Solitude is the soul's holiday, an opportunity to stop doing for others and to surprise and delight ourselves instead. When we are hungry, we get the signal right away, and we pay attention. Thirst is sneakier. By the time our bodies send us in search of water, we are already dehydrated. The same holds true in our thirst for solitude. By the time I begin to crave a vacation alone on a desert island, chances are my emotional well has already run dry. And so I've learned to create little islands of solitude in my daily life.
We need to have some downtime:
It's a challenge to let ourselves slow down. As Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, says, "We seem to have a complex about busyness in our culture. Most of us do have time in our days that we could devote to simple relaxation, but we convince ourselves that we don't." It seems there is always something that needs doing, always someone who needs our attention. "Unfortunately," Moore says, "we don't get a lot of support in this culture for doing nothing. If we aren't accomplishing something, we feel that we're wasting time."
Many of us feel compelled to measure our success in terms of acquisition and accomplishment. But even women who are unwilling to buy into such a narrow definition of success may feel uncomfortable with the idea of claiming time just for themselves, with no agenda whatsoever. Often when we find ourselves with an empty hour, we spend that time doing chores or attending to our relationships.
If no one's around, we'll reach for the phone—or the TV remote or even the vacuum cleaner. We avoid ourselves because we're afraid of what we might find: a forlorn, flawed someone who's missing out on life's party. But solitude and isolation do not go hand in hand. We can retreat from the world for a time without being renounced by it.
Watching my 3-year-old neighbor play outside her house, I marvel at her contentment and self-sufficiency. She is completely absorbed as she plants twigs in an empty flowerpot and chatters to her doll. She's enjoying her own good company—a knack that, somewhere along the line, so many of us lose.
You get these things when alone:
If we are always focused on external stimulation, or even on our relationships, we miss opportunities for inner growth and renewal. Here's why it's important to insist on time alone:
We're more creative alone. Pulitzer prize–winning writer John Updike, author of 51 books, attributes his astonishing productivity to a schedule that honors empty time. "Ideally," he explains, "much of my day should be, in a strict sense, idle, for it is often in idle moments that real inspiration comes."
Solitude can cure what ails you. Several years ago, my best friend became concerned when her left arm and hand went numb. Her doctor proposed a series of tests to rule out a brain tumor, among other possibilities. But first, he suggested, she should spend three days alone, meditating and reflecting on her life. Although she was skeptical, she went to an empty cabin in the woods for the weekend and simply listened to her body, attuning herself to her inner wisdom. "I had been refusing to see that my marriage was really over," she explained afterward. "I had three children and no money, and I was terrified. But after that weekend alone, I knew the truth. And the numbness eventually went away."
In solitude, we see more clearly. "We live in an extremely externalized culture," Moore says. "We are constantly pulled outside ourselves—by other people, by the media, by the demands of daily life. Nothing in our culture or in our education teaches us how to go inward, how to steady the mind and calm our attention. As a consequence, we tend to devote very little time to the life of the soul, the life of the spirit." We need to balance the pace and intensity of modern life with periods of what poet May Sarton has called "open time, with no obligations except toward the inner world and what is going on there." Alone—in moments of prayer or meditation, or simply in stillness—we breathe more deeply, see more fully, hear more keenly. We notice more, and in the process, we return to what is sacred.
Next: How to find time for yourself
In solitude we discover what makes us feel alive. We can use our time alone to rest, in a complete and profound way, or we can engage in an activity that brings us joy. What a pleasure it is to dive into a project with no distractions, or to pursue our passions at full tilt. A year ago, I began taking recorder lessons—the first time I had ever attempted to learn a musical instrument. My progress is slow; yet, alone in my living room after my children have gone to bed, I am discovering a whole new language of self-expression. An hour flies by before I know it; I am in flow, lost in a melody, completely content. You may find your flow working in the garden, swimming long laps in a pool or sketching in a notebook. What makes all of these experiences special is that they are not diluted by conversation or shaped by someone else's agenda.
How to get a private moment or two:
If you and your inner self have been out of touch, build a new relationship with someone who deserves attention—you.
Make a date with yourself. In her book The Right to Write, novelist, poet and lecturer Julia Cameron encourages her readers to treat themselves to a weekly "artist date"—a solo expedition to a place that interests them. That might be a fabric store, an art or natural history museum, a lunch-hour concert or a mountaintop. The point is not to accomplish something or even to learn something; it's simply to have fun—alone. When we romance our creative consciousness, she says, we have far more energy to bring to the work of life.
Stand firm. It's funny how easily time alone turns into something else—but remember, when it comes to solitude, two is a crowd. Not long ago, I was just about to set off for a solitary hike when a friend called. "Come along," I suggested. "Let's take a walk together." I spent the next hour listening to a blow-by-blow account of her mother-in-law's visit, and I also learned a lesson. Friends are priceless, but so is an opportunity to walk in silence through the forest.
Be clear about your needs. "I need some time for myself" sounds both desperate and vague. My husband's response to this timeworn refrain is "Yeah, so do I." I've learned to be clear and practical: "On Saturday afternoon, I will be gone from two o'clock to five o'clock. Will you be able to watch the kids?"
Support others in their efforts to take time off. If you claim Saturday afternoon, invite your partner to follow his or her own inclinations next time, while you hold down the fort. My husband is perfectly willing to grant me time for myself, as long as I encourage him to go off for a tennis game afterward. If you're single or can't trade with your partner, swap child-care duties with a friend.
Be on the lookout for stolen moments. There are empty spaces in almost every day, tiny nooks of time that you can inhabit in solitude. Try arriving ten minutes early for appointments, walking to work, taking your lunch outside to a park bench, making dinner without the phone pressed to one ear. Breathe deeply, be still, and check in with yourself, if only for a few minutes.
Practice doing nothing. Your need to replenish and play is as important as your need to get through the to-do list. "Just don't make too big a deal out of figuring out how to relax," Moore says. "If you make a program of it, you're back to busyness."
More ways to find solitude: