We tend to associate solitude with either and essential element of life, or as someone who is an outcast. Solitude is an essential ingredient for human well-being. Some people associate ‘Walden’ with an idealistic view of solitude. But Henry Thoreau was anything but solitary: he was a fully engaged & passionate activist his entire life. Our romantic stereotype of him living a luxurious life of solitude in a cabin in the woods next to a pond is in-escapble. I was drawn to the deep forest by this view. A new book ‘ ‘ does a wonderful job of reviewing…… (see NYTimes Book Review Link: www.nytimes.com/ )
* NOTE: It’s taken me over two months to put this blog together. The words solitude and loneliness are generally taboo in our western culture. They tend to have negative connotations of isolation and being an outcast or just plain weird. There’s either sympathy or irreverence for people who are either. How sad. No wonder so many people SILENTLY feel depressed, outcasts, or worse.
For the past 12 years I’ve gone into purposeful exile from the ‘dreadmill’ (modern slavery in urban jungles), to solitude and isolation at WinSol. From running three Aptek offices, having a dozen employees, a handful of big clients, and jetting around the world – it all came crashing down at meeting in El Segundo with Northrup Gruman and a fire that destroyed WinSol2 – both in 2002. Luckily I came to WinSol full-time around 2006 and mostly avoided the crash of 2008. (and I am ready for an even bigger crash soon). WinSol is surrounded on three sides by NFS (National Forest) and one side leads to unlimited trails and abandonded logging roads.
Fast forward ten years: In the last five years I’ve had many wonderful helpers and friends spend time at WinSol. I’ve learned how to avoid letting my peers’ & society’s judgment and social pressures affect my chosen lifestyle. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve found new appreciation and purpose in living alone at WinSol. The continual peer pressure from society and my ego to ‘rejoin the treadmill’ and many friends’ view that WinSol is too far out there, have contributed to this difficulty. I am more steadfast now that my initial sojourn to WinSol almost 20 years ago, was well-founded. But lately I’ve evolved to seek a more mainstream balance and to re-enter the dreadmill again – albeit with a more centered ‘self’. Turn that around and it again becomes taboo: being self-centered. And that’s good. One can dance with the devil if one knows and loves them-self.
I take solace in the concept that we must re-invigorate what solitude really means in our modern, technological, world wide web, social media based life: the constant peer pressure, the steady stream of enticements from emails, facebook, linked-in, etc.The general view of the internet and our on-line ‘presence’ is like a black plague that we have yet to experience in it’s full demise. As the philosopher Heidegger once said: ‘… technology will enable us to fill ALL our desires…’ for good and bad. There’s nothing ‘good’ about treating people like lab rats and commodities to increase ‘unique web hits’.
A meditation and local Buddhist sangha has helped me. There’s a wonderful book by Sarvananda: ‘Solitude and Loneliness: A Buddhist View’,
In his new book,‘Solitude and Loneliness: A Buddhist View’ Sarvananda explores the themes of solitude and loneliness and how a Buddhist might deal with these emotions. He suggests that, despite the statistics, we still ‘very skillfully, and often unconsciously, organize our lives in such a way as to avoid loneliness.’ Although increasing numbers of us live alone, we are also continuously coming up with new strategies to distract ourselves from our solitude.
Human societies throughout history and all over the world have organized Themselves around living with others. Yet in the last 15 years, there has been an 80% global increase in people living alone. We’re wealthier than our ancestors and the cultures we live in value individualism and independence – we have the freedom to house ourselves in smaller family units or without a family at all. 34% of UK households now have just one person living in them. So is the modern individual more familiar with solitude than ever before?
Yet Sarvananda suggests that facing up to our essential aloneness is ‘where the spiritual life begins.’ ‘Buddhism challenges us to train ourselves to be more and more at ease in our own company,’ he writes, ‘to try and be with ourselves without distraction.’ This means confronting our habitual and repetitive responses to solitude which rely on the approval and reassurance of others. ‘Distrusting our capacity to alone, we too quickly look to others to save us, often from ourselves,’ Sarvananda argues. ‘We become addicted to other people.’
I can truly say that I am at ease and very comfortable in my own skin: alone. I am not addicted to other people – although occasionally I do crave for a seat at any Panera or (yikes!) Starbucks – but I get over that pretty quickly. I do have many distractions at WinSol. I find them more fulfilling than an urban kaleidoscope would be. Gardening tasks, earthen/forest construction projects, learning center improvements, staying 100% off grid, 100% rainwater, <1%waste, etc. But the BIG one that solitude brings is keen observation of nature’s rhythms. The pesky squirells and lizards eating in my gardens, the vagaries of weather extremes, staying within an off-grid ‘budget’ without ‘powering up’… etc.
deepening desire for a certain kind of self-sufficiency.’
Paradoxically, however, it is in facing up to our aloneness that we come to recognize how essentially connected to others we truly are. ‘Although we are essentially alone, we are also essentially related,’ Sarvananda explains. ‘As Buddhists, we are practising in a context: with others and for others. The way out of loneliness or isolation, then, is to love more deeply. It is in going beyond the ego that we also go beyond loneliness and isolation.’
Although our modern societies may value solitude as a living arrangement, it therefore seems that a deeper kind of solitude – a still silence and spaciousness – is still undervalued. In Sarvananda’s words, ‘Solitude needs more championing.’
’The technological advances of modern society allow us to communicate with others even when we’re physically isolated from them – I may be sitting on my own in my flat, but thanks to instant messaging and social networking sites I can still feel connected with my friends and family (and perhaps also a large number of people that I have never met). Our hundreds of facebook friends and Twitter followers ensure that we’re never lonely, even if we’re alone.