I’ve been thinking and reading about solitude in recent days. The reading started me thinking about what solitude is and how we experience it. What follows is my understanding at this point in time as this feels more like a journey in progress than a destination.
I started with the premise that solitude is being alone. As I read and thought about it, my understanding evolved. Read on and let me know what you think.
There is a solitude where my aloneness feels like it is closing in on me, when I fear my aloneness will go on forever and when I feel invisible and abandoned in the midst of a crowd. In these moments, I have a choice. I can busy myself to avoid the pain, becoming more fearful each time I find myself alone. Or, I can sit with my aloneness, letting the waves of emotion wash over me, gaining strength and resilience with each one.
Then, there is a solitude when I hear the mating calls of an owl in the night and feel awe, when I see God’s likeness in the face of a stranger, when I feel God’s loving presence. In these moments, I also have a choice. I can latch onto the joy in hopes it will go on forever, only to be disappointed and resentful when the moment passes as it inevitably does. Or, I can sit with the freedom it affords and let it be what it is, savoring the joy in the moment.
Each time I choose to sit with my aloneness — accepting pain or joy or whatever else comes up — the fear that separates me from God’s love diminishes and love grows in me.
Henri Nouwen describes solitude more poetically in his book The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God through Prayer, Wisdom and Silence. He writes “Solitude is the garden for our hearts, which yearn for love. It is the place where our aloneness can bear fruit. It is the home for our restless bodies and anxious minds. Solitude, whether it is connected with a physical space or not, is … not an easy place to be, since we are so insecure and fearful that we are easily distracted by whatever promises immediate satisfaction.
“Solitude is not immediately satisfying, because in solitude we meet our demons, our addictions, our feelings of lust and anger, and our immense need for recognition and approval. But if we do not run away, we will meet there also the One who says, “Do not be afraid. I am with you, and I will guide you through the valley of darkness.”
Hiding From Ourselves and God
Solitude is where we encounter God, where God transforms us. If we do not run away, we come to know and accept ourselves as we are, warts and all. As humans, however, we have a hard time accepting the warts so we put on our best face and hide our true selves not only from the world but from ourselves and God. Psalm 139:7 describes our fear, Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
In these modern times, we run away from God and ourselves with mindless distraction: electronics, entertainment, work, social activities, hobbies, music, TV and the rest. We tell ourselves stories to justify our worries, fears, shame, resentments, anger and need for approval. We avoid the parts of ourselves we do not like and prop up our false selves by acquiring, consuming and seeking power in hopes of rewriting our past and controlling our future.
Despite our frantic efforts to control and define ourselves, we inevitably fail. Freedom lies in solitude where God’s forgiveness and grace enable us to accept ourselves as we are — the good, bad and ugly — our true self — the holy self God loves and calls to be Her own.
Solitude: A Place or a State of Mind
Solitude can be a place or a state of mind. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness alone fasting in solitude. The wilderness was a place. He was alone in the vast expanses of land devoid of people but full of life. Like any human, I imagine his mind wandered. He was almost certainly delirious for lack of food and water in the hot sun. He was tempted. His temptations resemble those we face today. He was tempted to be relevant (turn stones into bread), to be extraordinary (throw yourself down) and to be powerful (to rule kingdoms). This was the crucible for his transformation from lowly carpenter and itinerant preacher to healer and teacher of thousands.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus left the crowds to pray, sometimes alone and sometimes with his disciples. When he returned to the crowds, he brought solitude with him as a state of mind, a quiet awareness of God’s presence and His own power to heal in the name of God the Father. This state of solitude enabled him to feel the woman’s touch on his cloak in the midst of a crowd, sense the thoughts of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well and heal the ten lepers at the gate with a word.
At Gethsemane, Jesus sought solitude to enter the crucible of transformation once again. He pleaded take this cup from me and finished not my will but thy will. John describes the process. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:44).
Whether I am alone in my room or sitting alone on a park bench at sunrise, it would appear that I am experiencing solitude. In the park, however, I may be distracted by the sound of a garbage truck picking up trash or runners in the distance talking loudly. In my room or the park, I’m distracted by my own thoughts — planning for the future, worrying about my children, wondering how long before I have to go to my next activity. My body distracts me — itchy places, a sore back, feeling too cold or too hot. Then, maybe I have the urge to give up or to feel bored and restless. I want to judge myself. I have thoughts about being unworthy, unloveable and not good enough. If I can keep bringing myself back to my breath — the spirit within — then I have found solitude — the crucible where my transformation begins.
The point isn’t to fight the thoughts, judgments and restlessness or try to will them away. In solitude, I simply notice and accept all that is going on without judgment and let it go. That’s easier said than done.
I used to have panic attacks in airport terminals. I would be on sensory overload from all the competing sounds. I tried my hardest to fight the urge to panic. The more I tried to will away the rising panic, the more inevitable it would escalate into a full-blown attack. Eventually, I decided to try meditating on the cacophony of terminal sounds. It wasn’t a miraculous cure but over time my relationship to the sounds changed. Instead of panic, I could accept them for what they were — just sounds doing what sounds do. Now, I close my eyes and the terminal is something of a place of solitude. I am alone with the spirit of God within me.
I have to settle into solitude. I find repeating love with each in-breath helps me return to solitude when my wandering thoughts distract me. When I begin to relax in the solitude, I often find a small smile coming into my heart. With it, there comes a sense of peace. Perhaps, just maybe, that is opening a crack where I feel God’s love and peace within.
Noticing that there might be a crack opening can be a scary place. Don’t misunderstand me. I like it — actually I love it so much I am afraid the feeling will end too soon. The moment I tighten my grip, the presence of peace that surpasses understanding is replaced with anxious thoughts. Just as I cannot will away the terminal sounds, I cannot will that sense of peace to remain permanently. It comes and goes as my capacity to accept it as is in the moment ebbs and flows.
The Paradox of Solitude
So I can distract myself from solitude when I’m physically alone and I can find solitude in a noisy airport terminal. Solitude truly is more a state of mind than a physical place removed from all else. (Of course, that state of mind may be easier to experience in a quiet space.) To experience solitude, we have to make choices — whether to fight or accept the certainty of our aloneness, whether to cling to the illusion of permanence or accept impermanence, whether to try to control or accept what is.
The crucible for transformation emerges when we face our deepest fears, anger and resentments, accepting them for what they are. They are just emotions. They come and they go. They are not good or bad. Everyone has them. They just are, a part of our human condition. When we accept them as they are — they lose their power to control us — thus opening the crack to feel God’s loving spirit within us that has been there just waiting for us for all time.