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The Art of Solitude

Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your won presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.

-Alice Koller

I’ve always been a person who dislikes solitude. Growing up, I lived in a bustling house full of family and pets, and a little brother who often kept me in his company whether I liked it or not. On the days when I was not playing with my siblings or my neighborhood friends, I would spend lots of time on the phone with my childhood buddy, Nicole. Nicole and I would often keep records of how long we could talk on the phone. We once talked on the phone for six hours straight and then went to bed while still on the phone, and woke up to greet one another via the same connected phone call in the morning. (Some things never change: 20 years later, we still talk on the phone for hours at a time.)

In college, I was also never alone. I lived with a multitude of roommates for my entire college career and thereafter.

A house full of roommates ensured that if I ever got lonely, I need only to poke my head into another bedroom for some company.

At some point along the way, I lived with a former boyfriend, an arrangement that never left me alone for long, even during the sleep-hours.  

Then I bought my smartphone. Suddenly, I was able to engage with the world at any time of the day or night with just a click of a button or a text message! In the Twitter/Facebook universe, you are never alone, and for a social maven like me, that interconnectedness nourished and enticed me.

Somewhere in between baby brothers, epic phone conversation, co-habitations, and smartphones, I lived alone for about 6 months in a little beach cottage about 8 blocks from the ocean. The cottage had no TV and no wi-fi. It was during this time that I tried my hand at something I don’t think I had ever learned: how to be alone.

I cooked meals alone, ate alone, and filled my lonely nights with work, iPod music, dating, running, and wine. My mom (who is an only child and is pretty good at being happy and dynamic even when she is alone) told me that it was “good to practice” being alone, because you never know when you might have to be alone again. I had never felt lonelier during those six months, but she was right, I had to practice being fulfilled when alone. It was a lesson of adulthood that I needed to learn through experience, and it was really hard.

In contrast, my fiancé, David, has almost always lived alone. In fact, he loves being alone. He could spend days on end alone working on his various independent projects and he would be completely content. For him, being alone has nothing to do with loneliness. Being alone allows him to unwind, recharge, and gather his thoughts. I would venture to guess that he feels lonelier at a crowded party than alone in his house reading a book. Admittedly, he is pretty eccentric, but I think he may be on to something really important. Solitude is often associated with creativity, spirituality, and intellectualism. There is something enlivening about solitude.

Greg Feist, a professor at San Jose State University who studies the connection between creativity and solitude noted that when we let our focus shift away from the people and things around us, we are better able to engage in “meta-cognition,” or the process of thinking critically and reflectively about our own thoughts. There may be additional benefits to being alone too, according to John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, author of the book “Lonliness.” Cacioppo believes that as long as solitude is not motivated by fear or social anxiety, then spending time alone can be a crucially nourishing component of life.

Solitude as a critical experience in our life is a bitter pill that I have learned to swallow. I am a very social human animal and my creativity mostly comes from collaboration with others rather than from singular revelations. My times of solitude stir in me a deep loneliness and longing for human connections rather than inspiration and solace. Yet, every since the lesson I learned from my time in the little beach cottage, the art of solitude is something I continually strive to practice.

Most of the time I am not disciplined enough to be alone. I still check Facebook, surf the web, text, or chat online. I don’t know if being alone will ever get easier for me, but because it is so difficult makes it that much more important for me to keep trying to get better at it. After all, at the end of your life, even if you are surrounded by people, death will be your own singular experience. I believe that learning to find peace in solitude will arm us with the strength we need to face whatever may lay ahead when that time comes.  

To that end, I’ve been working to change my perspective on solitude. I try to practice cherishing those times I can be alone. I try to actively carve out more time in my busy life to just exist, by myself. Some of the times that I am alone, I fill my mind with thoughts, things I want to do, places I want to go, plans I want to make. Other times, I spend periods of solitude just quieting my mind and paying attention to every small breath I take. I try to be grateful for those times I have to spend with myself, just to check in with myself, and remind myself why I am my own very best friend. I think finding ultimate fulfillment and empowerment in solitude will be something I’ll have to keep struggling with for a very long time. But, by removing loneliness from solitude to re-imagine my experiences of being alone gives me the power to change, grow, and learn.

After all, practice makes perfect.

[Photo by BKusler via Flickr.]

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One Response to “The Art of Solitude”

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  1. Elizabeth says:

    This post made me think of two things. It reminded me of the Myers-Briggs personality types about how people can fall into different areas of the spectrum of introversion-extroversion. For an introvert like me, I need to be alone to recharge. As much as I love my friends and family, I find being around other people all the time exhausting. For other people, extroverts, they are recharged by talking and engaging with others. It also made me think about how getting married can change your practice of being alone. It’s easy to feel like you’re more part of an “us” and have very little time alone when you share your life with someone. Your post reminded me how important it is to maintain your independence and to spend time by yourself.

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