The Secret of Solitude

When being alone means being alive

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Many of us are destined to be home alone. Baby boomers are losing kids to adulthood and mates to divorce or death, and their continued sluggish marriage and birth rates also will create more solo households in the years ahead.

Some might find this trend disturbing, especially at a time when the virtues of 'community' are being touted as a cure-all for an alienated society. But a spate of observers have spoken up lately about the value--the necessity, really--of solitude. Even for those who plan to always live with another or others, it's essential, they say, to practice being alone. During sessions of solitude, periods of silence, or 'time retreats,' we shun life's chattering distractions and simply notice what is left: ourselves.

The process of quiet self-examination can be uncomfortable, and sometimes painful. But learning aloneness may be a prerequisite to interacting meaningfully with others and participating effectively in society. Community simply can't happen without solitude, says Glenn Tinder in First Things (April 1996): 'If you have never, all alone, tried to define your major convictions, you cannot enter into truth-seeking conversation and thus are incapable of deep human relations. If you cannot be apart from others, you cannot engage in prayer and meditation and thus cannot enter into genuine relations with God. If you recoil from solitude, it may even be said, you are politically disabled; you necessarily lack the spirit of independence needed to stand for what is right in the public realm.'

So how do we begin to be alone? Some are starting with silent retreats, the increasingly popular events typically held at Zen centers, monasteries, or other quiet spaces. The advantage is that the cold-turkey immersion includes in-house technical advice. The disadvantage is that the sink-or-swim approach can result in, well, some sinking.

Indeed, Bob Banner confides in AdBusters (Spring 1996) that on the third day of his ten-day silent retreat he was seized by the urge to run across the surrounding pastoral fields screaming 'Let me out!' But while its strict rules often proved excruciating, Banner found the retreat provided 'vital and necessary soul nourishing food.'

The retreat helped 'decondition the TV culture within me--the incessant pull to distract myself,' Banner writes. He eschewed reading, writing, drawing, listening to music, and, of course, watching TV, largely in favor of sitting meditation. And while his bliss lasted just six days after the retreat, Banner felt less addicted overall to distraction and gained a sense that 'I didn't have to run away from myself or run toward someone else for the answers, whether it was a governmental leader, spiritual teacher, or famous critic of pop culture.'

Quiet introspection can, of course, happen anywhere. In New AgeJournal (May/June 1996), Stephan Rechtschaffen prescribes 'time-shifting,' a technique that integrates limited periods of focused (but not frenetic) busyness with regular periods of silence. Solitude can actually be stressful at first, he warns. We become 'afraid to confront who we are when stripped of our `doing' nature. We feel a need to be surrounded by people, by activity.'

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