Solitude often conjures up negative connotations such as loneliness, though many great thinkers such as Lao Tzu, Nietzsche, and Emerson have championed the intellectual and spiritual benefits of it. Meanwhile, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and writer who spent years alone, commented: ‘We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our bosom.’
Solitude isn’t about avoiding being with other people. It’s about being with yourself. In the words of Lao Tzu ‘Ordinary men hate solitude. But the Master makes use of it, embracing his aloneness, realising he is one with the whole universe.’
The challenges of solitude are about finding balance within; being comfortable in our own skins; becoming intimate with our own minds; laying claim to that power that flows through us when we accept and express our true self.
Though the mere thought of it can be intimidating. It’s when we really get to spend time with our shadow, the part of ourselves that we run from, that part of ourselves that psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung says is relegated to the depths of the unconscious.
But in its avoidance, it can wreak havoc on one’s life in the sense that it will exert unconscious control over one’s thoughts, emotions, choices, and actions. In solitude, we learn to engage with the shadow and be enriched by its wisdom in showing us our true essence.
Solitude is a place where the creative mind can happily and eagerly express itself because when you’re able to disengage from the demands of other people and the world around you, you suddenly free up the mental space to focus on those things that have been seeking your attention for so long.
As famous inventor Nikola Tesla quite rightly said: ‘The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone – that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.’
There is a big difference between solitude and loneliness, loneliness is a negative state, marked by a sense of isolation. One feels that something is missing. It is possible to be with people and still feel lonely – perhaps the most bitter form of loneliness.
Solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely. It is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself. Solitude is desirable, a state of being alone where you provide yourself wonderful and sufficient company.’
Human beings are naturally social creatures and, with the absence of others around us from birth, the development of our personality would be stunted. But as the growth of mental health is showing, we can be surrounded by people but deep inside remain separate, isolated individuals.
By actively taking the time to be in isolation it allows us to find balance. Extroverted people live primarily on social life, whereas introverted people tolerate loneliness much better. Both ultimately need a certain amount of solitude to find harmony.
Solitude allows us to know that we are more than the sum of our reactions to other people and encounters. It’s more a state of mind than an actual physical circumstance. You can find solitude in meditation, going for a long walk in nature, locking yourself away for hours with just paper and pen, or embark on a Vipassana retreat and spend days with yourself surrounded by others doing the same. However you choose to experience it, it will teach you to become a better observer of your life and see things as they really are.
Dean Griffiths is the founder and CEO of Energy Fusion, the first interactive online platform to subjectively assess physical and mental health.