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The power of alone

Why do we so often equate solitude with loneliness? In our terminally distracted society, Simon Parke finds radical healing in the simple but unpopular practice of sitting quietly in our own company. 


The psychologist Carl Jung told the story of a priest who came to see him. This man of God was restless, feeling the power was going out of his ministry. Jung heard him out and recommended that he spend one evening a week by himself. The priest agreed to this plan and left.

When he returned the following week, Jung asked him how his evening alone had gone. The priest said it went fine. He'd watched TV and enjoyed it. Jung pointed out to the priest that he was meant to spend the evening alone, without the TV for company. He encouraged him to try the same thing again the next week. The priest agreed and left.

When he returned the following week, Jung asked him how it had gone. The priest said it went fine. He'd read a book all evening and enjoyed it. Jung pointed out that he was meant to spend the evening alone, without the company of a book. The priest became exasperated. How could he possibly spend the evening just with himself?

'Well, if you don't want to spend time with yourself,' observed Jung, 'are you surprised that others don't wish to spend time with you?'1

Many follow the priest's lead and show a profound fear of solitude. Yet the theologian Paul Tillich believed it to be a happy state rather than something to avoid. 'Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone,' he wrote. 'It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.'2

Loneliness and solitude can look alike but are as different as waste and wonder. Loneliness is a negative state, marked by a sense of isolation. When a person is lonely, they feel that something is missing. It's not just about being physically alone - it's possible to be with other people and still feel lonely, perhaps the bitterest form. There is nothing redemptive about this experience. It feels harsh, like a punishment; it is perceived as a state of deficiency and provokes discontent and a sense of estrangement in the world.

Solitude, on the other hand, is the state of being alone without being lonely; of being happily alone. It's a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself, and through oneself with God and the world around. Solitude is something desirable, something to be sought; a state of being alone in the good company of your self. But what if you don't think you are good company?

In The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined the word 'alone' as 'in bad company.' It's a joke with power because it flirts with the truth and explains why solitude is such an unattractive proposition for many. If you think you're bad, your desire will be to escape this distressing thought rather than sit alone with it. We recognise the painful truth: 'I can endure anything but myself!' It's a theme taken up by the writer J.Krishnamurti: 'You try being alone,' he says, 'without any form of distraction and you will see how quickly you want to get away from yourself and forget what you are.'

So despite Paul Tillich's clarifying and encouraging words, solitude continues to have a perception problem. Wikipedia links it to bad relationships, infectious diseases and mental disorder - and that's just in the first sentence! It doesn't encourage you to pursue the habit. And it was attitudes such as these which the psychiatrist Anthony Storr battled against with his book called Solitude, published in 1988.

The book made waves at the time, as it went against popular assumptions. Traditionally, psychoanalysis had viewed those with a preference for solitude as deficient in some way and in need of help. It was known that certain psychological conditions such as schizophrenia and the schizoid personality disorder were strongly linked to a tendency to seek insularity. So solitude was regarded as the refuge of the insane or the inadequate.

In response, Storr argued that solitary pursuits 'play a greater part in the economy of human happiness than modern psychoanalysts and their followers allow.' Instead of seeing solitude as strange, he highlighted the creativity and emotional maturity that could be found there by looking at the lives of scientists, philosophers and composers. Descartes, Newton, Beethoven, Kafka and Wittgenstein were all brought into the witness box. Intense creativity demanded intense solitude, Storr claimed as did self-awareness. 'Human beings,' he wrote, 'easily become alienated from their own deepest needs and feelings. Learning, thinking, innovation and maintaining contact with one's own inner world are all facilitated by solitude.'

His book was ground-breaking in psychiatric circles and proved reassuring for many whose love of solitude had previously felt odd and out of step with everyone else. But he did little to change popular perceptions. Taking the lead from psychoanalysis, society continued to regard solitude with a suspicious eye and this suspicion continues largely unchallenged today. A host of self-help books, women's magazines and dating sites extol interpersonal relationships as life's Holy Grail. There's advice about finding relationships, starting relationships, improving relationships, surviving relationships and leaving relationships - but no advice about the joys of solitude. The message is clear: our lives are to be defined by others rather than ourselves. 'How am I?' and 'How is my love life?' almost become the same question.

People sometimes come to me to reflect on their lives. When speaking with them, I often find myself saying: 'You seem to be allowing your life to be defined by other people.' In one way or another, they're pursuing a dream that requires other people to respond in a particular way. This makes the enterprise both fragile and frustrating for we have no power over others and if we are asking them to deliver happiness to our door we may be waiting a long time.

