Learning to be alone
“Last night, someone asked if I liked being alone. ‘It depends,’ I said. ‘Sometimes I’m my best friend. Sometimes I’m my worst enemy. We’ll see who shows up.’”
That’s a quote from the beginning of this article by Parker Palmer, when he’s about to spend a week alone in the winter woods. He goes on to share the pages from his journal during that week and it’s clear from what he shares that the quote is true. (I highly recommend you take the time to read it.)
I’ve become convinced that learning to be alone is one of the most important lessons of any spiritual journey.
If you want to be an exceptional artist or articulate writer, you will benefit from learning to be alone. Even if your work is primarily with other people and you want to be a powerful leader, impactful teacher, or compassionate healer, you will benefit from being alone. In fact, for almost any path you care to take, learning to be alone will be of benefit.
I’m not talking about the kind of alone where you have an empty house for an evening so you pour a drink, pop some popcorn, and curl up on the couch with your favourite movie. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of aloneness (I enjoy it regularly), but what I’m talking about is solitude – the kind of aloneness where you let go of anything that will distract you (especially electronics) and are truly present for yourself.
In solitude, you choose to be present for your own thoughts, whether they’re good or bad. You don’t reach for your smartphone to distract you when the gremlins in your head start reminding you of all of your flaws. You don’t turn on the television when the fear rises up in your belly. You don’t reach for a drink or call a friend or busy yourself with the distractions of household duties when you start to feel the ache of loneliness.
Solitude like that can be scary, especially if you’re new to it. It’s really, really tempting to shut down all of those emotions and thoughts that show up in those moments of stillness. But if you do that, you miss the beauty of solitude. You miss the opportunity to really listen to the whispers of your own heart. You miss the chance to fall in love with your own company. And you miss the beauty you might overlook when the distractions get in the way.
It took me a long time to learn to be alone and to truly enjoy it. In early adulthood, I avoided it, assuming that someone who hangs out with herself must be a loser. In early parenthood, I started to crave it, but told myself it was selfish and I should sacrifice for my kids.
Luckily, I started taking business trips when my kids were young and they afforded me the opportunity to practice being alone. Even there, though, I resisted solitude at first. I told myself I had to make productive use of my paid-for travel, or I told myself I would draw too much unwanted attention and sympathy if I were to eat alone in a restaurant. So I’d order room service and eat my meals in front of the TV in my room and would barely venture out of the hotel.
It didn’t take long, though, before I got sick of room service meals and corporate hotels. I wanted to explore the cities I was in, even if I had nobody to do it with. So I started small, going down to the hotel restaurant for a quick meal, arming myself with a magazine to keep me from looking foolish just staring around the room. It didn’t take long, though, and I was branching out, going for long walks in the evenings and finding more and more interesting restaurants where I’d order a glass of wine and savour my time with myself, not caring about whether people were noticing and feeling sorry for me. I also started staying in bed and breakfasts where solitude feels more like a comforting blanket than it does in a corporate hotel.
Once I learned to be alone on my business trips, I started looking for more and more opportunities for solitude. I added an extra day onto a business trip when I could afford the time, or I booked an overnight for a silent retreat in a local monastery. It became not only a guilty pleasure but a necessity. I realized I was a better leader, a more compassionate mother, and a more creative writer when I found regular opportunities for solitude.
As much as I enjoy my friends and family and like to surround myself with community, regular solitude is no longer optional for me, it’s essential.
Here’s what I learned about the benefits of learning to be alone:
- When you learn to enjoy your own company, loneliness no longer feels threatening.
- You have more spaciousness to work through your own emotions, so you don’t take them out on those around you as often.
- You don’t feel the need to do everything it takes to surround yourself with other people, so you don’t end up in or stay in bad relationships. You realize it’s better to be alone than to be with someone who’s not healthy for you.
- You have more opportunities for adventure because you don’t have to wait for someone else to join you.
- The spaciousness in your life and in your mind allows for more creative ideas to show up. Your muse takes delight in an undistracted mind.
- You notice more of the beauty around you and can pause in reverence and reflection when there is nobody placing expectations on you or rushing you along.
- You have more confidence going to conferences and parties because you don’t have as much fear of what people will think if you’re sitting in the corner alone. (Ironically, this confidence is attractive and you’ll draw interesting people to you.)
- You practice taking greater risks because you discover that the only person you need to please is yourself.
- You get better and better at hearing the whispers of your own heart and you begin to live a more authentic and fulfilled life.
- You will find yourself in greater ownership of your own life, not swaying to the whims of others, not as easily influenced by what everyone else thinks is right.
If you’re afraid of solitude and have a tendency to fill your life with distractions and noise, try it just for a little while. Go for a walk in the woods without your smartphone. Stop in at the local coffee shop and sit for fifteen minutes with a good cup of coffee. Turn off the TV and pick up your journal instead.
Be present for yourself and listen to what your heart is whispering.
“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people – it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.” – Parker Palmer