When was the last time you spent time alone and actually enjoyed your own solitude?
Perhaps you haven’t experienced something like that before?
In today’s modern world of digital technology and social media, we’re never alone, even if we think we’re. We’re accompanied with overload of information and entertainment everywhere we may look. Our devices ensure we’re always connected to the rest of the world, with the use of social networks, instant messaging, and emails.
So, when will we ever have the freedom to appreciate solitude?
Unless you’re thinking otherwise.
In fact, people dislike solitude so much, they would rather give themselves electric shocks than just sit and think. In studies that asked participants to spend six to 15 minutes in a room without any other stimulation, a large number of people chose to zap themselves because the pain of boredom was worse.
Time alone to unintrusively think, do, and be as you please are so rare these days, not only because we’re naturally social creatures and therefore we seek it, but also because our modern world is, by default, so intensely connected by technology. Disengaging for a short while can be difficult for the human mind and body.
We pay close attention to signs such as hunger and thirst, and we respond by eating and drinking, thus giving the body what it needs to function. This should hold just as true for our thirst for solitude. By the time the craving for some alone time comes, chances are the emotional well-being has already run dry.
One reason why people have a resistance to paying attention to their needs for solitude is that being alone tends to be associated with being bored or lonely. This is a modern misconception. According to the psychologist, Ester Buchholz, author of The Call of Solitude, when the word “alone” was coined in medieval times, it referred to a sense of completeness in one’s own being. Solitude is an important and natural part of the human condition and people need to realise this.
Because solitude is actually a fundamental need, akin to nutrition for the mind and soul, solitude is also essential for our best creative work as well as many other important benefits.
Buccholz argues that we need to silence the noise of chatter and let our minds quietly wander. “Solitude is required for the unconscious to process and unravel problems,” she writes, “Others inspire us, information feeds us, practice improves our performance, but we need quiet time to figure things out, to emerge with new discoveries, to unearth original answers.”
Indeed, studies show that we’re more creative alone. Being put in a group can stimulate us to generate plenty of ideas, but the best ideas come about through eureka moments when our minds are left to their own devices. In fact, being in a group can sometimes lead to groupthink and hinder creativity. The Pulitzer prize-winning writer, John Updike, attributes his bursts of creative writing to a schedule that allows for idling alone. “Ideally,” he explains, “much of my day should be, in a strict sense, idle, for it is often in idle moments that real inspiration comes.”
Solitude gives you the opportunity to be with yourself and seek to discover who you really are. Because being alone with your thoughts can reveal a lot about you that you haven’t come to realise yet.
“The paradigm experience of solitude is a state characterized by disengagement from the immediate demands of other people – a state of reduced social inhibition and increased freedom to select one’s mental and physical activities,” reported researchers Christopher Long and James Averill. Time alone therefore allows us to prioritise our own needs rather than the needs of others.
“We live in an extremely externalized culture,” Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, says. “We’re constantly pulled outside ourselves — by other people, by the media, by the demands of daily life. Nothing in our culture or in our education teaches us how to go inward, how to steady the mind and calm our attention. As a consequence, we tend to devote very little time to the life of the soul, the life of the spirit.”
When you’re able to disengage from the demands of other people, mental space is freed up can be used to focus on longer-term, bigger-picture needs, tasks, and goals. The enhanced understanding you have of yourself extends as well to understanding other facets of your life. The better you know yourself, the better you are able to be a partner, friend, and person in all other relationships.
Our daily commute, sleep routines, distractions, work, people, and various noisy stimuli have a subconscious and accumulative impact on our well-being. Over time, this can beat us down without us realising, and soon we find ourselves feeling weak-willed, uninspired, and lacking belief without knowing why.
Disengaging from the noises allow us to break the cycle and recover from the stressors of our usual routines. Solitude is a safe haven for grounding the self, rediscovering forgotten goals, and taking stock of what’s important in life. Giving time to enable this space will make it easier to get back into the groove of things when you return.
How to be alone
Practice makes perfect, so the best way to overcome the difficulty of being alone is to simply practice solitude more often! One study in 2012 suggests that we can simply take time out in quiet, rural settings.
Fifty-six adults spent four days immersed in nature and experienced improved mood as well as creativity. As explored in another article, the mental health benefits of taking a forest bath should not be underestimated!
You can also date yourself, and its not as weird as it sounds. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, calls it the “artist date”, which is essentially setting aside time once a week to do something inspiring and creative by yourself. “A weekly artist date is remarkably threatening–and remarkably productive,” writes Cameron.
These include slow, often relaxing activities that allow your mind to tune out, such as taking a long walk alone, watching a sunrise, going to an unfamiliar church to hear gospel music, visiting a new museum or neighborhood, just to experience something novel and unfamiliar by yourself. Allow the activity itself to guide you without strong inputs from yourself. Guided activities such as meditative yoga can also facilitate good periods of solitude.
In summary, the practice of being alone is the practice of tuning out, getting away, or both. Tune out by shutting yourself off from the rest of the world when the opportunity arises. Engage in a spiritual or artistic activity, such as reading, painting, or dance, where the activity can allow your mind to slip into an effortless flow state.
Get away by creating distance between you and various sources of noisy stimuli from your routine, including work, people, technology, and civilization. Disengage from the usual expectations and demands of life by taking a road trip, going on vacation, hiking up mountains, or camping by the lake.
The point is to steal away time to be with yourself. Especially in our modern world, a major part of this starts with switching off the mobile devices in your hands. If no one’s around, we have an instinctive tendency to reach for the phone, the TV remote, or even the vacuum cleaner. We avoid ourselves because, maybe, we’re afraid of facing up to our flaws or unmet needs, and we’re afraid to miss out on life’s party. Stop that!
Solitude and isolation are not the same thing. We can retreat from the world for a time without being renounced by it. Turn off the phone, laptop, iPad, or TV and just be. You’ll find yourself rejuvenated and a better person.
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