The bliss of solitude

We all are in an unprecedented situation all over the world now due to SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) virus, and in India we are in a complete lockdown since 25th March, which will continue until 3rd May 2020. As a result, most of us all over the world are confined to our homes with little or no social meetings with friends, colleagues or relatives. Although, I’d imagine that most of us are safe in our homes with our family, instead of being all-alone.

Somehow many of us are not comfortable being ‘alone’, and it is not the same as being ‘lonely’ – we can be alone without being lonely. Likewise, we can experience loneliness even with companions. Being an introvert, I do need my “me-time” quite often and working alone has been my preference for a long time. My work as a techie and writer suit my preference quite well. Though currently I miss long coffee discussions with friends and my time under the sun, I am enjoying this solitude as well. Irrespective of whether you’re an introvert, extrovert or an ambivert; all of us can indeed benefit from solitude, or some alone time. In fact, research suggests that solitude can change our brains in profound ways.

Obviously, I guess many of us would get frustrated if prolonged, enforced solitude is combined with restricting our freedom to move around, but I won’t be getting there. Whether we like it or not, the current pandemic situation has forced large population of the world in a lockdown to deal with this unknown, microscopic virus (#StayHome #StaySafe). So why not make the most of our current situation? Let’s explore the bliss in this solitude.

Spending time with yourself

Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) was a Russian filmmaker and writer. He is considered as one of the greatest and most influential directors in the history of Russian as well as world cinema. His book ‘Sculpting in Time’ is also one of the most respected books about the art of film-making. Like most of the wonderful things that I have discovered on brain pickings serendipitously, I came across this beautiful piece about Tarkovsky and that got me thinking about this article. This short quote by Tarkovsky is widely available on several other sites, but as always Maria Popova of brain pickings does a great job of connecting it with several other relevant pieces.

This is what Tarkovsky says about spending time with oneself –

I think I’d like to say only that they (young people) should learn to be alone and try to spend as much time as possible by themselves. I think one of the faults of young people today is that they try to come together around events that are noisy, almost aggressive at times. This desire to be together in order to not feel alone is an unfortunate symptom, in my opinion. Every person needs to learn from childhood how to spend time with oneself. That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.

~ Andrei Tarkovsky

We all really need to learn how to spend time with ourselves. That time is important to assimilate, to reflect, and to introspect. It is worth noting that most deep introspection and helpful insights often occur during such periods of solitude. The last point Tarkovsky makes about self-esteem is particularly intriguing – people who detest being alone are usually the ones who conflate it with being lonely – i.e. not having meaningful connection with the people around; and experience low self-esteem. The 10-day Vipassanā course that is carried out in India requires a participant to refrain from talking (except teacher questions) and spend time alone in meditation and introspection. Usually, the people who cannot complete 10 days of this course are the ones who are not comfortable being alone with themselves, with their own thoughts. Many Vipassanā teachers have reported this.

If you’re really interested in understanding how to be alone in a creative way, I’d suggest this longish article – How to Be Alone: An Antidote to One of the Central Anxieties and Greatest Paradoxes of Our Time, though the article is in a different context . Here is an insightful excerpt from that piece –

How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfillment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?

~ Sara Maitland

There are tons of things that you can enjoy when you are alone, but I’ll get to that later. Here is a beautiful, visual poetry video by filmmaker Andrea Dorfman, and poetry by a Canadian singer-songwriter Tanya Davis describing how to be alone, happily.

Perhaps in the interest of loving oneself, perhaps all those sappy slogans from preschool over to high school’s groaning were tokens for holding the lonely at bay. Cuz if you’re happy in your head, then solitude is blessed and alone is okay.

