“I’ve never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Henry David Thoreau in Walden
Solitude and being alone can be frightening. Many of us are actually afraid of being alone. The idea of solitude seems to be better left to monks and mystics and those better qualified to handle it. But for we who are living and working – being alone and actually enjoying our solitude can be a daunting prospect. It can be frightening, anxiety provoking and scary to stop running, slow down, and really spend time alone. Sometimes we go through periods of loneliness and sadness.
I know for myself, when I take time to be alone – I first go through a period of depression. Not huge, debilitating depression, mind you, just the kind that reminds me that the ability to be alone is a highly spiritual act. It is not easy. But when we strive to find comfort in our solitude and in being alone, we can grow spiritually.
The Buddha and Solitude
It was said that in the life of Gautama, the person who became the Buddha, before he found enlightenment, he used to spend many periods alone in seclusion from others. Even if he saw someone close by, he’d hide from them so he could continue to practice his solitude. In the teaching, “The Discourse of the Rhinoceros Horn” this early Buddhist poem teaches the peace that can come from wandering alone. The Buddha doesn’t mean that we should remain in seclusion – sequestered away from others. But rather, we can take short periods of time away from others in order that we can return with a renewed sense of clarity and purpose.
In the midst of companions
— when staying at home,
when going out wandering —
you are prey to requests.
Valuing the freedom
like a rhinoceros.
From Khaggavisana Sutta – A Rhinoceros (translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
In fact, when we spend time alone, away from the influence of others, we can remember our souls. We can reflect and be reminded of what we need and desire in our own lives. And as the Buddha says, when we return to the world, we can be discerning about the company we keep in the future. Sometimes we are surrounded by those who are so toxic to our psyche’s – we would be better served if we were alone.
A Story Of Being Alone
Many years ago, after a hugely painful breakup with my last boyfriend, my spiritual advisor suggested that I take a year off from “mood altering relationships.” You see, I had been using people as a way to avoid facing myself and my own personal demons. This poor man practically had to gnaw his arm off at the shoulder, to get released from the trap I had set for him. (For me, relationships were more akin to hostile hostage takeovers than actual loving relationships.) Finally, when it was over and I was devastated, my spiritual advisor lovingly suggested that I try something different.
She suggested I refrain from relationship and practice the spiritual act of embracing solitude.
For a year. All alone.
Yes, you heard that. No relationships. No distractions.
Unlike the Buddha, who avoided all contact and thus any chance of forming any kind of relationship, I consciously avoided romantic one. Instead of focusing on another’s needs, I turned my attention to growing a relationship with a God of my understanding. It was probably the hardest, most arduous period of my life. And for sure where I experienced the most spiritual growth.
Benefits of Solitude
When we practice the art of solitude, we learn how to:
- Be alone and hear our own inner voice
- Break the cycle of always being busy
- Refresh, reflect on and rejuvenate our souls
But the greatest gift one can receive from learning how to be alone is that we lose the fear of solitude. From this place of strength, we can detach from old ideas about being surrounded by others, and know we can be okay. We come into this life alone, we ultimately take the journey toward death alone, it is a good thing to learn how to be okay being alone. According to J. Krishnamurti, https://kfoundation.org/krishnamurti/ who is regarded as one of the greatest modern religious teachers. He taught, “The single word ‘solitude’ demonstrates an untainted and innocent nature – free while being whole and unbroken. Only when you can stand alone can you finally remain untainted by the whole and live amongst the world. In lonesomeness, you can exist perfectly vibrant and supportive, as originally mankind is part of the totality.”
The Stigma Of Solitude
In our world today, it is easy to get caught up in the negativity of being alone. It can seem like the world is full of couples and “Three’s a crowd.” Or, that if we choose to be alone, there is something wrong with us. There was a study done at the University of Virginia where many of the participants would rather have given themselves electric shocks rather than remain alone with their thoughts. That shows the lengths we will go to distract ourselves from facing ourselves. And that is exactly why we need to do this spiritual work of being alone. During this time of COVID, going through a prolonged period of isolation from others, we can consciously choose to use this time to do this soul work. In the process, we can realize great therapeutic benefit.
Seeking solitude and being alone is not an easy task – but the benefits are so worth it. From this spiritual discipline, we develop the capacity to be alone with ourselves. This is truly a gift we can allow ourselves to receive, but it doesn’t come easily. I hope that you will consider taking on this spiritual endeavor, despite the effort it can take. It is truly a freeing process. The ultimate result is that we not only can find God, we can also find ourselves.
I invite you to try some solitude this coming week. And report back in the comments or in an email about your experience. Until we meet again – may you be blessed along your spiritual journey!
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