Kindness and the path from Loneliness to Solitude
Solitude is not primarily about being alone (although it can be cultivated in this way) but about the stillness which comes from being at ease with oneself.
Last month I offered some reflections on Silence which was the first of three ‘S’s which guided my recent sabbatical/retreat. This month, then, some thoughts on Solitude.
And just as with Silence, the word Solitude can have both positive and negative connotations for us depending on our current situation and experience. So, first let me define some terms and acknowledge the negative by suggesting three related words which might be helpful here: Aloneness, Loneliness and Solitude.
Aloneness, I would suggest, is the neutral term which simply defines a situation: I am physically on my own in this moment. Loneliness, then, suggests the painful aspect of not wanting this to be the case and the suffering which comes with that. And finally, Solitude being the kind of aloneness which carries with it a sense of strength, steadiness and ease with oneself.
Henri Nouwen, in his classic spiritual guide, ‘Reaching Out’, talks about there being a path which can take us from loneliness to solitude. And that this is, in fact, an essential part of our spiritual journey. So this, it seems to me, might be of enormous value to the many who find themselves unwillingly alone much more than normal during the current pandemic lock-down. But, how can loneliness be transformed into solitude?
Well, this question requires a book rather than a blog but I hope just a few pointers might have some value – the first being as already stated: that the journey from loneliness to solitude might actually be possible. This thought alone might bring a degree of hope and purpose for us in the midst of our aloneness.
The second is to recognise, as with Silence, the role of our intention in the art of being alone. In other words, to recognise that aloneness can feel very different depending on whether it feels forced upon an unwilling participant, or is freely chosen with some sense of purpose and intention in mind. The struggle doesn’t end there by any means but it is a huge thing to recognise the role of intention and how this could be a starting point for our journey towards the more positive aspects of Solitude.
So, whether you are someone who tends to be very at ease on your own (or even prefers it) or whether you feel you hate it and spend most of your energy trying to avoid it (neither type being at an advantage in the journey towards Solitude, in my view), then actually making the choice to be alone for, perhaps initially, just small parts of the day would be a key place to start. This could be done through meditation practice. But it could just as well be done while clearing the kitchen, cooking a meal or going for a solo walk. The key is not what I do but that I deliberately decide to do it alone. Even if I am one of those who feels they have no choice but to be alone, then the business of bringing intention can help us as we choose to move towards the whole experience of aloneness rather than a sense of putting up with it or distracting myself from it. For there are riches here which will only emerge through my somehow finding a sense of having a choice – a sense of agency.
And then, as ever with a mindfulness based practice, I simply pay attention to what is here – how it feels, what happens in my mind, in my body and in my emotions, whether I find myself liking it or not in this moment. And also noticing my impulses – both the desire to stay longer than planned and the impulse to end it sooner or avoid it altogether.
I may find, for instance, that the very fact that I have decided to do this – that I have a sense of my own agency here – is what shifts the whole experience from something that might have felt oppressive to something which has a richness and a depth to it.
But it may, on the other hand, be a difficult experience for me. There may be a sense of foreboding, of dark clouds gathering or of feeling a bit lost.
This sort of thing, I suspect, is what many of us might be afraid of in being alone. And indeed we may well be coming close to something which does have a dangerous edge to it. Which is precisely why we humans operate best within some degree of community. We do need others’ comfort, encouragement and perspective. But at the same time we can become dependent in the wrong sort of way on these things coming from others, to the extent that we miss the opportunity also to cultivate a healthy relationship with ourselves – an ease with ourselves. In fact, at worst we can not only become dependent on others but we can end up allowing ourselves to be defined by others and their reactions to and opinions of us. And this is not freedom. And this will not help us when we are alone.
At such times the first thing to remember is that, since I have chosen to be here alone I can at any stage choose not to be here – to end the aloneness either by initiating conversation with a friend (electronically or face to face) or through some other activity which makes me feel connected with others. Or even by simply engaging in some ‘distracting activity’ just to get me through.
