If I could I would spend the better part of my time in solitude. Preferably it would be surrounded by the beauty of nature.
The splendour of the trees and flow of the sparkling rivers drown out the noisy sounds of the busy city streets. For what is nature itself but a grand cathedral.
It is in solitude where one can rest in a state of contemplation, and be at peace with oneself.
Blinded by the trivialities of day to day life, we forget to admire the beauty that is close to home – that which is right in front of us.
In a culture that tends to place a great emphasis on extroversion, perhaps we have long forgotten the wisdom bestowed to us by the great religious and spiritual leaders. From the likes of Moses to Jesus and the Buddha, all these spiritual teachers sought to temporarily detach themselves from society in pursuit of the self-transcendence available to us through introspection.
For how can one truly know thyself, and be free from the pressures and demands of modern society without an embrace of stillness.
I can continue to ramble on about the importance of cultivating solitude, but it would ultimately pale in comparison to the exquisite words of the great writers and poets.
So here are three of my favourite quotes and reflections, each exploring a different aspect of the topic.
Rainer Maria Rilke
But your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths
The esteemed poet Rilke reflects on the necessity of solitude for personal and spiritual growth. Rilke acknowledges that time alone will come with discomfort as your mind unravels the fears and emotions hidden in the unconscious. However, only through stillness can one learn to accept and surrender these parts of themselves in order to transcend them.
We can escape from the demands of conformity placed on us by society, and relish in the peace and bliss that comes with cultivating our inner selves.
True action, good and radiant action, my friends, does not spring from activity, from busy bustling, it does not spring from industrious hammering. It grows in the solitude of the mountains, it grows on the summits where silence and danger dwell. It grows out of the suffering which you have not yet learned to suffer
Many of us spend our day to day lives stuck in the trance of busyness. We feel like we always ought to be doing something to feel important, to validate our self worth.
How little do we often spend time though on reflecting on the value and consequences of this ‘busyness’?
What can we genuinely achieve without modest self-reflection?
Hesse comments that on the other side of suffering that our aloneness may bring, comes the bliss of solitude, peace and beauty.
It is only when an individual voluntarily chooses and embraces seclusion can one reap its benefits. That is, one who spends time alone must be able to regulate their emotions and rejoin or re-enter social groups at their own will.
Once these preconditions are met, and one is able to ‘let go’ and accept their condition of solitude, it can provide us with the rejuvenation and insight we need.
It is widely believed that interpersonal relationships of an intimate kind are the chief, if not the only, source of human happiness. Yet the lives of creative individuals often seem to run counter to this assumption. For example, many of the world’s greatest thinkers have not reared families or formed close personal ties. This is true of Descartes, Newton, Locke, Pascale, Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein
Contrary to popular belief, it is not being in the physical presence of others that can subdue feelings of isolation. What matters is the connection or bond one has to others, themselves or their natural surroundings.
We can feel emotions of bitter loneliness while sitting in a packed room while embracing the benefits of solitude when we are alone with ourselves.
This is not to disregard the importance of intimate interpersonal relationships, rather it is to note that there are different alternatives and ways of life available to us. There is no one template one must follow to attain contentment in life.
However, with all the anxieties we face in the modern world, it is good to still know we can always retreat into stillness – into solitude.
The sources I pulled from were mainly from the excellent blogs Brain Pickings and Academy of Ideas which are great resources for philosophy and literature.
Writing about the horrors he endured during the holocaust, Victor Frankl reflects on a principle that is at the heart of Stoic philosophy. In his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl states that:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Frankl writes about
the immense suffering that he and his fellow prisoners experienced in the
Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War. He nonetheless maintains
that even in the most dire of situations, we still have the freedom and
autonomy to decide how to react to external events.
This idea aligns with
the Stoic notion of the ‘dichotomy of control’ which I explored in an
earlier post. That is, we should focus our efforts on our inner
dispositions, namely what is in our power. We ultimately can not dictate how
the events in the outside world will unfold. However, the value judgements and
perspectives that we assign to our circumstances is something that is up to us.
As the modern Stoic
Holiday notes, difficulty does not have to be seen as a sign of weakness or
defeat. Rather, challenges and obstacles offer unique opportunities to develop
new skills and may provide us with the wake-up call we need to change our
course of action. Sometimes what we initially perceive as failures may turn out
to be ‘blessings in disguise.’ One of the more notable examples of this is the
case of Apple founder Steve Jobs who was initially ousted from the company he
created. Jobs didn’t let this define his life however. He used this as an
opportunity to create and reshape existing companies (NeXT and Pixar) and
critically examine his leadership
style. Upon return to Apple in 1997, he led the charge in making Apple largest
companies in the world.
The ability to step back from our emotional impulses and view things from a rational and objective viewpoint is an important skill to develop to navigate the ups and downs of life. Furthermore, we must always be aware of what we can and can not control. If one considers the key aspects of their lives, they will realize that many things are outside our scope of influence. We don’t choose our parents, our up bringing, the country or socio-economic status that we are born in. Stoicism can help us make the best out of the hand that we are dealt with in life.
Stoic philosophy can
act as an antidote to a world that can sometimes feel chaotic and
unpredictable. In fact, many principles of Stoicism are used in modern day
cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to treat mental health issues including anxiety, substance abuse and
depression. Some of similarities between the ancient school of philosophy
and CBT include:
to question our irrational beliefs, assumptions or emotions
Accepting our circumstances, and
refraining from assigning value judgements to events.
what you can and can not control
In sum, both CBT and
Stoicism emphasize the importance of constantly challenging your initial
impressions or reactions towards events or circumstances. Furthermore, both
doctrines advise us to slow down, look at events from a rational perspective and
refrain from impulsive behaviour.
I will end this post
with a quote from the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius which provides a good
summary of key points in this article:
“If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thy own judgement about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now. But if anything in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from correcting thy opinion? And even if thou art pained because thou art not doing some particular thing which seems to thee to be right, why dost thou not rather act than complain?” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VIII
Hope you enjoyed this
week’s post. I will dedicate one more post on Stoicism and then move on to the
philosophy of mindfulness.