A tree sways its thick branches overhead, waving to me in my lying repose. I stare up through the green canopy of leaves and watch the sun steal in among the movement, stabbing it’s bright heat to the forest floor and warming the fragrant pine needles that have accumulated like a mattress. I am alone. Alone but not lonely. I have chosen to retreat to this small patch of woods out of purpose. I desire solitude.
It is these moments of solitude when all things come into focus. When the constant movement of the world is shifted into my periphery and I can catch my breath; allowing my body and mind to recover themselves. These explicit occasions of withdrawal from the outside world are necessary, not just for myself, but necessary for all people.
Solitude is an oft neglected but necessary component for a healthy life. To be able to spend time with yourself, in quiet and contemplative discovery, is a gift of clarity and understanding. A gift that has no requirements outside of unburdening yourself of society. A gift that keeps on giving because if there is one thing I can guarantee, it is that you will spend every moment of your life with yourself, and the more comfortable you are with that person that is you the better you will be able to live with yourself.
But to get the most from those occasional moments of solitude we have to clear up some misconceptions about what solitude is, why it matters, and how exactly it works to improve our lives.
Loneliness Vs. Solitude
I think it is important to first make a distinction between loneliness and solitude, as there is an important difference. I have written about loneliness in the past. I refer to it as the tax on pursuing greatness. And it is that. If you pursue a path that is perilous and arduous there will be few people willing to travel with you and a path of personal development is one of the most perilous and arduous you can embark on.
But there is a difference between loneliness and solitude and we need to look at that difference.
Solitude is related to loneliness. They are close cousins but they come from different parents. Where loneliness is something imposed upon us by lack, solitude is a choice we make. We make a conscious decision to move into quiet communion with ourselves so that we may explore ourselves in a way not possible when we are surrounded by life.
One requirement of solitude is that you must be alone. I know that most people believe that loneliness also entails being physically alone but that is not always the case. Consider how often some people feel utterly alone in a crowd of people. The issue with them is not proximity but connection and that is the root of loneliness; lacking desired connection.
Solitude, however, is not a longing for others, it is a longing for oneself. It is a self-imposed hiatus from the demands of the external world to retreat into yourself and recover your senses and your thoughts free from outside influence.
Meaning of Solitude
When we chose to temporarily remove the influence of society by stepping into time with ourselves we are committing to a difficult but meaningful activity. It is an activity that few people are willing to approach but an activity that is necessary if we are to understand ourselves. Who gives a shit about understanding yourself? Everyone, I hope. Even if they don’t realize it or are not willing to admit it, I wager most everyone has moments of existential dread where they realize that their life may not be everything they think it is.
When we remove the influences and contamination from the constant barrage of instruction that is pushed upon us by every element of our social interactions, this is the time to start piecing together our own informed and analyzed beliefs from the swirling shit storm of others sway.
Our moments of solitude are where we categorize, compartmentalize, analyze, structure, refine and file away our thoughts, ideas, opinion and beliefs. It’s when we can do the clerical work of tidying the ever flowing memo’s of human experience. When we retreat into solitude that is when we can catch up on our mental paperwork because getting and keeping that paperwork in order is critical to being able to get access to it in the future and make informed decisions about future experiences.
Which brings us to another of the meanings of solitude, it gives us a chance to queue up the experience materials that we know we are going to need sometime soon. What this means is, when we know we have some difficult situation or experience on the horizon, choosing solitude is an opportunity to reinforce positive mental states that can help us to survive the impending difficulty.
We can retreat into meditation to induce calm as we move into a stressful situation. We can spend time in study to bring forth or reinforce knowledge as we prepare for an intellectually demanding experience. We can withdraw into quiet reflection and contemplation on larger problems of our life and bring forth the wisdom necessary to remedy them and move forward through the challenges.
That is the thing about solitude, it is an anchor for our minds in both the past and the future by putting us firmly in the present. By retreating into solitude we can gain perspective and find the true meaning behind most of our experiences in life.
Philosophy of Solitude
If solitude is associated with anything, it is associated with deep thinking. And there are perhaps no deeper thinkers than philosophers, and no creatures more prone to solitude. Philosophy is a solitudinous activity. Most great ideas need time to incubate and any good idea incubation is usually done alone. Oh sure, you eventually have to crack open that idea egg and hatch it into the world but the initial nurturing of it comes alone, through the philosophical activity of solitude.
