The Secret of Solitude

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
Journal (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

Once we become at ease with aloneness, though, the payoffs
begin. ‘Care of the self is groundwork for any relationship, and
self-esteem comes not from others but from within,’ writes
Rechtschaffen, who elaborates his ideas in Time-Shifting:
Creating More Time for Your Life
(Doubleday, 1996). Facing down
loneliness and distraction is the ultimate test of strong

Being alone and observant can also bring a new appreciation of
the world. In DoubleTake (Spring 1996), Charles Baxter notes
how filmmakers prefer relentless action to even a few minutes of
stillness. He calls for media makers–and the rest of us–to slip
some stillness into our daily drama, though it may not always be
acceptable: ‘The daydreaming child, or a daydreaming adult, is
usually an object of contempt or therapy,’ says Baxter.

Yet when we begin to see ourselves and our world with childlike
freshness, he writes, we may well gain a refreshing new energy and
perspective, a sense of wonder at the world. ‘Wonder is at the
opposite pole of worldliness, just as stillness is at the opposite
pole from worldly action,’ he explains. ‘Wonder puts aside the
known and accepted, along with sophistication, and instead serves
up an intelligent na?vet?. Why should anything be as it is? Why are
things as they are?’ Answering these questions in thought and
actions could reinvigorate us and our planet.

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