For most, personal space is an indispensable commodity. While traveling on London Underground recently, I noticed how everyone in the carriage had strategically sat so that there was an empty seat in-between them. Rather than filling the gap, a boarding passenger walked all the way to the other side of the train where he found a reasonable amount of vacant real estate. Interesting indeed. It’s a stark contrast to Indian trains where people can practically sit on top of you without a second thought! Although modern culture prides itself in personal space and privacy, the traditional cultures of communal setup and public life may be more supportive to our spirituality. Close company of others is not only inspirational and instructive, but also highly protective.
Where do your thoughts and actions gravitate towards when you are alone? What is your natural level of spiritual absorption behind closed doors? Good questions to assess our spiritual whereabouts, since our weaknesses are often exposed when nobody else is watching. Monastic life, traditionally a student phase, is therefore highly public. Being surrounded by so many spiritual eyes is actually a great protection, forcing one to function on a higher level. It may seem artificial and forced, but spending a good portion of your life under such supervision gives you a good chance of developing the maturity and stability to do it alone.
Yet privacy has its part to play - how can we hear the soul when everyone else is talking? Quiet time alone fuels our introspection and reflection. When we are away from the gaze of others, with nobody to impress and nothing to achieve, it can help us dig a little deeper and develop more sincerity and genuineness. We can't always be in the full view of others, because while managing their impressions of us, we become addicted to praise and affirmation, unknowingly chained to public opinion. In exhausting ourselves to be somebody in their eyes, we never quite find ourselves... we never find God.
The saints conclude that privacy is a dangerous necessity. Embrace it with caution - it can make you or break you.