It is only when we are no longer defined by others that we are free and solitude is the path to this place: 'In solitude,' wrote Laurence Sterne, 'the mind gains strength and learns to lean upon itself.' And although Storr's book was refreshing in its time, it said only what the great religions and philosophers had been suggesting for centuries. After all, it was 6,000 years ago that Buddha said:  'Each of you must make himself his island; make himself and no one else his refuge.'6 It's a truth that keeps getting lost in the rush for relationship and personal fulfilment.

In the summer of 2011 I found myself in the disconcerting situation of writing about solitude and silence amid the sound of breaking glass, roaring flames and angry shouts. It made me wonder: am I wasting my time? For a few mad days over the summer of 2011, the social fabric of many of our cities was ripped apart by aggression, mob power, opportunism and fear; and it all started at the bottom of my road in North London.

Politicians and opinion columns were eager to offer activist solutions with lists of things we must do. Yet perhaps an absence of doing would be more creative. It's not something we ever contemplate but as Blaise Pascal observed in the 17th century, 'All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.' Could that be true? Might there be answers in learning to be still? As smoke billowed into the air, I became ever more convinced of the human need for solitude and for the nation's need to recover the power of alone.

Why? In solitude, we look after our psychology and this is important.  Whatever spiritual, religious or intellectual veneer we give ourselves, we're only as healthy as our psychology. Our psychology is the puppet master of all other aspects of ourselves. Even our spirituality does what our psychology says and so solitude is an act of charity towards ourselves and therefore the world. If we're psychologically well then our work is well and the world benefits.

Take Jesus, for example. Much to his disciples' frustration, Jesus disappeared early into the hills to be alone because withdrawal from the world is important if we wish to be a creative part of it. An inability to withdraw reveals only that we're part of the problem.  And as the contemplative Sister Wendy Beckett says, this is a unique capacity which humans possess: 'The capacity for silence - a deep creative awareness of one's inner truth - is what distinguishes us as humans.'


But as we've seen, solitude is difficult and it's not simply a matter of self-loathing; there are other reasons to struggle with the idea of withdrawal into silence.  For a start, it's a path that leads us away from what Henri Nouwen called 'the scaffolding of our daily life' and for many, this is a horrific thought. The world of relationships and information are the twin towers on which many build their lives. These are the acceptable addictions which give meaning to our day; and when denied access to them we become twitchily restless.

I remember when I worked in a supermarket. We persuaded the manager to allow a two-minute silence on November 11th, but what a shock it was to the customers. Asked to stand still for 120 seconds, they looked uncomfortable and instinctively reached for their phones lest they be forced to notice themselves or the present moment.

Why should this be so? Why is something so good perceived as so bad? To quote Tony Blair: 'Education, education, education.' If solitude is an undiscovered country, it's only because no one showed us the way when we were small. Certainly few of us will have experienced what the Indian Chief Standing Bear describes here: 'Training began with children, who were taught to sit still and enjoy it. They were taught to use their organs of smell, to look where there was apparently nothing to see and to listen intently when all seemingly was quiet.' And he concludes with this line: 'A child who cannot sit still is a half-developed child.'

When young, most of us were taught to be active and busy rather than still and listening and we pass on this impoverished model to the next generation. Parents work their socks off to keep their children entertained and away from silence. To leave children in silence is almost seen as neglectful and so if they're not driving them to an activity they're leaving the telly on or putting a computer in their bedroom. Half-developed children breed more half-developed children.

The results of a recent test for divergent thinking in young people is instructive. Divergent thinking is the ability to come up with different solutions to a given a situation. It's awareness that there's not one answer but many answers and is at the root of much creativity. This particular test followed the same children as they grew up. They were first conducted at kindergarten age where 98% of the children were rated at 'genius' level. The test was done again when the children were 10, by which time that figure was down to 50%. By the time they were 15, it was considerably lower again.11  

In this genuinely creative area, we discover that humans, exposed to a particular way of teaching and understanding as they develop, actually go backwards; they become lesser people and I have no doubt it's the same in our relationship to solitude and silence. We do not start out in life finding it hard and then gradually get better. Rather, we start life finding it easy but lose this capacity along the way, to the extent that some now find it almost impossible. We do not learn as we go; we lose as we go.

For many, this loss is expressed in their relationship to the media. This is what I see every morning. People get a free newspaper at the tube station and read a couple of stories as they wait for the train. They then read six more stories as they travel to work. On arrival, they leave the newspaper on the seat, for its job is done. It's distracted them for the necessary 20 minutes and now it's time to get on with the business of the day. The stories will have varied from funny and sad to gossipy and tragic. They'll have taken the reader around the world, 40 seconds here, two minutes there and then a quick 20 seconds somewhere else. Can they remember any of the stories as they walk to the office? Probably not, but they're not there to be remembered. The stories are there to distract us and fill that difficult 20 minutes on the train.

