A Social Creature
We are, on the whole, social creatures. Most of what drives human aspiration is contingent on a desire for status or connection. Even our most personal forms of self-expression are often linked to this reference point. What makes me “me,” cannot be severed from a relation to the “other”.
If we were to take a child from birth and raise it in isolation, the psychological effects would be profoundly distressing; so strong is our instinctual need for connection and love.
Even those who have a deep hatred for the human race require others for their survival. And if this was stubbornly denied, Schadenfreude still needs company.
If we accept the strength of this need for connection, it is not surprising why in the current climate, social media has such a powerful grasp on the way people conduct their lives. (Much has been written on the concerns of excessive social media consumption, with some studies suggesting correlations with poor sleep patterns, low self-esteem, and anxiety).
Nor is it surprising people have always felt the need to be socially accepted, sometimes at the cost of someone else’s social capital.
My aim, however, is not to examine the dangers of social hierarchy or social media as such, but instead to reflect on the benefits of self-accepting solitude in an age where we can indulge in connectivity.
Still, before considering solitude, it is worth contemplating who might be most in need of embracing its benefits.
The Receptive Orientation
In his book, Man for Himself, the German-American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm details types of character which he named the “nonproductive orientations”. The orientation we are concerned with is the “receptive”.
The receptive character, according to Fromm, seeks validation from the outside. They will likely crave attention and love, seek knowledge from outside sources but never develop original ideas, and will have a deep fear of losing connection or approval. When the receptive character needs something, they come to expect someone else will provide, rather than finding the strength to deal with the issue themselves.
Importantly for our concerns, Fromm states:
“They feel lost when alone because they feel that they cannot do anything without help. This helplessness is especially important with regard to those acts which by their very nature can only be done alone – making decisions and taking responsibility”.
When the receptive character is alone, anxiety and despair can follow. This could involve possible obsessive thoughts, detachment and physical effects such as shaking, sweating and chest pains.
It is worth noting that Fromm considered characters, such as the receptive, archetypes; and it is likely many of us share qualities across archetypes. Nevertheless, we usually occupy one or two more consistently than others; such is the nature of “character”.
Therefore, if you identify with some or many of the factors highlighted above, learning to embrace a particular type of solitude could be very helpful for your well-being. That is not to say the benefits of solitude cannot be applicable to all character types; everyone needs to be able to live with themselves.
Practicing the Art of Solitude
Solitude should not be synonymous with loneliness. Loneliness is the feeling someone might have when they feel deprived of their desire for human affection. The receptive character is likely to feel this way when they are alone.
Instead, we are considering solitude as a choice; the conscious choice to reflect and to be at ease with oneself in the absence of activity.
This also demands that we do not constantly distract ourselves with our phones, tablets or TVs. The passive social experience these technologies give us does not constitute true solitude since they scratch the uncomfortable itch of loneliness; the very feeling we’d like to confront and embrace.
Waiting in line or catching the bus, we immediately reach for a novel source of stimulation, like our phones, only perpetuating our inability to simply exist, content with our own company.
So, if solitude is the choice of time with oneself, how can this bring about peace of mind?
Reflection on the Self
The first thing that solitude can address is your understanding of thoughts.
If you do feel uncomfortable by yourself, simply being, without distraction, pay attention to the types of thoughts which might arise. Whatever they might be, the most important thing to notice is the lack of control you have over their presence.
Thoughts are not brought about by some sort of command centre you are operating in your mind. In fact, that whole way of thinking appears to be fundamentally flawed.
In Why Buddhism Is True, Robert Wright explores the current work being done in psychology which highlights the lack of a traditional “self”. Arguably most people believe that there is some sort of conscious decision maker who decides how and why they are acting.
But this notion has lost credibility following research into the nature of our choices. Wright cites psychologists Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson’s experiment which revealed shoppers overwhelmingly choosing one pair of pants in a selection of four. Most chose the option on the far right, even though all options were actually the same, yet those people found ways to rationally explain their choices based on arguments about quality. With plenty of other similar examples, the more the self is analysed, the less there appears to be.
So how is this a possible benefit of solitude? First of all, it is hard to see how anyone could fully appreciate this unless they spent time in solitude with their own thoughts. Personally, I see the benefits as a type of liberation. Much of the anxiety of being alone stems from an illusionary understanding of who you are and what you need.
If you can attempt to view your thoughts as types of objects like you might do anything else, as opposed to things which are permanent parts of you, you begin to feel less negativity towards yourself. But this type of contemplation is hard to do. So, if you constantly distract yourself, or spend too much time with other people, you might never truly inspect yourself enough to know that you are not yourself.
From a completely personal point of view, one way I have tried to practice solitude is going on long walks. I started practising this last summer, and found it to be an excellent way of feeling at ease. The benefits of being in nature, are well documented, but since I live in a city I used what I had. Exploring new areas and just going at my own pace made me notice things I otherwise would have ignored; while there were plenty of people around me, I found that they all became a kind of flow which I was either moving with or against. Sometimes, I would listen to audiobooks as I walked, which might go against the premise of this piece, but I noticed my thoughts examining the ideas clearly and found it to be a very peaceful experience.
It is clear that we should not attempt to cut the ties of society or social media in their entirety. Simeon Stylites, a 5th Century ascetic, spent the most important years of his life in solitude perched on top of pillars, one apparently as high as 50 ft tall.
Yet, Simeon still connected with many people, some of who were deeply inspired by his spiritual resilience; so much so they sought his console on complicated issues.
Instead of complete solitude, we should aim to feel at ease within ourselves by taking the time to get acquainted with our tensions and anxieties.
This could be done by solitary self-analysis or by walking, as suggested. But it could also be done through meditation, prayer, or other exercises. Ultimately, the point remains the same.
By getting to know yourself, rather than distracting yourself, you might find comfort in the way your anxiety needs, instead of in the way it desires.