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What I Wish I’d Known: The Importance of Solitude

by Stephanie Sides

Solitude is a good thing. You should want it. You should embrace it. You’ll reap the benefits of it – profoundly.

That could be the end of this story.

But it’s not, because most people I know avoid it at all costs.

I define “solitude” as time to yourself to do what you want without external guidance (the infamous “telling you what you should do”). Call it down time, quiet time, reflective time, whatever. It’s a time when you’re not answerable to anyone but yourself. And maybe that’s where it gets especially scary.

I think solitude is become increasingly important for rejuvenation in our “maximum-productivity-at-all-costs” and “work-ourselves-to-death” society. Having lived that world for 25 years, I know it well: the pitfalls, social disengagement, personal disillusionment, and the exhaustion it produces.

Solitude can help you in many ways. It will give you time to think about problems you’re struggling with and decide about next steps forward. It will give you time to stay focused on the goals before you. It’s also likely to give you some time just to be at peace. To be away from the daily fray. Relax. Regroup. Rejoin.

But for as many reasons as there are to engage in it, there seems to be a similar number of reasons to avoid it.

Some don’t want to be alone with themselves. The more social among us are probably afraid of it because they are more adept at, and get more fulfillment out of, being with others. Some just don’t know what to do with the time and the experience, and simply don’t see the value. For others, no matter how desirable it might be, the time is just too hard to come by. And they consider it a luxury.

All of you, please reconsider.

Let’s think about what solitude can offer.

In my mind, solitude is time to engage in activities you especially like – by and for yourself. It’s a time to experiment without being judged.

In my case, I've used the time to write, draw, and paint watercolors. I’m continuing the writing I’ve always done, but now in a different spirit. These days, instead of stories on science, engineering, and information technology, I write non-fiction stories about my life and develop outlines about fictional short stories (the latter, so far, is more challenging for me). I’ve also embraced artwork, taking watercolor classes and starting on a couple of drawing classes. I like to think I’m pursuing skills in art to make up for the C+ I perennially got in grade school art classes.

More importantly, solitude is a time to just do nothing.

Doing nothing, of course, smacks of an oxymoron. After all, if you’re doing, you’re doing something, not nothing.

Maybe the appropriate verb is “to be.”

Sitting and reading, for example, does not qualify. That is still doing something. The key, truly, is to do nothing – except release yourself fully to your senses.

This is critical to creativity. It’s a time to try to turn off the incessant self-chatter we experience all day long – we tell ourselves not to forget to make this appointment, buy that at the grocery store, pay the bills, think about what to have for dinner, plan for kids’ sports activities tomorrow...

Solitude, instead, can be the time when ideas are given liberty to percolate and come, when they want to, to the surface (this is your spiritual and creative muse talking, however you want to converse with her). I experience this creative inspiration at the end of my day. Some people find it first thing in the morning when they’re just waking up.

Ironically, you need to plan this time to make sure it actually happens – an hour, a half-hour a week, whatever your current schedule will allow. But even that is too little time to really be a benefit.

After I quit my job, I tried to do “the solitude thing,” as I told myself. My heart told me it was going to be a good thing, but my mind found it very, very hard. My mental self-chatter would kick in, reminding me of my implicit, ever-expanding to-do list because I WAS A VERY ORGANIZED PERSON. (That’s the problem with organized people: The list not only never ends, but it continues to expand, as more free time allows, as if accomplishing all those items constitutes the essence of life. That’s one of my current “wake up” calls because that was how I filled my time for a while.)

So, for my solitude, I sit on my deck listening to the sounds the trees make in the breeze, the various bird and frog calls. I have a favorite bird, which I see surprisingly often, given it’s such a solitary bird. It’s the heron. It screeches like you might imagine a prehistoric bird would. We, in the neighborhood, affectionately call it the pterodactyl.

Or I have a cat sitting in my lap purring. Or I might be listening to some favorite music.

Maybe all of the above. In any case, I’m just trying my best to be present.

Our society has completely lost touch with this notion of solitude, even more so with the idea of doing nothing. In fact, we are so caught up in accomplishing that when you share with others that you’re not focused on accomplishing, it can elicit surprising disparaging body language: “Do you mean to say: You’re not producing?

It almost comes across like a scream. Perhaps this says more about the screamer. (I’d rather listen to the pterodactyl.)

In contrast to that motivation, I believe solitude is not only not a luxury but may be key to our survival as a culture. I wonder if the fact that so few people have, allow themselves time for, or know what to do with solitude has something to do with why our country it losing its creative edge, which bears on its economic edge and apparent lack of societal happiness.

As I have come to value solitude more and more, I’ve become aware of the notion of mindfulness. I looked recently on the Internet for more information on this topic, guidance perhaps, about what this meant and how to live a life more mindfully. Peacefully, peaceably.

I came across “The Mindfulness Wheel,” by Frederick Burggraf, which describes “Living in the Present Moment,” and covers a circular set of interrelated things as apparently simple as smiling, breathing, listening (what a shamefully lost element in our lives this one is), slowing down (huh?), arriving where you are, seeing something new in the day to day, perceiving the essence of things, and being deliberate in attending to tasks that are part of the normal business of life. Note the emphasis, again, on the senses.

This philosophy has three levels of engagement for each of these things – from the most superficial (not meant in a pejorative way) to the most profound. I’m just beginning to explore it, so I’m not an advocate for this particular “way.”

But I found it at the right time in my life to help guide me. It’s all about slowing down, living in the moment, and moving out from there in a meaningful way. I figure this can’t help but be a good thing, not only for me but for all of us. If only we’d take the time to at least think about doing it instead of rushing headlong into the next thing that commands our attention whether it’s of value or not…