“Language... has created the word "loneliness" to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word "solitude" to express the glory of being alone.”Paul Tillich
A client who’d recently separated from her partner asked me the other day: “how do you do being alone, I just don’t know how?” We are told that being ‘alone’ is different from being ‘lonely’ though for some the two can be intertwined. We use music, Facebook, anything to ‘avoid the void’ of feeling lonely and distract ourselves from experiencing fear. At the same time, we often crave solitude in a world that’s switched on 24/7. It can be a challenge to slow down and just ‘be’ with ourselves.
We are indeed social animals and accordingly seek out others to spend time with; ‘No man is an island’ as John Donne famously said. The illusion of ‘needing’ people runs deep in society, as does the belief that being alone equals being unhappy and isolated.
Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, says, "We seem to have a complex about busyness in our culture. Most of us do have time in our days that we could devote to simple relaxation, but we convince ourselves that we don't." It seems there is always something that needs doing, always someone who needs our attention. "Unfortunately," Moore says, "we don't get a lot of support in this culture for doing nothing. If we aren't accomplishing something, we feel that we're wasting time."
Being alone in solitude allows clarity and creativity. "We live in an extremely externalized culture," Moore says. "We are constantly pulled outside ourselves—by other people, by the media, by the demands of daily life. Nothing in our culture or in our education teaches us how to go inward, how to steady the mind and calm our attention. As a consequence, we tend to devote very little time to the life of the soul, the life of the spirit."
Tips for embracing solitude:
Go on a date with yourself: Start with a small with an activity that you would normally do with another person such as going out to dinner or to the cinema. Go into it with an open and positive mind and be curious- how different/enjoyable is the experience when doing it alone? My favourite time for being alone is outside in nature, free from the distractions of my phone and laptop. Solitude and isolation do not go hand in hand. We can retreat from the world for a time without being renounced by it.
Try something new: Being with another person may help life feel safer though we can also end up avoiding trying new things and experiences and life can become stale and predictable. What have you been putting off in your life that you haven’t done or tried yet? Make a list of at least ten things and then create an action plan of when you’re going to start them. If it is something that involves some planning like going travelling or writing a book, chunk down the process into smaller steps. Then, take action!
Learn to connect with yourself: Of course, “It's so lonely when you don't even know yourself." Most of us are too busy trying to avoid feeling alone and staying focused on the external world, which results in us neglecting our internal state-our mind and emotions. Taking time out to reflect on what you feel is positive use of ‘alone time’ and enables you to check out whether you are meeting your own needs as well as others. Get to know and make friends with yourself. Start with just 5 mins at the end of the day to reflect on how you have felt through the day and what has been good can help promote positive feelings and also get you more attuned with yourself.
Learn to switch off: Staying connected to others, technology and the world for too long can be draining and lead to stress and fatigue. Ensuring you have time out to yourself is important in order to recoup your energies and maintain good boundaries in your relationships. If you find this difficult with certain people in your life, ask yourself ‘What is it about this person or relationship that I can’t allow myself space for myself?’ Are you being a pleaser or scared of how they might react if you decide to have time to yourself?
Reach out to others: Learning when you need time to be alone and time to connect with other people is important to avoid feeling isolated. Experiencing a relationship break up or bereavement for example can leave you feeling distant from others and the world. Learning ways of gradually reconnecting with the world again is important. Trying something like joining an online community forum, support group or taking up an evening class can be a good start to enable you to feel a part of the world again.
We need to balance the pace and intensity of modern life with periods of what poet May Sarton has called "open time, with no obligations except toward the inner world and what is going on there." Alone—in moments of prayer or meditation, or simply in stillness—we breathe more deeply, see more fully, hear more keenly. We notice more, and in the process, we return to what is sacred.