The moon still hangs in a sky of indigo; quiet, still and full.
Yet, already, the inky night is changing to a warm, pinky-horizoned dawn. Silhouettes of birds dance above me. The blackbirds, sparrows, jackdaws, pigeons and crows. A distant honking draws my attention upwards: A v-shaped flock of geese, en-route to somewhere-not-here.
For a moment, I am mesmorised.
Then, a splash of a fish – perhaps a trout? - tugs me back to the riverbank with a surge of joy and I watch, in awe, as ducks gracefully land, synchronized, on the surface of the water. The sky is softer now, and the moon is fading as the promise of a new sun rises behind the tree line on the other side of the riverbank. I turn, just to glimpse a flash of turquoise – a kingfisher – and walk contentedly back to the car. I have been walking for nearly an hour and haven’t seen another human being. It’s been wonderful. I’ve been alone. Very much alone. And this is how I am most of the time.
This is perhaps Wordsworth’s Bliss of Solitude. Not loneliness. But being happily alone. The two words do not mean the same thing: Loneliness invokes feelings of being alone and not liking it. You can feel lonely in a room full of people, however you cannot be solitary in a crowd. Many people indeed love solitude and do not feel lonely. Nevertheless, loneliness is certainly not good for our wellbeing – as evidenced by the recent Campaign to End Loneliness. In 2016, the Scottish government published research suggesting that loneliness was worse for life expectancy and wellbeing than poverty or bad housing. Loneliness reduces fitness, shortens life expectancy and increases the risk of depression, heart disease, diabetes and raised blood pressure. As solitude commentator, Sara Maitland, underlines, there is much less evidence on the impact of being alone (but not lonely), but what does exist suggests that self-chosen solitude is very good for you, both physically and mentally.
So why does the pursuit of solitude create such anxiety, distrust or unease in so many people? Is time alone really so unnatural or sinister?
"How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, or at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfilment and human rights, and above all, individualism, more highly than ever before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?"
Sara Maitland (2014) How to be Alone
As Maitland highlights, we apparently believe that our bodies are our own to do what we please with them, but we do not want to be on our own with these precious possessions. Our society values high self-esteem as proof of emotional wellbeing, however many of us do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable individual. We see moral and social conventions as inhibitions on our personal freedoms, and yet we are frightened of anyone who goes away from the crowd and is somewhat ‘different’. The rise of social media has given us a platform to creatively display our Instagram-filtered prized bodies, our desirable version of our ‘perfect’ selves, our individuality and personal, singular voice. Yet, we tend to be suspicious of anyone who uses one of the most clearly established methods of developing that creativity: solitude. In short, we value our personal freedom and autonomy, and believe we are unique, special and deserving of happiness – but we don’t want to be alone with ourselves (ibid).
Some people find being alone deeply liberating and pleasurable. Others find it exactly the opposite. Some people are introverted and re-charge their batteries by spending time alone, while others are more extroverted and unwind, relax and ‘re-charge’ by being in the company of others. We’re all different, but there appears to be a lack of awareness in society of how important time alone can be for at least some of us.
Although not a parent myself, I remember, and am very grateful for, how my own mother purposefully never ‘sent me to my room’ as a form of punishment, saying that time alone in my own company shouldn’t be seen as something punitive. In fact, for me, time alone has always been quite the opposite, and as an only child I grew up delighting in my own company and imagination, often doodling, writing, reading, making, daydreaming or being ‘alone’ with the four-legged one. As Maitland asks, perhaps we may benefit as a society if we, as parents, caregivers, teachers, employers, colleagues, neighbours and friends helped people to be more skilled at enjoying solitude and were more aware of the importance of ‘alone-time’ for, at the very least, some people?
What, therefore, does Wordsworth’s bliss of solitude mean? Over the centuries, when people have explicitly practised solitude and reflected on their experience, there have been surprisingly consistent reports of what it might offer those who seek it out. Maitland summarises these benefits as 5 overlapping, non-exclusive, categories:
1) A deeper consciousness of oneself (intrapersonal connectedness)
2) A deeper attunement to nature
3) A deeper relationship with the transcendent (transpersonal connectedness)
4) Increased creativity
5) An increased sense of freedom
How can we experience these 5 wonderful benefits of solitude in our increasingly-hectic, multi-tasking, switched-on, screen-focused, instant-messaging, to-do-list busy lives? In my last article, I spoke about the benefits of disconnecting and unplugging from our 24/7 world of being online, particularly the demanding nature of the smartphone. With these present reflections on solitude in mind, I’ll leave this latest piece with the following suggestions for seeking a moment of stillness and alone-time:
· As described at the start of this article, an early walk before breakfast when the world is still sleepy
· A quiet cup of tea, lovingly made, with just your (non-judgmental) thoughts for company.
· Driving somewhere quiet – preferably in nature – and sitting with a flask of something hot, something delicious to nibble and savouring the views and silence.
· Getting up early and establishing a routine of ‘alone-time’, even if just for a few moments each day. This may include writing a gratitude journal; savouring that first cup of coffee of the day; standing outside to watch how the sky changes colour as dawn approaches or a few gentle yoga stretches.
· Going to a coffee shop now and again and sitting alone by a window, savouring your time and watching the world go by.
· A candle-lit bath, relaxing music and a really good book.
· A solo trip to a favourite museum, gallery, bookshop or cinema.
· A wild, windy, blow-the-cobwebs away solo walk – plenty to choose from around here but Stanhope moor is highly recommended…
· …as is Hadrian’s Wall at dawn.
· Leaving the office and sitting outside/in the car to enjoy a quiet, away-from-the-screen lunch.
· Feeding the birds – taking 5 minutes to sit with a cup of tea at your kitchen window and delight in our feathered friends.
· Doodling – an empty notepad, some coloured pens, some cosy cushions and permission to simply play.
· Gardening - with just the worms for company.
· Running, jogging, walking – whenever and wherever suits you best. No watches, no competitions with yourself or others, no personal bests to beat – just moving your body and enjoying some time alone with yourself.
· Reading – losing yourself in the pages of a book.
· Music – the joy of listening to music or playing an instrument alone.
· Cooking, baking, alone-time-with-pinny.
· Free-writing. Sitting alone, somewhere peaceful, and writing for 3-5 minutes without stopping – a wonderfully creative and therapeutic writing-for-wellbeing technique.
· Meditation – cultivating the habit of being still with yourself for a few moments each day.
"I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude."
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
Music: Ludovico Einaudi - Nuvole Bianche
Originally published with the title "Solitude" (November, 2017) in the Tyne Valley Express magazine: http://www.tynevalleyexpress.co.uk/magazine/