“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop where he is and pass some time in his own company”. Seneca.
For most of my life, I’ve relished in the quiet moments behind closed doors. Completely immersed in private doings of my own choice, shutting out the external noise and incessant distractions that characterize life in the modern world. As a kid I remember coming home from school and making a b-line for my bedroom, dropping my backpack, and locking the door behind me. This feeling of relief would wash over me because I knew I had finally returned to my own private realm; the place where I recharge my batteries and work and play in solitude.
To quote the author Chris Guillebeau, “without the energy I derive from being by myself, I know that I wouldn’t be of much use to anyone else later on”.
I couldn’t have said it better.
The French essayist and philosopher Montaigne believed everyone should have what he called a ‘back shop’. This room — this back shop— was a private room reserved for stoic detachment from the external world. In his mind; a place to learn and reflect. The idea was not to run away from your problems, your family, or social life, but to have a place, free of distraction, to look inward and think about your life.
The back shop is where you practice solitude; where you can explore your inner world, which in turn will help you make sense of the external world.
Yet, solitude, I believe, is something most people secretly dread.
Today’s society puts a premium on individuality.
Now, more than ever in history, we display our unique gifts, talents, and skills like badges on our sleeves; seeking to differentiate ourselves through these various attributes, yet, in reality, we are leery and skeptical of people who stray too far from the herd and actually practice this autonomy and self-fulfillment we all claim to want. Everyone wants the freedom to live life on their own accord; the kind of freedom that is inherent to solitude in many ways.
So why is everyone so terrified of being alone?
I don’t mean in the romantic or existential sense — alone — but in the physical act of spending time alone in one’s own company for any amount of time.
In their own quiet thoughts.
We say we want autonomy, but for some reason we frown upon those who embrace solitude as a part of their lives. We think they’re fringy, creative types. Loners. Social deviants and miscreants. We call them antisocial and introverted. We believe they’re sad, even when they tell us they’re happy. We call them hermits.
Or worse, sociopaths.
There is a persistent stigma attached to this reverence for solitude despite such a ubiquitous thirst for individuality in our culture. If you replace ‘solitude’ with ‘single’, you’d run into the same issues. In generations past, and still today to a lesser degree, there is a social expectation that as you get older, you’re supposed to find a partner and settle down.
And if you don’t?
People will think something is deeply wrong with you.
Happy single people value the freedom to live life on their own terms, just as people who like spending time alone value the autonomy and creative freedom that comes with solitude.
Whether you’re an aging spinster or reclusive hermit, you know the path to freedom, and travel it in spite of cultural expectations.
Still, why the disconnect?
The answer surely involves fear.
Fear of idleness and what it may lead to. Fear of focused self-analysis and delving into strange or uncomfortable feelings, or more than likely, it’s the fear of loneliness. Despite all this, deliberate bouts of aloneness — active aloneness — are crucial for producing meaningful, creative work, as well as cultivating self-mastery and self-control. Self-awareness, really. It’s not always an easy habit to cultivate but, really, what habits are?
In my experience, the benefits of spending some time by myself and enriching my inner world far outweigh the negative consequences (which are very real). I’m not saying you need to retreat into the woods for two years like Thoreau, or sequester yourself indoors like Howard Hughes, collecting pee in mason jars and hoarding toenail clippings, no, these are the outliers; the former who produced timeless prose that enriched the lives of countless readers, and the latter who, well, lost his marbles and became a famous recluse; an undeniable icon for the archetype (he did some remarkable things in his life as well).
Solitude doesn’t have to be this drastic life shift, it should be a deliberate practice; something you incorporate into your life on a regular basis. Think of active aloneness as a tool to explore the depths of yourself, undistracted, which in turn will help you live your most authentic life and better serve the world.
This is about a practical way to incorporate the benefits of active aloneness into your life without sacrificing relationships, mental health, or the most precious thing of all — your time.
There’s a gaelic expression for the kind of aloneness I’m advocating and it goes like this:
“quietness without loneliness”.
Alice Koller said it well: “being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others… solitude is an achievement”.
On Solitude and Living a Meaningful Life
In explaining why he decided to isolate himself in a cabin on Walden Lake for two years, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”. Thoreau lived alone in that cabin to distill life down to its indivisible essence; to “learn what [life] had to teach”, in his words.
“I did not wish to live what was not life”, he said.
“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”.
Similarly, the US admiral and explorer, Richard Byrd, spent the winter of 1934 alone on the southern polar ice cap of Antarctica.
“I wanted to go for experience’s sake,” he explained.
“One man’s desire to know that kind of experience to the full… to be able to live exactly as I chose, obedient to no necessities but those imposed by wind and night and cold, and to no man’s laws but my own.”
Thoreau and Byrd exemplify what we all want: to live an experientially- rich, meaningful life. Retreating to a cabin in Connecticut worked for Thoreau, and Byrd found serenity in the bitter cold nights in Antarctica.
You don’t need to travel that far or that deep into the wilderness, but you do need to delve that far and deep into yourself.
