early in their flow—before the mind creates an understanding of them, whether I am by myself or with people, I do not feel alone. As Aśvagoṣa makes clear in Saundarananda, “Solitude is delightful for a man who is calm and contented, who has an understanding of reality and who makes careful investigations.”
 Aśvagoṣa, Handsome Nanda. Trans. Linda Covill. Clay Sanskrit Library. (New York: New York Univeristy Press and JJC Foundation, 2007), 357.