Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: November 2012
I want to praise the value of solitude, particularly for HSPs. We need our downtime and we usually take it alone, but solitude is a special form of being alone. Silence and loneliness deserve comment as well. These four are key to who we are.
HSPs need lots of it. Of course too much downtime isn’t good either. That would be isolating yourself due to fear or anxiety, and that needs to be worked on. But most of us have the other problem, in that the world expects us to live like non-HSPs, without much downtime. We, however, absolutely must, simply by our nature, have downtime to recover from overstimulation and digest our experiences, learn from them, and then move into the world again in order to reconnect with others and with our passion, our vocation.
Most of this digestion process goes on in the subconscious mind–thoughts, feelings, and images float by. It’s easy and natural. Sometimes downtime is just watching a movie, listening to the radio, or doing some light reading, anything to stop our buzzing mind and distract ourselves for a while from the stuff that overwhelms us. But we need to leave time for that “digestion” process, too, and that is done better without distraction. Therefore, the quality of our non-distraction downtime is as important as how we use our “up” time.
I’ve always said meditation is good, especially the kind that “transcends itself” (like TM) rather than focusing the mind, which can feel like work. But twenty minutes twice a day of meditation, while very efficient, may not be enough. Sometimes we need something prolonged.
I think of solitude as a special kind of downtime, in which we wait and prepare for the connection with “something deeper,” whatever that is going to be for us right now. That seems to be the way the word is used most of the time. Monks and hermits seek connection with God. Yogis and Buddhists seek connection with the Absolute. Artists seek connection with their muse. Scientists seek connection with the as-yet-undiscovered fundamentals of nature. Many of us seek connection with nature itself, maybe as one way to all of these. Maybe we seek solitude because we have temporarily lost our connection. Maybe we lost it a few hours ago, a few days ago, or maybe we lost it in childhood. But we want it back. We sense that to do that we have to cut back on all the outer distractions, and so we seek solitude.
Deepest solitude takes place over an extended period, at least an entire evening. You probably will not sit and be “ready” all of that time, or contemplate or reflect even. You go on with your most mundane chores–fixing some simple food for yourself, cleaning up, taking a walk, straightening up your living space. But you are paying easy attention to the inner present, what is going on in your mind. It is a kind of active passivity, in which you stay ready, but that’s all. Maybe you read something inspiring, but there is really no need to act or seek because what we are waiting for is already with us. Maybe it comes from within, or it is a response to something without. We only need to be ready to notice it. Perhaps some part of you already notices it, but you are not conscious of that. Perhaps you deny it or at least doubt it. But if you are very still, you will probably begin to know it is there. You might even speak to it, and it may even speak to you. Silence with it is just as good, however. Indeed, silence is probably the very best.
Silence is the ambrosia that nourishes solitude. That’s why solitude means being alone. Words are necessary between humans, but when we are connecting to something deeper, it is deeper than words, so silence may be the only way. Silence gives the brain a rest. Your mind will go on chattering for awhile, quite a bit at times, but that’s okay. That chatter is part of what you are attending to. You are still resting the brain areas that plan speech, respond to others, and formulate clear sentences.
In silence you can notice when something else has arrived. Maybe it arrived a while ago, but now you wonder, who or what is this with you, around you? Maybe you knew once and forgot it and now remember again. The main thing is that you have this “knowing” feeling, and you will know it again. The repetition of that knowing that comes in solitude begins to lay down a kind of confidence that it will always come back, each time more easily.
Of course solitude can also feel dry, sterile, or even depressing. Yet it continues to feel vital for some reason. As long as that is the case, it is worth continuing. The poet Rilke wrote,
“You should not let yourself be confused in your solitude by the fact that there is something in you that wants to move out of it. This very wish, if you use it calmly and prudently and like a tool, will help you spread out your solitude over a great distance. Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.”
This is a bigger subject, although hopefully it isn’t relevant to most of you. Rilke is mostly right about sticking with solitude when it is difficult. Sometimes, however, we simply cannot tolerate much solitude. For a few people it feels almost like it will lead to insanity. It is feeling utterly alone in the universe. Lonely like someone disconnected from the mother ship, out of sight of anyone, floating in cold empty space, waiting for the oxygen to run out. Or marooned on an island and no one is searching for you, or searching in the wrong place and about to declare you dead. Worst of all, it can feel as though you have been exiled from the human race and even “beyond the reach of God.”
That kind of utter loneliness is a frightening, horrible feeling, and when it happens, rest assured that this too is a feeling you have known before. It is an archetype, in that we all know how terrible it is to be that alone, but the archetype is activated only if you have experienced being alone too much in your past.
Let’s face it: Solitude only feels good when you know you can end it when you choose to and return to being with someone who cares for you. If you can’t exactly choose the moment, you at least need to know that it won’t be long before the one who is not there chooses to be with you again. If you try to be in solitude but feel lonely even though others care about you, you are feeling something from the past, almost certainly from childhood.
Children need to know someone is available, and no one outgrows this, really. Even monks living in total solitude belong to a community. Our survival depends on being part of a group, beginning with the group of two, us and our first caregiver. But children are inevitably left alone, at least in Western culture. Being left for a while, for an age-appropriate length of time, and then calling out and having someone show up, can be a good experience. The child gains a sense of power and safety in that calling out and the reassuring response of someone coming. It builds security that is necessary for those times when children choose to go off with their friends or to be alone. But they need to know that this precious independence or alone time is not the moment when the one they depend on will choose to sneak away, abandoning them.
