Whether consistently bitten by the latest global battle for health and wellness, the most recent political pundit’s commentary or the ongoing inner turbulence of work-life balance challenges within a governmental quarantine, the inner terrain of our thoughts can suffer and flicker in mental clarity without a sense of internal solitude. Intensive and uncomfortable mentally demanding labor might become involved with the pursuit of solitude, but the benefits experienced and felt are tremendous since it enriches one of the most important relationships that anyone can have: with themselves. Productive solitude and stillness can require a more excruciating process and internal exploration, but individuals can receive the rewards of this deeper internal activity. Moments of personal epiphany usually arise in this context of solitude; people that remove themselves, for a time, from their societal context can see its influence upon how their views are formed. Author Thomas Merton writes, “We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our bosom.” These moments of self-configuration and re-alignment occur in the pursuit of solitude. Perhaps it might be a necessity to skirt the toxicity of a social setting, dance through the overstimulation of the workplace, or calm the hypersensitivity of current news headlines. A natural tendency might be to remain socially connected and reach out when experiencing a season of crisis, but the pursuit of solitude forces individuals to confront more of who they are and how they relate to their social setting. In vivid detail, solitude and stillness can prepare the seas for the individual ship to voyage to another country and find a seamless blend of personal joy and relief from the waves of emotional turbulence. German-American sociologist Kurt Wolff called this “surrender and catch” in which individuals accept the solitary moment for what it is where “your alone time should not be something you’re afraid of.”
We can identify that we are part of a global community within the digital revolution that has an incessant sense of keeping busy with family, work, and societal obligations. One of the underlying hindrances to remaining toxically busy is the universal notion to maintain a steadfast upkeep with modern productivity and high achievement standards, but we also “have to have just everything just right” in order to attend to the fine-tuning of our lives in the pursuit of stillness and solitude whether through simply learning more about this ancient lifestyle practice, studying the philosophical questions around the techniques, or simply attaining a better grasp of its necessity in our contemporary nestle with modernity. Our basic preconception is that pursuing stillness and solitude is similar to mastering algebra or having a knowledge base in auto mechanics. We desire to be in the authoritative position with a sense of competence and control. Yet, pursuing stillness of the heart and quiet solitude deliberately contrasts this desire and places demand to consistently surrender control and accept incompetence in its practice. With a profoundly existential root, stillness and solitude will raise more questions for our lives about how we spend our time and what actually gets scheduled as the practice will become a reminder of our common humanity to fight the tyranny of the urgent and live with greater awareness in present-tense intimacy.
Pursuing a lifestyle of stillness and solitude must first meet specific preconditions if this will become beneficial. Kenneth Rubin, a developmental psychologist at the University of Maryland, calls these preconditions the “ifs.” Solitude can be experienced as productive only: if it is pursued non-compulsory and out of free will, if one can demonstrate effective emotion regulation, if the individual can join a social network upon desire, and if one can maintain positive relationships outside of its personal pursuit. If these preconditions remain left unmet, yes, solitude can be negatively damaging. For many that practice this regularly, stillness and solitude can bring us from the fires of our own predicament. Contrastly, a historic case example of solitude’s deleterious effects are found within the hikikomori movement in Japan, termed for those youth that have not left their habitations and interacted with society for several months or more, ultimately being seen as social recluses that require reintegration therapy to relearn healthy and adaptive social intelligence. Healthy practices of stillness and solitude involve self-reflection and the inborn capacity to return back to social settings.
Lead researcher Timothy Wilson from the University of Virginia highlights in his findings that over two thirds of the people in the study would electrically shock themselves rather than remain solitary with their thoughts:
We kind of thought, well, we have this huge brain that’s stocked full of pleasant memories and has the ability to generate fantasies, and surely it can’t be that hard to spend a few minutes enjoying yourself with your thoughts. And we just kept doing study after study finding that—for many people, anyway—not so much. In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.
