Solitude is a beautiful thing. Time to oneself for reflection and space is, in my opinion, a pleasure too readily overlooked by many. It is not inextricably linked to loneliness because we can be in the greatest of company alone and yet at times find ourselves loneliest in the company of others.
The world is increasingly frantic. Technology and society are developing at a dizzying pace. Somewhere along the way it seems most of us got it into our heads that we absolutely, categorically, at all costs – must keep up with everything; as and when it progresses. Change is the only constant as I am sure many of you have noticed… It is possible however, to live in a world of change and yet enjoy a profound sense of stillness. The most authentic vehicle to stillness in my eyes travels a path of solitude.
We are all different. Some are introverts, others are extroverts. Extroverts, despite being socially expressive by nature, can benefit from solitude in the same way introverts can; although they don’t often feel they need it to the same extent. The reverse is also true in that Introverts could often benefit from a little more social interaction than they feel comfortable with. The wrong kind of interaction, with the wrong people is, however detrimental to introverts and extroverts alike.
There are many ways to spend time in solitude and whatever way is best is a matter of personal preference. The majority of meditation techniques have been developed with solitude in mind. The personal practice of meditation can increase our ability to remain mindful or, present, while in the company of others.
What is meant by terms such as mindfulness and presence? – They have a new age ring about them and are banded around quite often these days. Mindfulness is derivative of spiritual practices that date back many centuries and engaging with a sense of presence, in this very moment is paramount to those practices. Buddhism is perhaps the most widely recognised ambassador for the practice of mindfulness and is becoming increasingly popular in Western cultures; where the increasing stresses of modern life are leading people to seek out new means to serenity.
Poor mental health is at present a worsening epidemic. To pinpoint any one reason for this would be reductionist, yet it does seem logical to speculate that it may have something to do with the relentless pace at which people are expected to operate in the modern world. For many, loneliness exacerbates and even causes mental health problems. Wouldn’t it be liberating for those people if they could find a way to utilize solitary moments for the cultivation of tranquillity and happiness?
The benefits of meditation are scientifically proven, but there is so much already said on the matter that I will avoid going any further into it here. The cultivation of peace is as personal to an individual as life itself and we all know that people experience life differently. Subsequently, the methods behind the attainment of desirable mental states vary from person to person.
The reason that everyone can benefit from time spent alone is that our ‘selves’ are the focal point for our entire experience and to bring about a deeper understanding of that self is immeasurably rewarding.
On a day to day basis the majority of our experience consists of processing and interpreting the experiences and interpretations of others. Subsequently, from the standpoint of the ‘self’, it can become hard to distinguish our own mental faculties from those of others around us. This is not wrong; it is the nature of things. We are not entirely separate and distinct from others because we are part and parcel of the same universal. That is not to say however, that we do not also possess qualities that are best described as organic. We praise original thinkers for their ability to express that within them that does not simply conform to the opinions and beliefs of those surrounding them in space, time or influence. Original thought is, by its very nature, not cultivated by anyone other than the one doing the thinking. It becomes clear then, that the seed of originality, which may be planted anywhere, must germinate alone.
Paradoxically, we need to cultivate our individualism in solitude so that we may better connect with the world around us. We need to be different to relate. If nothing was apparently distinct, there would be no reason or necessity to connect.
There is an important balance to this. I know from personal experience just how easy it can be to tip the scale from healthy solitude into a damaging habit of perpetual isolation. Isolation connotes loneliness and has very little to do with bringing people together. We are social beings; that’s hardwired into us by evolution. If we flat-out reject this primal aspect of our being then we inevitably find ourselves in trouble.
Although solitude and isolation are synonymous with being alone, the fundamental difference seems to emerge in the subjective experience of that time spent alone. It might be easier to picture solitude as time spent enjoying the company of ourselves. Isolation on the other hand, more readily lends itself to the feeling of enduring one’s own company.
People end up feeling like they must endure themselves for all sorts of reasons, and the sad thing is that often people in this position cannot endure others either; perhaps because they are as I mentioned before, somehow an extension of the very self that one cannot stand. There are many who will claim that the opposite is true and that they cannot live with the difference of others, but I argue that we are made the same by our differences and if you can’t accept differentiation, then you have little hope of enjoying unity.
To love others then, we need to love ourselves. A prerequisite to love is understanding, which in turn leads to compassion. It is important therefore to understand ourselves through moments of voluntary and enjoyable solitude. In this we can develop the originality of mind and compassion for ourselves, which enables us to relate to the human condition and thereby form powerful reciprocal bonds to others and indeed the entire universe.