The philosopher Henry David Thoreau once said ‘I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude’. Now Thoreau was a extremely contemplative guy, and taking to the woods to hang out with yourself for weeks on end, which is what he did, isn’t everyone’s bag. Thoreau ended up contributing some serious wisdom to the world, undoubtedly at least in part the fruits of his taste for solitude. Maybe you aren’t the arty, introspective type so you don’t need so much alone time.
All that said: we all benefit from learning how to be alone. Indeed, it is a necessity. Solitude is what enables unencumbered reflection. And deep reflection is essential for developing self-awareness, clarity on our desires and inner security.
We all have different capacities for reflection, and if yours is on the low side, I’d encourage you to develop your taste for solitude and reflection. That is what this article is about.
Here’s an approach to drawing on solitude as a transformative practice in your life.
what solitude is and isn’t
In learning how to be alone, we are really looking to be alone! Just us and our thoughts. If we are physically on our own, but are engaged in conversations across three different messaging platforms, then we aren’t getting these benefits of our alone time:
- feeling more you/ connected with yourself
- feeling more inspired, generating fresh ideas and perspectives, and energy for creative work
- having space to reflect on and process recent experiences and check in on how you’re feeling
- being able to give back to the world afterwards/ feeling recharged
So when we talk about how to be alone, we are talking about being mentally and psychically alone: taking walks, reading, perhaps writing and definitely avoiding technology.
Although social networking can be used for good, we all know that generally it makes a lot of us more anxious, envious and depressed.
how much solitude do we need and what should we do?
I can’t give you a numerical amount because we all need different amounts of alone time. And in terms of activities, select the things you know will be good for your mind, body and heart. Examples:
- time on your creative projects
- researching and daydreaming
- reading and learning
- practising yoga
- watching a thoughtful movie
- redecorating or fixing/building things
- doing absolutely nothing!
The common thread with these activities is that they are naturally contemplative.
If you are thinking ‘I don’t have the time’, here are some suggestions for how to incorporate solitude as a daily practice:
- wake up just a bit earlier to carve out some quiet moments first thing. Check in on yourself.
- eat lunch alone occasionally.
- go for a walk by yourself.
- set the intention before your commute to use the time for self-reflection or reading.
Schedule your alone time in like you schedule in dates with your mates.
how exactly will I benefit from learning to be alone?
I personally rely on periods of solitude for recharge, creativity and self-knowledge. Being alone also helps me to develop a closer connection with my intuition and heart intelligence, and feel a quiet sort of joy.
I’m going to talk more about three key benefits below:
- self understanding
- relationship enhancer
Robert Kull, author of Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes, wrote: “The widespread occurrence of depression in our culture may be linked to a refusal to allow ourselves quiet time. Feeling the need to be constantly busy can prevent us from turning inward. When we are out of balance, our activity doesn’t arise from a place of stillness and wisdom.”
In The Call for Solitude, Ester Buchholz said: “Our biggest mistake is the way we view solitude. It is required for the unconscious to process and unravel problems. We need quiet time to figure things out, emerge with new discoveries, and unearth original answers. It is through profound self-awareness that our lives will flower”.
For me, the two quotes identify the most important reason for solitude: the increase to self-awareness.
If this is the exact reason that you think you’ve been avoiding being alone, then challenge yourself to stop running away. Introspection doesn’t need to be scary. What’s more terrifying are the consequences of avoiding it.
With reflection, we want to avoid abuses such as rumination, which takes self-control to begin with, and an ability to train your brain a certain way. Ethan Nichtern, author of The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path, has a useful distinction: When you’re contemplating, your awareness and attention are in charge. When you’re ruminating, your mind wanders around like a bull in a china shop.
When we understand ourselves better, we become better at making ourselves happier, incrementally. Ester Buchholz wrote: “Being alone gives us the power to regulate and adjust our lives”.
In the largest ever study done on how we rest (The Rest Test) – people were given a long list of activities and asked to rank the most restful. And all of the ‘top’ activities identified were solitary pursuits.Solitude is a powerful facilitator of rest and relaxation - even for extroverts Click To Tweet
Reading came out to be the clear winner, followed by being out in nature, listening to music and doing nothing in particular. Seeing friends and family, chatting or drinking socially all came much lower on the list.
This applied to individuals that identified as extroverts and introverts.
relationshipsIf you can learn to be alright by yourself, you won't settle for whoever comes along Click To Tweet
A person who has learned to how to be alone is more likely to adopt a secure romantic attachment style. This person genuinely isn’t settling for whoever, or seeking others to avoid themselves. It means you will choose to be with people from a place of want and not need.
Creating time for solitude within your relationship is also essential to manage emotions better, and communicate more skilfully. It can actually assist in building intimacy.
For some of us, being alone is very comfortable. If that is you, challenge yourself to spend more time in the company of others. Be brave.
Science has shown pretty much beyond doubt that community and connection with others improves our mental and emotional health, and is probably a factor in overall increased longevity. Plus, being a part of something bigger than yourself gives you the right kind of skills for being inter-dependent, which serves you in all relationships.
how to be alone
Learning how to be alone helps you to understand yourself, which is essential for a life well lived. Being alone also helps you to rest and recharge, and should help you feel stronger at handling relationships too.
If the idea of a whole day or weekend of solitude freaks you out, then don’t start there. Start small: perhaps a couple of hours one evening per week.
Once you develop a taste for it, you might find yourself doing a Thoreau and taking to the woods to produce a masterpiece.