Many find themselves putting on headphones while on a run, taking their phone with them into the bathroom, or listening to national public radio (NPR) when experiencing quiet in the car. All of these pursuits toward stimulation and external noise detract from a posture of solace and create a context for constant inner chatter. In any given day, coming into stillness and solitude can exhibit a myriad of emotional clutter with being altruistic and selfish, loving and bitter, or being merciful and hateful. Contemporary and ancient thought leaders and cultural influencers as Moses, St. Anthony of the Desert, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lao Tzu, Friedrich Nietsche, and Virginia Woolf among others have all given inspiration and consideration to the multifaceted benefits of pursuing stillness and solitude. Stillness and solitude typically do not have a universal form. Some like to go camping alone, others meditate, and even another remnant enjoy going for a walk in the woods alone. Whatever the amorphous activity to consider stillness and solitude, individuals that pursue solitude are positioning themselves for an interior quiet that brings them into greater attunement and touch with themselves and their social context. Pursuing stillness and solitude will remove us from the daily inner chatter of erratic emotions and various compromises to move toward greater capacity for creativity, problem-solving, and spirituality. For these individuals that are ancient and contemporary thought leaders and cultural influencers in their own right, they have found the ability to rely upon their interior region to cultivate an identity rather than being marked by an identity originating from their groups. This capacity to be alone provides the essence of a self-enriching experience in solitary states rather than experiencing loneliness in solitude.
In his cunning manner of portraying its necessity, psychiatrist Anthony Storr remarks in his memoir In Solitude: A Return to the Self, “The happiest lives are those in which neither interpersonal relationships nor impersonal interests are idealized as the only way to salvation. The desire and pursuit of the whole must comprehend both aspects of human nature.” Here are several considerations for pursuing stillness and solitude as a healthy rhythm of life in any season:
- Solitude and stillness are parameters that can establish a more authentic way to find a life source and re-align with personal values and aspirations. Rather than drinking from a societal cistern, this ancient discipline can unmask standards and aptitudes that are not within reach.
- Our active body-states require stillness and solitude to unravel from the day, much more so that we need regular cycles of sleep. Solitude and stillness can cause us to reconnect with meaning, purpose, and originality.
- Converse to experiences of loneliness, solitude produces an empowering joy of being alone rather than suffering its pain with damaging consequences.
- As social creatures, it will be a natural endeavor to desire interconnectedness and build upon our social capital. The practice of stillness and solitude lead us, rather than drab, narrow, and constricted lives, into a full immersion of an interior life in wide-open spaces.
- New research from the University of California – Santa Cruz indicates that solitude’s beneficiaries enjoy positive growth outcomes in emotional well-being, developmental understanding of the self, and experiences in creative self-reflection and inner renewal.
- A fundamental mistake that people live by is the notion that freedom is found and experienced within our external circumstances. We are not yet truly free if we continually depend upon circumstances. Stillness and solitude provide interior freedom from societal restrictions, daily obligations, and personal limitations imposed on our lives through the human condition.
- The fuller interior freedom that we usually seek cannot become fulfilled apart from a consistent lifestyle of stillness and solitude that secure the remedy to a life of entrapped stifling. Stillness and solitude are part of the pursuit of happiness with flow.
When progressing through the global footprint of a gargantuan pandemic, it naturally becomes an invitation for us to consider and confront existential questions and transcendent life musings. Opportunities to silently retreat, dial down, and mindfully absorb our relational platform will become altogether necessary in this intercontinental season as nations move toward recovery, reconstruction, and restoration. The pathway to stillness and solitude can be hard fought and altogether agonizing, but the rich rewards outweigh the momentary sacrifice; the interior freedom that solitude provides us becomes a habitation of unlimited dimensions in an abyss of self-discovery, infinite horizon, and torrent of revelation into who we are and the greater narrative of our story. Those that authentically live with a regular practice of stillness and solitude convey breadth and embody an increasing capacity of depth to become who they are called to be.
- Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday
- Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton
- Out of Solitude by Henri Nouwen
- Solitude: A Return to the Self by Anthony Storr
- A History of Solitude by David Vincent
“Healthy practices of stillness and solitude involve self-reflection and the inborn capacity to return back to social settings.”
By Deepak Santhiraj, Licensed Clinical Social Worker
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