August 28, 2014

King of the Road: On Loneliness and Solitude

When we stop to analyze our daily lives, we discover how many of our activities are constructed to assuage a fear of being alone. We wait in lines at restaurants and take several hours to eat a meal that we could quickly have prepared at home. We go out to crowded malls shopping for things we don't even need. We go to a book store to browse the shelves for half an hour and spend two hours in the coffee shop, chatting with strangers. We join clubs, social organizations, and religions for no other reason than to avoid being alone with ourselves and to gain a sense of belonging. Belonging to what?

Why should I feel alone? Is not our planet in the Milky Way?
- Henry David Thoreau: Walden: Solitude

Roger Miller, that lyrical genius from Texas, was propelled to stardom in 1965 when he released King of the Road, an album which showcased his most famous song of the same name. It begins "Trailers for sale or rent, Rooms to let - 50 cents. No phone, no pool, no pets. Ain't got no cigarettes. Ah but two hours of pushing broom buys an 8 by 12 four-bit room. He's a man of means by no means. King of the road."

Why should this song, inspired when Miller saw a hobo in an airport gift shop, have endeared itself to so many millions of us? No matter what our economic or religious backgrounds were, we all tuned in to listen to the contented account of this vagabond King of the Road. Was it that we had never before considered what a life of simplicity could do for us? Roger Miller made us think about our lives and that part of us that craves simplicity and the joyful freedom that it brings.

But if simplicity is so desirable, why do we strive so hard to lead such complicated lives? What one part of us craves, the other fears.

The King of the Road traveled his highway alone. Always we tend to equate being alone with being rejected and alienated. The song intrigued us because it was a testament to solitude - and solitude is the opposite of loneliness.

Loneliness doesn't like being alone. Solitude is delighted to be with itself. Why is it that we human beings are so ashamed or afraid to be alone with ourselves? We awake in the morning and the first thing we do is turn on the television whose job it is, we insist, to stay on until we are ready for sleep at the end of the day. Whether we watch it or not, we like to hear the voices and activities of other people. Somehow, even images from a cathode-ray tube comfort us.

When we stop to analyze our daily lives, we discover how many of our activities are constructed to assuage this fear of being alone. We wait in lines at restaurants and take several hours to eat a meal that we could quickly have prepared at home. We go out to crowded malls shopping for things we don't even need. We go to a book store to browse the shelves for half an hour and spend two hours in the coffee shop, chatting with strangers. We join clubs, social organizations, and religions for no other reason than to avoid being alone with ourselves and to gain a sense of belonging. Belonging to what?

The irony is that spiritual growth, that objective common to all religions, tells us to look inward and not outward … and this mandates that we somehow manage to transform those raging fears of loneliness into the tranquil love of solitude. Zen has a solution for us: it begins with simplifying our lives. When we are incessantly in motion - managing our households, taking care of our families, working at our demanding jobs - when every moment of our waking life is filled with activity there is no time for us to look inward. Something or someone clamors for our attention; and in a very real sense we are relieved to think that we have an excuse or a reason to divert our attention away from our spiritual needs.

We begin by examining each of our activities, and with fierce honesty ask ourselves if it’s one we need. If we can omit it, we do.

Let’s examine the common example of attending religious services. Do we go to the local Zendo or temple once or twice a week because we feel obliged to go? Or because we might otherwise feel guilty? Are we trying to prove to ourselves or to others that we are good Buddhists? Perhaps we spend an hour preparing ourselves for the occasion, an hour driving to the event in busy traffic, and an hour sitting in attendance - and all the while the chores we have postponed are weighing heavy on us … the laundry must be done, groceries bought, garbage taken out, email checked, phone calls returned, and bills paid. As we sit to meditate or to listen to a sermon, our minds are swirling with thoughts of neglected responsibilities and with those lingering traffic tensions. Stressed out, we're not prepared to meditate or, in any other way, to attend to our inner lives. When the service is over, we drive back home praying only that with a little luck we can still get all our chores done. It doesn't require much analysis to understand that we've wasted too much time and that our efforts have been counter-productive. But usually we don't stop to analyze anything. We continue to delude ourselves, following a program that on the surface appears to satisfy spiritual needs. In fact, our program has succeeded only in taking us farther away from our spiritual goal.

Zen requires that we simplify our religious practice as well as our lives. Instead of wasting time acquiring unnecessary material goods or postponing important domestic duties in order to participate in fruitless religious events, we can attend to what is truly important and then, when we do sit down to meditate, we can relax and be free of anxiety. The disciplines of material and social detachment are like any other disciplines.

As we strip away the layers of activity in our lives to the bare essentials, a whole new universe unfolds within us -- we become free of the burdens we carry and quickly discover the joys of solitude. We become an Independent Person on our Path, or as Miller put it, a King of the Road.

Trailers for sale or rent,
Rooms to let - 50 cents,
No phone, no pool, no pets,
Ain't got no cigarettes, ah but
Two hours of pushing broom
buys an 8 by 12 four-bit room
He's a man of means by no means
King of the road.

Third box car midnight train
Destination Bangor, Maine
Old worn-out suits and shoes,
Don't pay no union dues.
He smokes old stogies he has found
Short, but not too big around
He's a man of means by no means
King of the road

(He knows) Every engineer on every train
All of their children and all of their names
And every hang-out in every town
Every lock that ain't locked
When no one's around.

I say, Trailers for sale or rent,
Rooms to let - 50 cents,
No phone, no pool, no pets,
Ain't got no cigarettes.
I've got two hours of pushing broom
buys an 8 by 12 four-bit room
He's a man of means by no means
King of the road.

The original scribbling of the "King of the Road" lyrics by Roger Miller now hang in a shadow-box at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Articles by Chuan Zhi

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