The thing about solitude is, unless you have a proclivity for it, you will likely struggle in the initial discomfort of learning how to be alone. It’s sort of like meditation, except instead of trying to empty your thoughts, you are gently analyzing them; letting them trickle to the surface where you can pick them apart, parse them, and play with them. And ultimately, find meaning.
Know Thyself Through Solitude
“It is a vile ambition in one’s retreat to want to extract glory from one’s idleness… you should no longer be concerned with what the world says about you, but with what you say to yourself.”
Active solitude is all about cultivating a healthy relationship with your inner world, discovering the things that make you tick, and observing your thoughts. Active solitude is really a form of self-therapy, an opportunity for dead-sober self-talk.
In 1913, the German psychotherapist Carl Jung developed a new method of do-it-yourself therapy called reverie. For one reason or another (read: war), most of Jung’s connections were severed, including his friendship and mentee relationship with Sigmund Freud. As a result of this impasse, Jung was left all alone, and began to have a sort of breakdown; “a horrible confrontation with the unconscious”, in his words. He began hallucinating and hearing voices, and soon enough he feared he was becoming psychotic. Despite his harried situation and shaky mental state, Jung decided to turn his misfortune into an opportunity by practicing self-analysis and a little introspection. To work through his semi-psychotic state, Jung began to deliberately and detachedly work through memories, experiences, dreams, and events, as well as his own reactions to them, in a meandering, dream-like state.
He wrote down his emotional reactions in journals and studied them closely, and eventually, after seeing the value of this deliberate self-analysis, he incorporated the technique — reverie — into his practice.
After graduating from college I had a similar experience. I just graduated, had no real job prospects, broke up with my long term girlfriend, cut off most of my friends (related to the girlfriend situation) and ultimately isolated myself for a little over a year in my dingy roach-infested apartment, determined to sulk forever or drink myself to death. College was over and I felt like I was starting from the beginning; thrust into the real world to see how far a fancy piece of paper with my name on it would get me. My year of solitude was a humbling time; a huge and necessary strike to me ego, senselessly hitting me over the head: “you thought college was the hard part? Time to wisen up and get to work.”
I was a fool in college, squandering my time and failing to plan for the eminent future after graduation. I thought a college degree was a job coupon.
And so it began.
It was during that year of solitude that I really became self-aware. For the first time ever I could see the hand I had been dealt in life. I acknowledged my anxieties and insecurities, and weak spots, which helped me develop a blueprint of the kind of person I wanted to become. I saw who I was in the moment, envisioned who I wanted to become, and used that self-awareness to pave a path forward.
Like Jung’s experience when he unknowingly developed reverie, it was through the struggle and the discomfort of confronting myself that I was able to find stable ground during shaky times. Solitude was crucial in taking an honest look at myself; taking an inventory of my strengths, weaknesses, fears, insecurities, anxieties, and life experiences, and ultimately, figuring out how to move forward from that place of sure-footed honesty and acute self-awareness.
Epictetus said, “first know who you are and what you are capable of”.
In Mastery, Robert Greene echoes similar sentiments on the importance of inward-learning:
“The first move toward mastery is always inward-learning who you really are and reconnecting with that innate force. Knowing it with clarity, you will find your way… and everything else will fall into place.”
Everything great you will ever do will come from this place of self-awareness. And conversely, I think most missteps and wrong decisions spur from a lack of self-awareness.
It all starts there.
You have to take an honest inventory of yourself before you can move forward.
When you spend time alone, listen. It’s during those moments of stillness and quiet that you can hear the soft, still voices that come from the depths. Acknowledge them and analyze whatever comes up. After doing this long enough, you’ll start noticing patterns and begin to see yourself with more clarity. Then from the knowledge you gleaned from this place of detached objectivity, paint a mental image of the kind of person you want to be. What attributes does this person have? How does she treat other people? Herself? Equally important to the specific character traits and attributes, think about why that idealized self is so beholden to you. What does this person have that you don’t? What to they do differently than you do? This is a process of laying the groundwork for bridging the gap between the present self and the upgraded self that you aspire to become.
Solitude will help you know yourself, and it will also help you identify what you want out of life; what you naturally gravitate towards.
Elle Luna wrote a wonderful book called the Crossroads of Should and Must. In the book she helps the reader discern between the things in their own lives that they should be doing (for work, societal norms, perceived obligations) versus what they must be doing; what they know deep down will be their unique gratifying contribution to the world. Luna argues that being comfortable alone is a crucial piece in the process of identifying your ‘must’.
“Solitude is how we quiet the voices, the incessant chatter”, Luna says. “It’s how we create the necessary calm, empty spaces. Vision needs solitude. Leadership needs solitude. Courage needs solitude. Because when our choices evolve from an internal place of sure-footed, rooted knowing, we become resilient, emboldened, and focused”.
This excerpt captures the essence of active aloneness. It’s through the self-analysis and inward-learning that can be accomplished during quiet moments of solitude that you take an honest inventory of yourself, laying out the cards as they lie, and connecting the dots on the path towards becoming the person you want to become.