Documenting the Coming Singularity

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Benefits of Solitude

Does the title of this post seem strange to you? The word "solitude" in itself may seem eccentric and out of the ordinary, simply because it’s rarely used in our culture. Think about it: When’s the last time someone you know recommended some solitude to you? Probably in a past life, because it’s unlikely to have happened in this one. What about the term “alone time”? Even there, this phrase means “alone-with-you time,” not alone-by-myself time. The thought of being literally alone is very frightening to most people. After all, we are “pack animals,” as Cesar Millan (The Dog Whisperer, National Geographic channel, great show!) would say. We need to be with a pack. But does that mean we don’t ever need solitude?

Ask yourself this: How hard would it be to find some solitude? I am by myself right now, in my office, alone, writing this blog post. But my phone keeps ringing. Every so often I’ll take a peek at the news on the internet. Maybe I’ll switch on the TV a few times, see if anything big is happening in the world that I should know about. I think I’ll give my wife a call at her work, see what she’s up to. Oh, I just received an email. Better reply to that one. Hmm. No real solitude here. What about you? Where would you go to be truly alone? Used to be you could be alone fairly easily. You could go to a church and find some solitude. Nowadays, churches are used almost around the clock for an overabundance of social activities. When I lived in Jamaica, there were a few places I could go to be alone. There was one particular spot on a mountainside, where I could see the city of Kingston floating beneath me, with the harbor off in the distance, and no one at all nearby. (In those days I had no cell phone umbilical connecting me to the world.) But now, I truly cannot think of a place to find solitude within an hour’s drive.

“I get along fine without it!” you say. “I need to be connected all the time!” you claim. For many of us, the idea of seeking solitude even seems selfish. Well alright, but psychologists would disagree. According to Ester Buchholz, writing for Psychology Today, “Both the need to be alone and to engage others are essential to human happiness and survival, with equally provocative claims.” The mistake we often make is looking at it as a zero-sum situation, one against the other, but in fact, “each profoundly enriches the other.” Additionally, we look at the word “alone” as a negative, a lack of something, when in its original meaning it signified the idea of being “complete in oneself.” The word “solitude,” in a religious context, originally meant the experience of “oneness with God.” These are not negative words at all. They are positive, just as solitude and aloneness themselves are positive and beneficial. So let’s take a look at the benefits of solitude, shall we?

Touching the natural world. What is it about hiking along a thickly wooded trail with the aroma of pine trees and flowering plants for company, or standing on a deserted beach, or sitting on a high mountaintop, that restores balance and tranquility to our overburdened and harried minds? We cannot often reach these types of places in our everyday lives, but often there are tiny islands of seclusion that can be discovered in the midst of busy city life. I can vividly recall one such atoll at the University of the West Indies (UWI). There was an old chapel on campus with a secluded garden next to it to which I could escape from time to time as a quiet respite from ministering to students as I did in those days. Perhaps we benefit from such spaces because of our deep evolutionary connection with all of nature. Whatever the explanation, there can be no doubt that time spent in quietness and surrounded by the natural world, does us quite a bit of good.

Touching our own thoughts. Many in the medical profession have confirmed the beneficial results to physical health and wellbeing of quiet contemplation. Some call it meditation, but we are referring to a period of time when we can be “alone with our thoughts.” Our minds need time to drift freely, without being led around like a dumb animal on a leash by our connections to other people, digital or real. I’ve had the experience many times when, faced with a seemingly unsolvable problem, the answer became crystal clear, not through battering at it with brute mental force, but by allowing my conscious mind to float free, while my subconscious unraveled the puzzle. Without even being aware of the process, our minds use solitude to sort through and catalogue our experiences, put them in order and perspective, and replenish our mental energies. In the words of Ester Buchholz:

“Now, more than ever, we need our solitude. Being alone gives us the power to regulate and adjust our lives. It can teach us fortitude and the ability to satisfy our own needs. A restorer of energy, the stillness of alone experiences provides us with much-needed rest. It brings forth our longing to explore, our curiosity about the unknown, our will to be an individual, our hopes for freedom. Alonetime is fuel for life.”

(This article has been featured in SharpBrains!)

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Natrual Blue said...

WOW thank you

Anonymous said...

I catch this drift 100%. Love it. Well done!