Loneliness is one of the greatest scourges of our modern times. There is no doubt as to its insidious effects.
But might there be benefits to sometimes choosing to be alone?
To be able to be with ourselves, and just ourselves, is very important. This means not only time out from interaction with others, but also from interaction with the multiple forms of technology and social media that many of us succumb to on a daily, even hourly, basis.
The spiritual and emotional benefits of time spent in solitude have been recognised, and practiced, in many different cultures throughout human history.
This practice is often described as purposeful or intentional solitude and allows us to:
- tune in to our inner self. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes has described, "In ancient times, purposeful solitude was used as an oracle, as a way of listening to the inner self to solicit advice and guidance otherwise impossible to hear in the din of daily life." Through time spent in intentional solitude we can become more aware of our deepest needs and feelings, and clarify what is important to us, what we value and what we believe.
- better know our own mind and be more confident in it. Time alone with our thoughts allows the arguments for why we think what we do to crystalise in our mind, and means we become better able to articulate our views and opinions, both to ourselves and to others. This leads to enhanced confidence in our views and in ourselves more generally.
- prepare for the moment in life at which we are most alone: our death. Morbid though it sounds, in Buddhism the importance of preparing for this moment is absolutely fundamental. Indeed, Buddhists argue that our whole life might be seen as a preparation for death. If so, being comfortable with being alone would seem to be part of this. The more we can do this, the less fearful we will surely be of death and, paradoxically, the more we can focus on appreciating and enjoying life in the meantime.
- discover and realise aspects of our character and personality that might otherwise go unnoticed and therefore be unfulfilled. As human beings we are virtually bottomless pits of potential, only some of which we will realise in our life times. Time alone can awaken us to some of this untapped potential and help unleash our creativity.
- recuperate and rejuvenate. Time spent in solitude allows us to rest our mind and can be hugely restorative. We can then return to be with others with a refocused outlook and with revived energy.
- reduce our dependency on others for company. Of course most of us like to spend time with friends and family, but ideally this is because we actively want to spend time with them. It should not be because the alternative, in other words the prospect of not being with them, is so awful that we can't face being on our own.
Intentional solitude is not something that should require huge shifts in lifestyle. We don't have to withdraw from society and head for a cave in the hills to become a hermit or a monk.
It can very simply become part of everyday life. Time in solitude might be spent at home cooking or baking, gardening, climbing a hill, or a daily dog walk. We can even consciously choose to take solitude in a room full of people.
What defines intentional solitude is the process of connecting with our inner self and learning to be comfortable and at peace in our own company. It may involve tuning into our inner voice and making a deliberate and conscious effort to embrace this voice in conversation. Or conversely, it might involve attempting to clear our mind of thoughts and simply focusing on whatever activity we are involved in.
Despite the benefits of intentional solitude, it cannot be denied that human beings are primarily social creatures. Interaction with others will always be a crucial part of life. And to say that intentional solitude is valuable and beneficial is not to undermine the very real and devastating effects, both psychological and even physical, of loneliness.
It's rare that a week goes by when some group or other - the elderly, young people leaving care, and now most recently parents - isn't in the headlines because of a study describing the epidemic scale, and harmful effects, of loneliness.
The critical difference between the two is that loneliness is inflicted upon people. It is not something they have opted into and they can't generally choose for it to end.
Intentional solitude however, by definition, is chosen. One has control over how longs periods of solitude will last and it is only engaged in as far as it is helpful and positive for a person.
And so it would seem that time with others and time spent alone are both important. As with many things in life, what we really need is balance between the two.