I went to the woods to be alone. It was at the beginning of my spiritual search. I believed that self-imposed exile in a hunter’s cabin, miles up a mountain road with no phone, car, computer, or human distraction, would automatically change me for the better, bestow on me some kind of mystic vision, and hasten the quest for enlightenment.
Instead, I was miserable. I ground my wheels. I hated myself. Hard as I tried to enjoy hermitage, I didn’t have a day of peace. It was like sitting down to meditate for the first time and imagining that I would have a satori by closing my eyes and crossing my legs. Nothing could have been less the case. My lonely cabin was like my mind, a prison cell full of screeching monkeys. No equilibrium anywhere. Although I was alone, there was no solitude.
I’d removed myself from the world but done nothing to remove my mind. My mind was anywhere but there. Day after day in the woods, I obsessed about the same things that flipped me out at home. It was exactly like a celibate person (which I was also attempting to be, don’t ask) who spends all of his time thinking about sex. What’s the use of celibacy if your mind is engaged in an ongoing orgy? I was orgiastically attached to my thoughts of the world, promiscuously anguished by feelings of loneliness. The ghost of Jon Kabat-Zinn (“Wherever you go, there you are”) mocked me in my terrible state. I considered going home and giving up.
My copy of Walden only made me feel worse. My hero Thoreau had bragged, “I love to be alone . . . To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating … I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.” I felt like a failure when I reread this, a fraud, an impostor, a thing of the world. Where was this joy I was meant to be feeling? Staring out my window at trees, stream, and hawks in the sky, I felt empty, erased, dispirited. I began to suspect that I had no depth. Then I read the next passage in Walden and something began to shift:
“A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert. The farmer can work alone in the field or the woods all day, hoeing or chopping, and not feel lonesome, because he is employed…”
Oh, I thought. Now I get it. Now I began to understand what folks meant by solitude. That I’d been doing for most of my life: staying in my own orbit when with other people. I’d mastered the art, as an introvert, of being in the world while keeping part of myself to myself at all times. That’s how I survived a crazy childhood; by withdrawing to that private chamber when things in my family got too nuts. Or I wanted to write or clear my head. The cliché penny dropped all of a sudden. Solitude wasn’t about not being with other people. It was about being with yourself.
This kind of solitude, the groundwork of awakening, has nothing to do with isolation or disassociation, which only lead to loneliness. Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, famously called this “self-reliance,” which was not, he emphasized, the same as pretending to be an island. “Only the strong individual can frankly concede the sometimes surprising extent of his own dependence,” Emerson wrote. The more we cultivate self-reliance, the more profoundly connected we feel to others; that’s the paradox. When Emerson was asked to reduce his work to a single phrase, he replied that everything he’d ever written or taught was about the same thing: “the infinitude of the private man.” To be deeply alone with our own infinitude is to be solitary in this spiritual sense.
For this to happen, we need space to explore our inner world. This space, this separateness, this self-reliance, runs counter to many of our culture’s alpha values. In our go-get-‘em, extroverted culture it’s easy to lose touch with ourselves; it’s no wonder so many people have such a hard time being alone. “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone,” Pascal said, famously. Imagine if we were taught as children to be alone, if that were part of our training for life—to meet our own solitude—think of how those miseries could end. Then we’d see solitude as our greatest gift and welcome it, cultivate it, demand it. Instead we confuse it with loneliness and miss the point: solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely.
May Sarton’s fantastic book called Journal of a Solitude reminds us that solitude may be indispensable but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. “I can tell you that solitude/Is not all exaltation, inner space/Where the soul breathes and work can be done,” as Sarton wrote in a poem. “Solitude exposes the nerve/Raises up ghosts./The past, never at rest, flows through it.” Solitude always includes the shadow, the part of ourselves that we run from, the places that scare us, the demons, the ghouls. That’s why solitude can be so intimidating. Unless we learn to engage with it, we cannot begin to awaken. We can’t be enriched by our darkness; nor can we integrate what lies below the surface with the flow of our day-to-day life. Avoiding the shadow of solitude, we avoid our essence and our core. All things that grow begin in darkness. Seeds find nourishment in the dark. All the things that matter most—creativity, love, inspiration, deep work, and spiritual awakening, require the dark earth of solitude to take root. And this practice can be cultivated.
The challenges of solitude are identical to those of spiritual practice: locating balance inside us; getting comfortable in our own skins; becoming intimate with our own minds; laying claim to that power that flows through us when we touch center. On meditation retreats, students are often instructed to pay ninety percent attention to themselves, ten percent to other people. While that may not be possible in civilian life, we can certainly err on the side of self-awareness over being inside other people’s heads, distracting ourselves by minding their business. While it’s necessary to be sociable, life need not be one long social performance that leaves us in pieces. Susan Cain, who wrote a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, puts it nicely. “Love is mandatory. Gregariousness is optional.”
We’re allowed to be quiet, to step away, to listen instead of speaking, to withdraw without guilt from the din of others to the infinitude of the private self. The most important thing I learned when I went to the woods—and would later learn in retreat after retreat—is that solitude is right here and right now. No need for self-denial and isolation unless that blows your skirt up. No need for sensory deprivation to go beyond the realm of the senses. All it takes is a breath, a moment—one slow, observed, deliberate breath—to open the door to that private place. You are Walden Pond.
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