But equally, even though it is uncomfortable for me right now, I can also choose to stay just a bit longer and begin to explore what this experience of being alone is for me. But if I do this, there is one ‘friend’ I will need and that is an attitude towards myself – of friendliness, gentleness and kindness. It might be that there is anxiety, fear, loss or grief lurking behind what initially just seems like an ‘uncomfortable feeling’. In which case kindness and gentleness will absolutely be the qualities I need until I can see more clearly what is here and then respond to it appropriately. In time and with practice, I will gradually learn to move from harsh judgements of myself to gentle compassion which is one aspect of what we might mean by journeying from Loneliness to Solitude – coming to be at ease with myself, whatever my experience is in this moment.
During my own sabbatical I deliberately chose to spend two weeks alone looking after a friend’s smallholding while they were on holiday. I wasn’t quite alone as there were the pigs, ducks and chickens to feed (and talk to) as well as guests to welcome into the self-catering barn nearby. But the vast majority of my days were spent alone – as in, without other humans to talk to.
And I found these two weeks both wonderful and challenging. During the times when I felt untroubled and peaceful there was nothing like it – especially as there was nothing and no one between me and simply being in the midst of nature and sensing myself a part of it. My sense of connectedness with all that was around me deepened considerably especially when I took regular afternoon walks through and around the 60 odd acres of woodland and sat for sometimes 40 minutes in one spot simply ‘being present’ and being aware.
At other times, though, it did feel as though a dark cloud had descended and I felt agitated, uncertain and restless. Normally such moments would send me looking for someone to engage with – to offer me much needed support, encouragement and perspective. But this time I had decided not to do that (i.e. I had decided not even to ‘phone a friend’ if at all possible) and so I would continue to feel quite exposed. Indeed there were moments when I sensed all my thoughts turning negative and going on a downward spiral – but without anyone to break the fall.
During one of these periods I began to feel completely lost and very uncertain even about my decision to spend this time alone: meditation felt like a threat; going for a walk felt too exposing; and I couldn’t concentrate on reading. It all felt quite dark. In the midst of it all, though, I vaguely remembered the principle of kindness. It felt a bit like just a bit of theory to me at that point but I did know how powerful kindness can be – especially how a stranger’s kindness can turn around a mood or even a whole day. So, still struggling to find some enthusiasm, I decided to explore kindness in some way.
Just the thought of kindness wasn’t enough though. I realised I had to do something – to embody a sense of kindness towards myself. I wondered what I could do that I felt I could actually manage. So I went to the kitchen, made myself a warm drink, sat on the porch overlooking the beautiful valley and just drank it all in. And it was important that I was just doing this as a kindness to myself. Like something I might offer a friend who is suffering – but now I was doing it for myself. It felt good.
And, sure enough, something did shift in me and gradually I began to see a bit more clearly what was really happening and what was present. I began to see that behind what had seemed like an impenetrable dark cloud was lurking the presence of some very negative thoughts about myself and my life – thoughts that were secretly plaguing me, undermining my confidence, keeping me locked in. Until they showed themselves up it all simply felt like a ghastly awfulness. But when I finally saw what was there it was still difficult but very much more manageable – and finite – and actually really helpful to see. Because once I had become aware of them I was reminded of something vital we teach in mindfulness, that your thoughts are not facts but may simply be decades old habitual reactions to long past experiences in life – especially experiences of past stress, trauma or suffering.
And, as soon as I remembered this, kindness evolved into compassion and I began to experience more of a sense of caring support and empathy for myself – someone who was suffering – rather than a battle with or against the thoughts or, worse, a harsh judging of myself for having them at all.
An ease, a gentleness and a peace returned – the promised ease-with-myself of Solitude. But now deeper than before because it was somehow based not on avoiding myself and my thoughts but on having chosen to be present to myself, to be with what was here and to find that this was, actually, OK. In fact I was actually OK – after all.
So, two aspects of intentional Solitude, then. There are indeed wonders and joys to be discovered here. But there will also be dark clouds. So it will always good to remember that:
‘the hooded stranger emerging from the mist is not necessarily the bearer of ill’.
(All photos taken at ‘Garn Farm’: https://www.warmthandwonder.co.uk/)