In more ways than one, a certain type of solitude has been forced upon us during this time (I am referring to the global COVID pandemic and the global restrictions placed across the globe due to its spread). We have, quite literally, being asked to self-isolate and distance ourselves from our neighbour. On the surface level, this speaks to a certain type of shallow solitude – one that is seen as non-preferable by many.
Society today (and in the past) has looked down on the idea of solitude – this disdain is even built into our DNA. Early humans that existed in networks were often safer from predatory attacks, and thus, survived to pass on their genes to the generations that follow. Though we may be free from the predators of ages gone by, solitude today presents to us a different type of predator – one that you cannot touch though is lurking behind every internal dark corner – ourselves.
People today may draw conclusions that solitude is synonymous with loneliness, especially amidst a digital age wrought with infinite networking possibilities the world over. We are rarely truly alone, and just a click away from connecting with someone else. Yet, many people still confess to a deep loneliness they feel at the heart of their being. It is here that I wish to make an important distinction – between loneliness and aloneness (solitude).
Loneliness is regarded as a negative state, pinned by a sense of isolation and alienation. In this regard, one can be surrounded by people- friends, family, acquaintances; and still feel tremendously lonely inside. Solitude on the other hand, is a positive state of being alone with oneself. It is often accompanied with feelings of comfort, content and curiosity into the inner workings of one’s own self.
To become truly self-sufficient, self-supportive and for true self-discovery to take place, solitude must be experienced. It is a necessary element of self-healing and growing up, to provide a strong foundation from which one may experience life.
The Desert Fathers belong to a long line of spiritual teachers who both practiced and condoned the act of solitude.
Many in the fields of psychology, spirituality and philosophy laud solitude as a terrific tool of spiritual and self-development. In this newsletter, I will mainly be focussing on Western ideas surrounding the topic, as the richness of some of these teachings have been overlooked by their Eastern counterparts. In saying that, in the name of balance, I will introduce these teachings via way of Lao Tzu, author of the great Tao Te Ching:
“Ordinary men hate solitude. But the Master makes use of it, embracing his aloneness, realising he is one with the whole universe.”
Heading to the West, we see this sentiment echoed in the great 15th century treatise The Imitation of Christ. The book is a little fairly unknown wonder belonging to the esoteric world of Christian mysticism. It is within it’s pages that we discover the instructions:
“Commune with your own heart, in your chamber, and be still…In silence and quietude the devout soul makes progress and learns the hidden mysteries…”
It warns of the risk that gossip, hyper consumption of news and unnecessary talk poses to our inner stillness and peace. It is uncanny just how relevant this instruction is today, just as it was over 500 years ago. Rather than endlessly searching outward for an exogenous means of growth, it instead instructs us to reside in our inner room as a means of progress. It is here, within our ‘inner room’ (our heart), that we may, in total silence, encounter and commune with God (existence, awareness, consciousness – insert whatever word you choose here). This is a fundamental tenant of the tradition of centering prayer – which can resemble, quite closely, the practice of transcendental meditation. True prayer occurs once we have entered our inner room. The practice of solitude was also seen in the Desert Fathers, who (quite metaphorically) spent long stretches of time (beginning around the third century AD) in small huts in the deserts throughout the Middle East as a means of furthering their spiritual development. In certain spiritual circles, periods of solitude and tribulation are referred to as time spent in the desert. Of these teachers, Abba Alonius puts his thoughts on solitude quite simply and sharply by stating:
“We must be totally alone with God and with ourselves in order to rebuild and reshape ourselves”
If we divorce our connotations to the words of the Christian lexicon, we can clearly see how this sentiment still rings true to this very day, even through voices of renowned philosophers and psychologists such as Nietzsche and Jung. It is up to us to find the means to be with what is, to find comfort in just being. Time spent alone grants us the opportunity to clearly see our inner selves bereft of influence from the outside world. Seeing these inner movements in such clear light allows us the power to shift and change, to modify and detach. Jung went so far as to say:
“… the highest and most decisive experience of all, … is to be alone with his own self, or whatever else one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient (individual) must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation.”
Alone in a connected world.
As previously mentioned, we find ourselves in a society today that urges solitude and isolation to be repelled at every given opportunity. Nietzsche was another prominent figure in the world of philosophy and self discovery, that knew all to well how the masses would frown upon a practice such as solitude:
“He who seeks may easily get lost himself. It is a crime to go apart and be alone’ – thus speaks the herd.”
Solitude is the means to which many of us may be granted the greatest gift – we may find and claim ourselves. It is free from outside influence and persuasion, and presents to us the beautiful opportunity of growth and deep acceptance of what it is that makes us tick. It is in solitude that we may find our movements and intentions not coloured by the whims and desires of those close to us. It is a necessary step in searching for true authenticity.
Solitude need not look like this picture - we can take an inner solitude with us, wherever we may find ourselves.
I will leave this post with a vey poignant quote from ex-communicated Christian mystic Meister Eckhart. In it, Eckhart describes just how solitude need not be in retreat from the world, but how an inner solitude may accompany ourselves, wherever we may be.
“Spirituality is not to be learned by flight from the world, or by running away from things, or by turning solitary and going apart from the world. Rather, we must learn an inner solitude wherever or with whomsoever we may be. We must learn to penetrate things and find God there. “