Or imagine a different scenario. An individual awaits their appointment in the hairdresser and passes the time with a celebrity gossip magazine. They read the big interview, a half-page piece on the dangers of sun beds but it's mainly bite-size chunks about the soap opera lives of the briefly famous. Is any of it true? You cannot be sure and in a way it doesn't matter. The magazine is just there to entertain until their appointment time - and to keep them from themselves.

This is not healthy. When something limits us to a surface response, it denies us self-awareness and though it's not illegal, it is unhelpful. As we immerse ourselves in the brief dramas of other people's lives, the restless negativity is passed to our inner lives and damages our capacity for solitude. As John Bunyan reminded us: 'If we have not quiet in our minds, outward comfort will do no more for us than a golden slipper on a gouty foot.'

For much of the time, the media offers information at the expense of awareness and like confused travellers we lose our bearings and become victims of anxiety. The media feeds our desire for information but this is not a child who needs feeding; instead, this unhappy child needs calming and care.

In solitude, we offer ourselves such care. Solitude can be defined as the path to inner silence which we discover like a clearing in the wood. Yet here's another problem: it's silence that makes some of us panic. Wayne Rooney apparently has to go to sleep with the Hoover on. That may seem extreme - and particularly challenging for Colleen - but there are many of us who need the noise of the telly or radio as we fall asleep. Why? Because there's something about the silence we find frightening. Perhaps in our past silence was an uncomfortable thing and we still feel the need to avoid it. Unwelcome thoughts and feelings arise in silence.

Or perhaps we've never found enough meaning in ourselves and need others to give ourselves a sense of worth. As Esther Rantzen recently revealed in the Daily Mail, she needs noise to sleep. A widow for ten years she knows only loneliness: 'How I often wake at midnight,' she writes, 'still lying on the sofa, the TV blaring and lights blazing and have to force myself to my empty bed.'

There are so many reasons to turn our face from solitude and only one reason to turn towards it: it is there we recover ourselves. Unless we choose to become desert hermits, we'll carry on being active in the world in our different ways. But we remember that the world needs us as humans rather than machines and it's solitude that keeps us human.  

Thomas Merton put it well: 'In actual fact,' he wrote, 'society depends for its existence on the inviolable personal solitude of its members. Society, to merit its name, must be made up not of members or mechanical units, but of persons. To be a person implies responsibility and freedom and both these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one's own reality and of one's ability to give to society - or to refuse that gift.'14
The world asks that we acquire a certain independence of spirit as we immerse ourselves in the crowd. Why? Because the crowd can be a hypnotic force whose mad rules can quickly become our own. As the Sufi poet Hafiz puts it:

Listen: this world is the lunatic's sphere,
Don't always agree it's real.
Even with my feet upon it and the postman knowing my door
My address is somewhere else.15

And solitude does not have to mean a 30 day retreat; more often, it's a simple 'no' in the midst of life. Perhaps you're waiting to see the doctor. You could pick up one of the magazines. But if you said 'no' to the magazine, you could listen instead to your breathing, gather yourself and become aware of the moment.
Or perhaps you're at the bus stop. You could text someone. But if you said 'no' to the text, you could focus instead on some aspect of the scenery around you - a tree, a window, an old door - and allow it to become a meditation. You look at your chosen object, note it well and allow creation to speak.

Or perhaps you're waiting in a supermarket queue. You could spend time getting frustrated, expressed in a tense body and hateful thoughts towards those ahead of you and the cashier. But if you said 'no' to all that and accepted your circumstances, you could become conscious for the first time in the day. You may have been living on automatic up until that moment. Then a simple 'no' opens the door of awareness.

In solitude, we discover an inner knowing that is quite different from the knowing that we use in the world. And it's about time. As Storr says, 'In the end, one has to make sense of one's own life, however influential guidance from mentors may have been.'

Simon Parke's new book Solitude: Recovering the power of alone is published by White Crow Books.

1  Quoted in Deirdre Blair,  Jung: A biography (Back Bay Books 2003).
2  Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (Prentice Hall and IBD 1963).
3  Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (Bloomsbury 2008).
4  J.Krishnamurti, Total freedom : The essential Krishnamurti (Harper 1996).
5  Anthony Storr, Solitude (Flamingo, 1988).
6  Quoted in Karen Armstrong, Buddha (Phoenix 2002).
7  Blaise Pascal, Human Happiness (Penguin, 2008).
8  Sister Wendy Beckett, Meditations on Silence (Dorling Kindersley, 1995) p8
9  Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out (Zondervan, 1980)
10  Standing Bear Land of the Spotted Eagle (University of Nebraska Press, 1978)
11  Quoted by Sir Ken Robinson in a talk on divergent thinking.
12  Daily Mail.
13  Daily Mail.
14  Thomas Merton, A Search for Solitude (Harper 1998).
15  Hafiz, The Gift (Penguin, 1999).