Explorations in Consciousness,  Mindfullness/Meditation

The Value of Solitude

Written By: Susanne Sims

When my father passed away at the age of 99, my mother confided in me that after 73 years of marriage, she was not sure how to cope with living alone. Indeed, many of us might wonder the same thing if we’ve never spent more than a few days on our own. After all, we are social beings drawn instinctively to one another and our need to be together is primal.

Some of our earliest experiences of being alone may have even involved punishment. If we misbehaved as children, we were told to take a time out, or go to our room. My cousins were disciplined by being made to sit in the car alone, which was especially humiliating at social gatherings and often accompanied by a fountain of tears. At the age of ten, when his parents began having trouble in their marriage, a friend was sent away to a boarding school which was a terribly isolating and traumatic experience for him.

My family moved from the city to the country when I was in my early teens.  The friendships and social connections which brought me joy and a sense of belonging were suddenly gone. No longer could I simply walk down the block to hang with my girlfriends.  The isolation of country life was unbearable, and along with it came boredom and depression.

When in my 50s, it was suggested to me by a well-meaning friend that I might actually be “addicted” to romantic relationships and that perhaps I could benefit from some time alone. I did not resonate with this idea. Love songs and movies lament loneliness and drill into us the notion that we must find “the one” or life will never be complete. Thus, if a companion or love interest showed up, wasn’t that a blessing? I’m a very social person who finds great satisfaction and happiness in human interaction.

By the time I was in my 60s, solitude had found me. I was no longer in a steady relationship and semi-retired which translated into a lot of time on my hands. My attention had always been tuned to the outer world with its many satisfying diversions and distractions.  In solitude, I came to find that my greatest challenge would be having to listen to that incessant voice inside my head, the one that never stops talking. Let’s call her Chatty Cathy.

Chatty seemed to always be observing what was going on, and she had plenty of commentary, opinions and judgements about everything. She was my worst friend, living in my home and in my head, 24/7!

I noticed that Chatty expressed a rather persistent, low-grade form of negative self talk and doubt.  At the same time she seemed intent on protecting me, always scanning for danger and offering me strategies to deal with uncertainty. The writer Anne Lamott once said, “My mind is a neighborhood I try not to go into alone.”  Not only was I in a bad neighborhood alone,  I didn’t have GPS or even a simple roadmap.

The helpful advice we are given as children (don’t touch a hot stove; look both ways when crossing the street; don’t talk to strangers) doesn’t cease when we become adults. In fact, it can become our operating system. Protective mechanisms and bracing against the world probably dominate most of our my minds, if we take the time to listen.

Of course negative messages and warnings are not the only words my inner voice communicates in. There are times when my psyche is genuinely creative, charming, exuberant, engaged, loving, regenerative, compassionate and kind. At such times I am on top of the world, in my flow state, and assured that all is well. But when the pendulum swings, how long does it take for that joy to turn to dread?

Keeping a journal became an excellent way for me to observe my inner dynamic. During a particularly difficult week, the concept of a “wheel of fear” emerged from my writings. I drew an illustration of this wheel — a circle cut into sections like slices of a pie. Each slice contained a specific category of worry, such as health, finances, world affairs, politics, climate change, relationships, growing old, death, taxes, etc. From time to time, the wheel would turn and the issue change, but the wheel itself remained constant.

Now I began to understand why, a decade earlier, my well-intended friend had been touting the virtues of spending time alone. Solitude meant I would have to make peace with those parts of myself that were fearful, neglected, rejected or broken. It would bring me face to face with regret, guilt, despair, and the soul crushing aspects of judgement and self-criticism. The adult in me needed to learn to re-parent the frightened child that lived inside. I could see the benefits, but the task seemed daunting.

Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chodron writes in her book  When Things Fall Apart,  “The most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”

Fortunately, there are masterful teachers and guides such as Pema who have excelled in addressing our ever-so-clever and confused minds. Another such teacher is Michael Singer, author of the best-seller The Untethered Soul and Living Untethered. His daily podcasts and books offer a deep well of wisdom and inspiration.

The late Zen teacher and scholar Alan Watts, whose remarkable lifetime of work is now available across multiple channels on the internet, helped immensely in re-configuring my mind. Divine grace also led me to an Indian Yoga master, Paramhansa Yogananda.   I was able to learn and then commit to a practice of meditation and mindfulness, using the techniques and methods he brought to the west during his lifetime.

This is a practice without end. But in time, worry and fear can be transformed into compassion and self love.  Greater peace, resilience and the ability to embrace uncertainty does emerge. Loving kindness, because we have learned to cultivate it inside ourselves, becomes our new operating system allowing us to live in the world with greater freedom and authenticity.

It is in silence and solitude that our soul is most deeply nurtured. By embracing the mystery of life, soul calmness arises from within our own center.   Faith and awe become more inspiring than worry and fear, and the transcendent qualities of equanimity and wisdom are made the cornerstones of our lives.

A friend once told me his simple yet elegant axiom for happiness: “Something meaningful to do in life, someone to share it with, and something to always look forward to.”  By developing the ability to be with ourselves and truly enjoy our own company, we will always have that special someone to share life with, namely — ourselves!

Photo Credit:  Burst Photos