“Do nothing? Too boring!” or “I’m scared of that.”
Solitude: “the state or situation of being alone” (Google).
“… the quality or state of being alone or remote from society: seclusion” (Merriam-Webster Online)
Wikipedia suggests that solitude may be forced, may be a reaction to a loss of a loved one or from bad relationships, or on the other hand may be a deliberate choice—an important distinction. “Short-term solitude is often valued as a time when one may work, think or rest without being disturbed.”
Loneliness implies unpleasant and involuntary isolation from companionship; solitude suggests the joy of self-reflection. William Wordsworth pictured the importance and joy of solitude in his well-known, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud:”
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.
Wordsworth also says: “I was taught to feel…the self-sufficing power of solitude” (Book Second, 1.76).
Jesus was among those who felt the creative necessity of solitude. “In the morning, rising up a great time before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed” (Mark 1:35).
Perhaps the pleasure and power of solitude has been undone by our urban, technological, digital lives. Timothy D. Wilson, et al. undertook to determine how 21st century Americans respond to 6-15 minutes of solitude.
In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative. (Wilson et al., Science Mag, retrieved 27Aug14)
We live in a busy world. Most of us have gotten used to our busyness—even proud of it. When asked how we’re doing, instead of a mere, “Fine,” or “Got a good rest last night,” or “Just took some time to be alone and think,” our increasingly stock response is, “It’s been busy…so much to do,” or even…“crazy busy.”
Physicians affirm the physical benefits of quiet rest; psychologists describe mental health rewards from quiet solitude. But such advice is often disregarded.
Spiritual counselor, Henri Nouwen, warns of a compulsion for busyness: “Whether I am a pianist, a businessman, or a minister, what matters is how I am perceived by my world. If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy” (Nouwen, 1981, p.23).
He goes on to say:
One of our main problems is that in this chatty society, silence has become a very fearful thing. For most people, silence creates itchiness and nervousness. Many experience silence not as full and rich, but as empty and hollow.
As soon as (someone) says…“Let us be silent for a few moments,” people tend to become restless and preoccupied with only one thought: “When will this be over?” (Ibid, 59)
Our lives have been made much more convenient with mobile digital devices—to the extent that we worry about a younger generation’s possible addiction to their screens. Youth, however, can be persuaded to leave their digital devices behind for a week or so at a wilderness camp. There they are often challenged to participate in a 24-hour “solo,” alone in the woods. Solitude—a chance to be alone with oneself, to think and perhaps take notes—on what many call a life-transforming experience.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
If this article forced a 6-15 minute break midway for your complete silence, would you have made it to its end? How do you do with solitude and silence?
Celebrities and some rich have traveled half way around the world to find masters in mediation and silence. Should it be that expensive?
Do you, or do you not, believe that a solid period of solitary silence is good for you?
Whether you are a person of faith or not, do you think that silent meditation is crucial to the spiritual life?
If you are a person of a Western faith (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), do you feel threatened by the fact that many are attracted to the meditative practices of Eastern religions?
How could this idea of solitude and meditation/prayer be best discussed in a class or small group?
Researcher and law professor Debra Parkes has studied the negative effects of forced solitary confinement in which solitude is the norm and constant condition, and social interaction is denied. This is obviously the other end of a balanced life of activity and solitude.
Properly centered quiet meditation might alleviate some of the stress and need for medications in contemporary society. It might be helpful for schools to provide a few moments of non-sectarian meditation.
The Hebrew Psalms includes a divine bidding: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). A balanced life will include: “Be still….”