Alone, But Not Lonely

The quiet gifts of solitude encompass spirit, mind and body.

By Eric Schneider

June 2008

“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his 1854 classic, Walden. Intentionally withdrawing from business as usual in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau took up residence in a spare, self-built cabin at nearby Walden Pond, living there for two years in the spirit of his renowned credo, “Simplify, simplify.”

Thoreau’s time, of course, was less complicated than our own, which is largely dictated by speed, efficiency and connectivity. We feel lost without a cell-phone signal, and are often uneasy when not regularly around other people, even if we have an underlying desire to be alone. While solitude can carry a negative connotation, it can be a boon for the mind and spirit—and even the body.

Richard Mahler, a New Mexico-based writer and media consultant, knows the benefits. In 1998 he spent 97 days as the winter caretaker of a remote mountain ranch without electricity, telephone or indoor plumbing, and penned a book about his experiences entitled Stillness: Daily Gifts of Solitude (Red Wheel). Reflecting on some of the virtues of this secluded experience, Mahler explains, “I felt more fully in the present moment, rather than leaning into the past or reaching into the future. I became increasingly attentive to what I was actually feeling, doing, thinking and observing. In this way, I became more alive and aware.”

Mahler’s experience isn’t unique: People have long been drawn to solitude as a way of focusing on life’s essentials. This year marks the 800th anniversary of the Carmelites, a Catholic order of monks and nuns who use solitude to deepen their spiritual lives so they can better serve humanity.

Such institutions have increasingly welcomed outsiders to use their spaces for spiritual and emotional recharge. “More people are seeking the four Ss—solitude, silence, simplicity and stillness—when they go on retreats,” says Phil Stone, founder of www.findthedivine.com and www.seekaretreat.com, sites aimed at those looking for retreat lodgings.

Being Without Doing

Solitude’s benefits are hard to quantify. Patience Robbins, director of the Personal Spiritual Deepening Program at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland, notes that “with solitude, there’s usually nothing to show for it. It’s that idea of the human being versus the human doing.”

Solitude is often confused with a similar concept—isolation. While solitude involves mindful time alone, isolation is seen in a negative light, more depressive than contemplative. This helps explain why doing “nothing” is difficult for many Americans. “We are a market-driven society and being alone doing nothing doesn’t generate money,” says Mahler. “If we could package and sell solitude as an antidote for stress or dysfunction…the tide would turn.”

In contrast to the notion of a surly recluse residing on a mountaintop, solitude needn’t involve a complete retreat from society—once you get the hang of it. “I think initially solitude requires us to remove ourselves from all distractions and to be inwardly still,” says the Rev. Eldon Simpson, Jr., pastor of The United Methodist Church of Port Washington, New York, himself a Shalem Institute attendee. “So many of us are addicted to hurry; it takes discipline to be free from that addiction.”

Solitude doesn’t require taking a permanent break from the world. Robbins encourages taking 20 or 30 minutes of quiet time in the morning or a slow walk during the day. Adds Simpson, “What works for me is that I picture myself in the simple presence of God. I flee from all distractions, stop talking and try to achieve an inward stillness.”

Though solitude can clearly serve as a psychological and spiritual balm, it can also benefit the body, albeit primarily if enjoyed in a natural setting with considerable discipline. As Mahler reports, “I lost 20 pounds by being more active each day and adopting a healthier diet. I consumed no alcohol or meat and very little caffeine or sugar. I burned a lot of calories by skiing, snowshoeing, hiking and chopping wood. In the vast, deep silence, all of my senses grew sharper. My blood pressure and cholesterol dropped significantly, along with my stress level. By being alone, I was better able to tune into my body and respond to its needs, including the desire for certain kinds of food, drink, movement and meditation.”

This is the true beauty of solitude—it can be different for each person. Whether it is used for untangling personal issues, pondering a higher power or simply getting some breathing space, solitude can help anyone implement change or just appreciate existence. In Thoreau’s words, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

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