The art of finding peace in solitude
Mastering the art of solitude has a range of potentially life-changing rewards if you can learn to embrace it. Here, we discover the difference between being alone and being lonely and what you can do to keep a healthy balance.
While solitude might present you with images of monks and yogis, those with social anxiety or eccentric millionaires, it is a state of being that is crucial for all of us if we want to live an authentic life, tap into our strengths, confront our weaknesses and challenge our habits.
It is true that some of us naturally prefer time alone and relish or even need this solitude for our own mental health. Indeed, approximately 50 per cent of the population can be considered as introverts, both enjoying and requiring time spent by themselves to ensure they are fit for company when they re-emerge. For the other 50 per cent of the population however, being alone is the antithesis of how they like to live their lives, and the thought of being away from others can have some pretty negative connotations.
Although aloneness and loneliness are often thought of as one and the same, they are very different experiences.
Many of the fears and criticisms that exist around the idea of seeking out solitude are that it marks us as being vain, self-indulgent, selfish, escapist and avoiders of responsibilities, problems and even work. Yet these attitudes don’t necessarily come from modern ideas about being productive or being accessible: instead they come from the stories told about the way in which human beings successfully evolved from a very basic existence to the range of societies we see today.
In his book Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter, author and philosophy professor Philip Koch suggests that negative reactions to solitude are potentially due to human evolution achieving success through companionship, so that some of us have an inherent reaction to solitude as somehow being unnatural. Because of this evolutionary process, where we developed a core need for connectedness and companionship, many of us have become unskilled when it comes to being by ourselves and have even become fearful of it. Yet being alone is just as important for our health and wellbeing as being connected.
Although aloneness and loneliness are often thought of as one and the same, they are very different experiences. Learning to be alone creates a foundation for our development and growth as human beings: we become self-reliant, we learn to trust our inner voice and instincts, we learn who we are and we can make better choices to help us to become our ideal selves.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is very often a state that does not come from choice. For example, it still the thing for children to be isolated when they have done the wrong thing, to think about being alone as a punishment, yet for author Sara Maitland (How To Be Alone) it should instead be a reward — something we value and treasure.
When we are too afraid to be alone or feel anxious at the prospect, we can overwhelm those around us, become too needy and jeopardise our relationships when they are what we crave the most.
For others, being alone is more about circumstance: the loss of employment and homelessness, the death of a loved one, mental health disorders that trigger withdrawal and self-isolation, illness, injury or disability. In these circumstances and others, where aloneness has been forced upon us, loneliness can have a significant consequence, creating a downward spiral that can damage our physical, emotional and psychological health.
Solitude, however, can be an enormously powerful and positive thing in our lives. Indeed, for those of us who learn to truly embrace the experience, it can improve our health and our sense of calm, and it can enhance our relationships and our outlook on life. For others, it can be the beginning of a new-found spirituality or a source of joy and contentment.
Benefits of solitude
Dropping our social guard
When we are alone, we have the sudden freedom to be introspective, to think for ourselves, to understand our values, our motives, our goals. We can make more authentic choices and decisions about who we are and what we want without being influenced by societal or cultural expectations, by the wishes and desires of others, or by the pressures associated with comparing ourselves to the successes of our peers.
Very often, we are swayed by the thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs and behaviour of those in our social, professional and family circles, and while this isn’t always a bad thing we can get into patterns of deferment where we believe others know best. And while tuning into what others have to say can be useful, making up our own minds about what is best means our choices are more in line with our beliefs and values, hopes and dreams.
With so many ways and opportunities to communicate with each other, and an easy dependence on our devices, we are more socially active than ever before, and we spend more time working outside our designated hours, checking emails, accepting calls, rarely checking out but always checking in. Unfortunately, this does not leave our brains with much downtime or space to rejuvenate. But our brains need balance, and while social interactions are important to give us a sense of belonging, we also need to have enough time and space to unwind and recharge.
While some us fear solitude or downtime as an excuse for being lazy or avoiding tasks that need to be done, getting rid of unnecessary distractions for a while gives us space to concentrate, prioritise and come back to our jobs with a clearer mind, energy and motivation. When we are constantly interrupted, even by small things or quick distractions, our train of thought is disrupted and our ability to achieve reduced. Solitude can help us harness our attention and our efforts.
Reflection not rumination
Self-reflection is a crucial component of our evolution from who we are to who we want to be, from having goals to succeeding, and from getting caught up in difficulties to problem-solving. When we reflect on ourselves, and on where we are in life, we can readjust the way we are doing things, the way we are thinking and feeling, to realign ourselves with the direction in which we want to head.
