“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” ~ Emerson
As I write this, it’s 5 am. I’m alone in a small room in my house, window cracked open, a faint dew-wet breeze ruffles the curtains. I hear the bark of a dog in the distance. My family is asleep along with most of the world. It’s dark in this room and I have a cup of coffee sitting on my desk. I sit and stare out the window, letting the empty space of solitude work its magic. Ideas come. Creativity is kickin’ in. The soul starts to vibrate. I write my first words of the day. It flows pretty well.
It only comes at moments like these, alone.
I’m reminded of what the late poet, Charles Bukowski, once said: “I was a man who thrived on solitude; without it I was like another man without food or water. Each day without solitude weakened me. I took no pride in my solitude; but I was dependent on it. The darkness of the room was like sunlight to me.”
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in the 1950’s, it was Hemingway who said that “writing, at its best, is a lonely life.”
What Bukowski and Hemingway both understood, like so many other artists and creators, was this: all great creative works are usually produced in a state of complete solitude, far from the loud judgments and empty conclusions of a cold world.
It’s that place devoid of everyday commotion that you begin to hear that whisper of the soul. And it’s there that creativity flourishes and art is snatched from the dark caverns of our spirit, into the light.
As one of the great underappreciated writers, Richard Yates, once wrote, “if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.” Or what Picasso reminded us, “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”
In the middle of the 1800’s, a young man named Henry David Thoreau entered the woods, alone.
He longed to get away from the noise and ruckus of city life. To get away from people. From their smug opinions, their senseless dramas, their common ways. He needed time to think and write and to figure out what it is to live.
So he built a small cabin with his own hands on the shores of Walden Pond, deep in the woods, and lived there for two years.
Thoreau embodied the great American values of individualism, self-reliance, and frugality. He adored the land and everything about the American landscape. And he understood the importance of embracing bouts of solitude as the way to live a free and full life. In his own words, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”
A few years ago I visited the exact place where Thoreau built his cabin. It’s in the charming little historic town of Concord, Massachusetts.
It was in the middle of February. The ground was covered with snow, the wind crisp, the dead trees bare. I made the hike out there in the cold and snow. A wooden marker was placed in the spot where Thoreau’s cabin used to sit that read one of his most famous quotes:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
I sat there for an hour just pondering Thoreau’s words and peering out at the frozen pond where he fished and philosophized almost 200 years ago. It’s an hour I’ll never forget and will continue to draw inspiration from.
Thoreau recognized that solitude was the world’s greatest teacher. He called it “Medicine to the soul.” And as he later wrote, “I’ve never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
With the information era thriving, stealing our attention round-the-clock, purposeful alone time is needed more than ever. Everybody is begging for our eyes and clawing tooth and nail for our ears. Asinine videos on Youtube and click bait headlines constantly steal our attention away from the present. Our phones are constantly buzzing, robbing us of living in the here and now.
We’re always somewhere else. And never here.
Television takes our nights away. Social Media steals our days. Emails rob our mornings. Everybody is craving our attention and they’re all getting it.
Distractions, crowds, and noise have become so routine in our modern lives that even the thought of being alone frightens us.
Why are we so afraid of being alone?
Are we afraid that we might have to confront ourselves without our masks? Maybe were afraid that it would force us to go face to face with our own soul. Maybe it might whisper things, uncomfortable things, we don’t want to hear– but need to.
A recent study revealed that most people would rather receive electrical shocks than to be alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes. That’s quite incredible if you really think about it. We’d rather be tortured than spend a small amount of time in complete solitude. We are utterly afraid to be by ourselves and it seems we’ll do anything we can to avoid it.
But as the great American existential psychologist, Rollo May, once reminded us, “In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.”
Or as the young Delacroix advised himself, “Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul… Seek solitude.”
If we want to live a more reflective and deeper life, intermittent acts of solitude are essential and should be embedded in our ever so busy daily routines. Not only will we get the creative juices flowing again, but it’ll guide us to a deeper attunement to nature and life.
So instead of constantly clamoring for the crowd or reaching for the phone, try being alone for an hour a day. Change it up a bit. Revitalize yourself in the presence of absolutely nothing. See what happens.
Make it a point today to be by yourself. Turn this into a daily practice. Put the phone down and take a walk in the woods. Really focus on the site and sounds around you. Listen to the birds, smell the winter air, let the morning wind flood your face. Stare at the stars. Sit in a room by yourself and write down a few goals you want to achieve this upcoming year. Start a blog. Write a journal. Bust out a poem. Play an instrument. Paint a masterpiece.
Get away from your job. Take a break from friends and family. Find that “sacred place”, as Joseph Campbell once beautifully said, “where you can find yourself over and over again.”
Be alone, reflect, unlearn, ruminate, create.
As the poet, Rumi, once reminded us, “A little while alone in your room will prove more valuable than anything else that could ever be given you.”