It should come as no great surprise then, that a great many philosophers esteemed the virtues of solitude. Let’s look at what a few have had to say on the subject.
“I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
The book Walden has become a manual for a life of solitude. When Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond and built his small cabin there, removing himself from contemporary society and entering into natural society, he did so with a mind intent on self-sufficiency and simple living. He did so to better understand the machinations of the world through a thorough personal introspection.
The quote above speaks to the comfort that a life of solitude can provide. When we make friends with peace and quiet through consistent forays into solitude, we are making friends with ourselves. We are letting life flow through us without the dilution of other souls to muddy the waters of our presence in the world. It is just ourselves and the universe and a personal communion with what the universe is to you.
“Solitude is naught and society is naught. Alternate them and the good of each is seen.”
A contemporary and friend of Thoreau, Emerson was also deeply involved in the transcendentalist movement that inspired both men to look to the solitudinal joys of nature as a means to deeper personal and societal exploration. Emerson did not go so far as Thoreau in his retreat from society. He believed in a balance between the life of solitude and the life of society. That they each have their role in exposing the joy in the other.
And that is a truth of solitude. It is not that we should run wholesale from society and entirely disconnect from our connections. It is that our connections to the world are made stronger by occasionally decoupling so that they can be reevaluated and better understood. Neither solitude nor society on their own can help us to fully understand and appreciate our lives, but together they offer the most complete image of a fulfilling and deep life.
“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”
If anyone knows the joy of being alone, it is Michel de Montaigne. A philosopher during the French Renaissance in the 16th century, Montaigne could usually be found in his castle tower library, a round room lined from top to bottom with books by writers spanning millennia. Montaigne adorned the wooden beams of his library with quotes in ancient Greek and Latin. Montaigne was a man of deep introspection and his philosophical essays came exclusively from the depths of his solitude and the personal exploration that is only possible in that removal from the world.
It is only in solitude that we can find a way to be with ourselves in earnest. Only be retreating into the thoughts, ideas, beliefs and assumptions we have floating around in our minds can we start to befriend the good and bad and make peace with all of it in a warm embrace of understanding, forgiveness and self-appreciation for what you have bore and what you have become.
Joy of Solitude
I have already touched on some of the joys of solitude simply by presenting the meaning and philosophy of it but I want to be more explicit with those joys.
Yes, it obviously helps you to better understand and appreciate yourself and your place in the universe. Allowing yourself time for quiet introspection through the gift of solitude will pull back the curtain of that great shit show in your head. And that’s ok. We want to do that. We need to do that. We need to understand ourselves. Our motivations and beliefs and values and flaws. You can only do that by removing yourself from the world and digging into your head alone.
But we don’t stay in that place. Solitude does not mean that we cut ourselves off from our friendships or obligations. Solitude is a temporary retreat from or social obligations so that we can return refreshed and reinvigorated to engage in those bonds with others that strengthen our joy of the world. When we spend time with ourselves we can better appreciate the friendships we have in the world because solitude has a way of sharpening our appreciation for others.
Perhaps the deepest joy of solitude is that it introduces you to yourself on a regular basis. How often is it that you feel out of touch with the world? I believe this happens because we are so often out of touch with ourselves. We do not check in with ourselves often enough and explore how and where we should fit ourselves into the world and that causes us to feel lost in it. And that is where solitude shines. It allows you to explore yourself and by doing so explore your place in the world; where you are and where you want to be. And when you return from your temporary retreat from the world, you return full of purpose and understanding.
There is a distinct difference between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness is as possible in a crowd as it is by ourselves and it stems from a feeling that you are lacking connection. Solitude is only possible when we are alone and it is a conscious choice that we make to get connected to ourselves.
Moving into solitude is an active experience of working through the complexity of experience that assaults us daily. As new ideas and beliefs and situations are presented to us in life we work at a breakneck speed to keep up. There comes a time where we need to stop and sift through the lessons of those situations and that is where solitude shines.
Whether it is better defining the importance of certain values or beliefs in our own head before bringing them back out into the world, or it is developing a better appreciation for the lifelines that we have in society through temporary absence, solitude is an activity of personal introspection and deep personal engagement.
Throughout the history of thought, solitude has had its place high among the mantle of deep thinkers. But we need not seek out the answers to life’s most difficult questions when we consider the importance of solitude. We need only see the personal joy it can bring through an exploration of ourselves. That is where solitude has its place in the life of every person and that is where every person will find their place in solitude.