However, self-reflection is a productive and proactive action whereby we work out what we need to keep doing and what we need to change or manage in order to be what and where we want to be in our personal and professional lives, in our relationships and in our selves. It is not rumination, which is a destructive action that keeps us stuck in place, doesn’t help us problem-solve and instead makes us helpless and even hopeless. It is vital, when engaging in solitude, to avoid rumination in favour of self-reflection.
Boost your creativity
Many famous writers, artists, thinkers and inventors have sung the praises of solitude for centuries. Creativity tends to flourish in solitude, with studies showing that we are more likely to come up our best ideas when we are alone rather than in a group or collaborative environment.
One of the reasons for this may be that because we are generally sensitive to criticism, solitude gives us the freedom to let go of our defensiveness and fear to think more freely, to express ourselves without the usual social or ego-protective editing we might do, and to really push our minds and challenge any lingering conservatism associated with the fear of ridicule or failure.
Strengthen your relationships
While it might seem to be contradictory, there are a few reasons why solitude can be beneficial to our relationships. First is that it is important in even the most intimate relationships for us to maintain a level of independence that not only keeps the relationship interesting but also helps us to retain our sense of self.
Additionally, when we have time alone we recharge for social interactions. We become more engaged, we appreciate others more and we learn to be grateful for those we value. This is especially true for those who need solitude for their mental health, who can become overwhelmed by too much social interaction.
The same though is true for those of us who crave social interaction. When we are too afraid to be alone or feel anxious at the prospect, we can overwhelm those around us, become too needy and jeopardise our relationships when they are what we crave the most. Learning to be on our own not only helps us to understand the boundaries that healthy relationships need, it also teaches us what we need from our relationships to make better choices about who we spend our time with.
Connect with something bigger
Solitary reflection can enhance our recognition and appreciation of important personal relationships and can encourage us to reorganise our priorities. When engaged in the practice of solitude we can clarify, evaluate and redirect ourselves by setting more authentic goals for the future; it can also trigger a new or renewed consideration of the spiritual and/or religious facets of life that may have been suppressed or pushed to the back of our minds.
Solitude, especially in nature, often enhances spiritual awareness, making us feel closer to God or to something larger than ourselves. It can encourage a tuning into the exploration of spirituality in all its forms.
How to be alone
Getting to the point where we can embrace solitude will be different for everyone for a range of reasons. With so many of us out of practice or having never thought to pursue it, being alone can be confronting. Once you begin to experience the benefits of solitude however, you may well find that your comfort about being alone increases to the point of wanting or even needing to regularly schedule it into your life.
Starting off small is often the best approach for many endeavours, and solitude is no different.
One of the easiest ways to experience solitude without having to venture into remote territory is to begin to practise meditation. However, you still need to ensure that you are alone in your space, distraction-free. Deep meditative practice takes time to master but can be a worthwhile pursuit in the search for solitude. Being alone can bring you closer to your inner self, allowing you to access the creative and intuitive aspects you may not have known you possess.
Dive into imagination
Daydreaming, activating your imagination, evoking memories and dreams can be a lovely way to experience solitude. Psychologist Carl Jung was a keen proponent of reverie, and not only practised himself but encouraged it in his patients.
He suggested that embracing solitude and returning to thoughts of joy and happiness helps us to reclaim the kind of safe alone time we experienced in childhood. Using these daydreams and memories to trigger creative activity is also a wonderful way to explore our minds, our pasts and our inner world.
Get into nature
Being truly alone in nature can be both terrifying and exciting, bringing a sense of perspective to our existence that we cannot feel in our usual lives. When completely alone we can focus our attention on the environment, on the scents, sounds, vastness and minutiae of it.
Research in the areas of wilderness therapy and environmental psychology have found that when we spend time alone outdoors we experience a range of therapeutic benefits, including reducing stress and restoring our attention. It also creates a contrasting experience to normal living that enriches us mentally, physically and emotionally: we can become more attuned to what matters most in our lives and in the world as a whole.
Bringing back old skills
When we were infants and small children, solitude was not feared but rather an opportunity to explore the world. Unfortunately, we can lose this comfort in solitude as cultural pressures demand that we be popular, that we be seen to be busy and that we avoid being seen as a “loner”.
Re-engaging with the practice of solitude for self-exploration, to pursue creative interests, to seek out knowledge or to challenge ourselves in nature or in our minds can reinvigorate us, help us to achieve our dreams and goals and bring us to a point of greater appreciation for those we love, for the world in which we live and for all that we so often take for granted.
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