On Solitude

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.

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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

Letters to a Young Poet

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.  

Herman Hesse

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

If the War Goes On: Reflections on War and Politics

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?

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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.

Anthony Storr

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

Solitude: A Return to the Self

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.

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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.

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The Awesomeness of Awe

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I can still vividly remember the crisp morning air, and the mountain range that faded far into the horizon. Miles away from the busyness and obnoxious sounds of the big city, I was on a vacation in Banff, Alberta.

It was on a hike in beautiful Lake Louise where the anxieties and trivialities of modern life faded into the abyss. Gazing at the crystal blue water, I was filled with a sense of wonder and reverence for the beauty of the natural landscape.

We often fail to find the right words to describe these temporary encounters with the sublime, however one term that does come to mind is ‘awe’.

Be it the grandeur and beauty of a medieval cathedral or the peaceful solitude of spending time in alone in nature, many of us have had moments which leave us speechless. Moments which jolt us in to the present moment and connect us with something greater than ourselves.

It is only after these experiences we can more deeply appreciate the seemingly esoteric language of the great poets and mystics. For the transcendentalist writers (Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson) of the 19th century, the divine was to be found in the natural world.

As Emerson famously writes in his essay Nature,

Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I become a particle of God.

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So, what exactly is this feeling of awe, and why does humanity yearn for these ecstatic events? 

While the moments and events which elicit awe differ from person to person, the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner classify two key attributes which one feels during an experience of awe – the need for accommodation and vastness.

Need for Accommodation

Breath taking moments of awe shatter our existing mental models of the world. They force us to shift our perspectives to accommodate these new cognitive paradigms

This temporarily puts a pause our rote automatic thinking we have been accustomed to in our adult lives. We are filled with a sense of wonder, and as Michael Pollan puts it, “precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself.”’    

Vastness

Looking at earth miles away in space, astronauts have reported that seeing the planet from this vantage point is a highly transformative, and one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. From this perspective, one reveres in the beauty of our planet, is overwhelmed by its vastness and is more deeply connected to all the species which inhabit earth.

As Yuri Artyushkin from the Russian space program notes,

The feeling of unity is not simply an observation. With it comes a strong sense of compassion and concern for the state of our planet and the effect humans are having on it…. You are standing guard over the whole of our Earth.

                                                                

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Philosopher Frank White coined the term the ‘overview effect’ to define the shift in awareness and perspective astronauts describe when they glance as the earth from space.

Overwhelmed by emotions and feelings of self-transcendence – many space explorers note that words are inadequate to describe what their feeling.

Our attention shifts from inwards towards the broader environment evoking a religious or spiritual sense of connectedness to the outside world.

This is akin to the mind of a child, a truly ‘Zen-like’ experience.

Humility

While connecting more deeply to the external environment, our egotistical self-interests seem a little less important. We feel small in comparison to the vastness of the cosmos. Consequently, studies have demonstrated that feelings of awe are associated with pro-social behaviour including greater altruism, and an overall increase in well-being.

In a time where our individualistic society increasingly drives us towards narcissistic tendencies, perhaps a bit more awe is just the right medicine we need.