This learning that it is dangerous to choose to be alone happens so often to children. There are two periods when I think it is most difficult. Before children can walk and go find someone, they are especially helpless. But parents need their own alone time, and may just have to stop responding. The baby calls out and there’s no one. A little of that with a tired child is fine, especially when the child knows someone is still there, but just providing some space for each other. When it goes on too long, however, the child feels his or her world falling apart. It is as though one’s very self is disintegrating because there is no one to reflect back to the young, barely formed ego that it exists, and we all need that reflecting back throughout life. That is why solitary confinement can be so devastating. People who survive it find a way not to be alone, but keep in mind constantly someone they love. Some even say later that an angel or spiritual visitor kept them company.
Another vulnerable time is when a good child, an HSC for example, is prematurely declared to be old enough to stay alone. He or she is very responsible and is proud to be known as a child who will not get into trouble. But it’s still too early to be left alone for more than a few hours. Parents may need to work, or want to get away, so there’s always childcare. Alas, at the same time, the HSC may hate over stimulating group childcare or babysitters who seem unpredictable and weird, so being left alone can seem like the best option for both parent and child. However, it isn’t. Too long is too long.
After several experiences of self-disintegration in childhood, being alone as an adult almost inevitably leads to horrible feelings that no one is there or no one wants to be with you. Even when caring people do exist, it is as if they do not. When home alone you may find ways to fill the void, by watching TV or engaging in some frenetic activity, but it is better to face the cause of this fear and work on it.
I know I should suggest psychotherapy, but for some of you, that has its own problems, both financial and finding the right person. For a start, you might try telling someone who cares for you what you are going through–that you want to be able to enjoy some solitude, but you fall into loneliness instead. Tell that person when you will be spending a length of time alone, consciously and deliberately, and ask if you can call, text, or email. The other does not need to respond until later. The very young part of you just needs to know there will be a response.
Does it seem to you that there is no one who cares for you? That you are truly alone? Honestly, the world is full of people like you, wanting to be loved. Maybe you feel they will be bad company, but maybe that is because someone felt that way about you at one time and you learned that way of thinking about others. Try reaching out. True, if you are too desperate, people may back off, or maybe, unlike you, the person has all the friends he or she can manage. But keep looking for a friend, and someone else who needs a friend is the best bet. Look beneath appearances to the person’s soul, and do not expect perfection. Learn how to deal with the difficulties of friendship that always erupt and bring personal growth. (More suggestions are in my book, The Undervalued Self.)
It’s Worth It
The point is, you can grow out of this difficulty eventually (I did, so I know), and it is worth doing. Solitude is valuable for many reasons, one of which is that it prepares us to be with others in a more complete way. It also gives a more complete rest. It gives time for feelings to surface. Time for creative inspiration to arise. We may come to decisions in solitude, decisions that were bothering us while we were more actively struggling with the issue. Spiritual gifts often come in solitude. Even if nothing comes, solitude itself is a gift.
When Others Think Wanting Solitude is Weird
This is a time when solitude–withdrawing from the world, “doing nothing,” staying in silence–may seem almost incomprehensible to non-HSPs. Everyone’s texting and on Facebook, enjoying these new, easy ways to connect. So many people at each other’s finger tips and that’s fun. It’s also a relief. We cannot be entirely abandoned, ever. Someone will always respond if we are responsive to others.
We hear also that the more connected we are to others, the healthier and happier we will be. And that’s so very true, up to a point, and truer for some than for others. I don’t think there are many studies being done right now, however, of whether some solitude planned into a life makes a person, or some people, healthier, happier, and ultimately more connected than others. Even Martin Buber, who contended that relationships are the true spiritual path, said “Solitude is the place of purification.” There must be a whole, coherent “I” before it can enter into I-Thou.
So do the research on yourself. Does it help or not? If it does, then for those who find your wish for solitude rather perplexing, you will be a leader, a mentor, a role model. They will become curious about this being alone thing, as if you said, “Put down your cell phone and listen–there’s a strange bird singing.” They will want to know more. Just as anyone can be drawn back to nature, and especially to animals, once they stop and notice, so too will they be naturally drawn back to solitude sometime, once they become curious, settle down, and notice it.
It is not your job, however, to fix anyone else with your solitude. It is only up to you to be faithful to it when you need it, rather than feel there is something wrong with you for it. You are not alone in wanting to be alone sometimes. Here are some of my favorite mentors who cheer for me when I choose solitude.
Thomas Merton, a monk, is our solitude expert: First of all, “Solitude is a way to defend the spirit against the murderous din of our materialism.” He also says, “I am not defending a phony ‘hermit-mystique,’ but some of us have to be alone to be ourselves. Call it privacy if you like. But we have thinking to do and work to do which demands a certain silence and aloneness. We need time to do our job of meditation and creation.”
If someone says you are being a social isolate, remember these words of Merton: “It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am the more affection I have for them…. Solitude and silence teach me to love my brothers for what they are, not for what they say.”
Finally, he warns that “Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.”
More from the poet Rilke: “One thing is necessary: solitude. To withdraw into oneself and not to meet anyone for hours – that is what we must arrive at. To be alone as a child is alone when grownups come and go.” And again, “What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours — that is what you must be able to attain.”
For your loved ones who don’t quite understand, he says that “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.”
Of course Carl Jung weighs in: “Solitude is for me a fount of healing which makes my life worth living.”
And one of those very poetic poets, William Wordsworth, said it so sweetly: “When from our better selves we have too long been parted by the hurrying world, and droop. Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired, how gracious, how benign is solitude.”
Finally, I guess the point of this article is summed up by Honore de Balzac, “Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell you that solitude is fine.”
We do still, always, need each other.