~ Tanya Davis

Mindful activities & engagement

If you’re wondering what all one can do in this enforced, prolonged solitude, the list is practically endless. It is certainly not about maximizing your productivity or doing something concrete to help you in your career. It could be just something that makes you happy and keeps you healthy – with your near & dear ones. One approach is to do something that you always wanted to do, but never actually found time to do it. This is probably the best time to give it a try. Speaking for myself, I always wanted to bake breads, but somehow I thought it was way too difficult for me to try. I am more of an improviser when it comes to cooking, so all-perfect bread baking seemed like a daunting task. However, news about a scientist baking bread from 4,500-year-old yeast from Ancient Egyptian pottery really got me interested and I decided to give it a try during this lockdown – and I managed to come up with a decent whole-wheat, herb bread with a little help from two of my friends. Moreover, the yeast magic and bread baking aroma are so addictive that I am hooked to baking for life now. 🙂

One blessing in disguise with this lockdown is the ample time that we get to be with our family – something that long commute, longer working hours have snatched away from us. It’s wonderful to have some spare time in the evening to play board games with your kids, or to simply enjoy an hour-long tea/coffee conversations with your dear ones. While putting him to sleep, I read some of my childhood books to my kid, and it was such an inexplicable joy to watch him love the same stories. It is unbelievable how vividly you can recall your own feelings after all those years when you see the similar emotions in your kid. Few words of caution though – don’t expect this sort of connection transcending generation for all/most of your childhood stuff, our kids are growing in different times, within different context, with different interests, so even if it happens for a solitary book/film/music, consider yourself lucky. But whenever it happens, it is moving, it is healing, it is almost therapeutic.

Speaking of books, mindful engagement with literature, films, music is enormously enjoyable in solitude – so you can always read the books that you have kept aside, watch films from your pending lists or just unwind with some music that you love. The OTT platforms, digital reading devices make it simpler for us to procure most of the materials that we seek. This mindful engagement with art goes much beyond entertainment to enrich our lives with diverse, inclusive perspectives. If something that you read, watch, or listen strikes a chord within, do write about it or create your own video to share what you have enjoyed – if that’s not your cup of tea, maybe you can just call up a friend who might enjoy it and share it with him/her.

By the way, catching up with friends frequently would be especially beneficial for you if you’re an extrovert. So start a hangout/meetup call to chill virtually with your buddies – see how much it boosts you up. For introverts, longish, one-to-one phone calls with few close friends would be equally uplifting.

Creating & Learning

Never stop creating
Never stop creating (PC: ShonEjai from Pixabay)

All of us are creative, and that’s what David Kelly of IDEO firmly believes while helping people become more confident about their own creativity. Creativity is not a privilege of few gifted creatives – we all can create, and it doesn’t have to be a piece of art. Cooking a new dish is a creation, so is everything else when you strive to bring your idea to life. I have seen some really innovative recipes with minimal ingredients on YouTube, specially created for this lockdown. For example – Chocolate cake with only 3 ingredients. My friend Rohan is sending photos and short write-ups about his travel on WhatsApp, another friend is sending her favourite songs with a short note elaborating why it appeals to her. Someone close to me is creating beautiful doodle-art in this unexpected break from work. My kid created some handmade cards & bookmarks – completely engrossed while making them. When we are working on something new with our own hands, it is an immersing experience – sort of a meditative flow. As compared to consumption, actually creating something yourself is so much more involving & satisfying (IKEA uses this quite well with their products). I wonder why we miss out on  joy of creation because we tend to leave creativity and its pleasure for the creatives, say – artists or artisans.

Likewise, learning is fun & absorbing if you are genuinely interested in that particular subject. Online courses (mostly free or modestly priced) from Coursera, edX et al. are getting more and more fascinating these days – they cover diverse range of subjects. Can you believe there is a course about Fairy tales, or a free course on Fighting COVID-19 from Johns Hopkins? So if there is something that you have always been curious about, but somehow didn’t get a chance to learn it – grab that chance now and explore. The course doesn’t always have to be practical or related to your career, you can learn just for the sake of learning. In fact, learning is all the more fun when it is not related to your career but you’ve a keen interest in that subject. Don’t just take my word for it, famous Colombian singer-songwriter Shakira has finished a course in ‘Ancient Philosophy’ recently, see what she says –

Wisdom from Walden

When I am discussing the bliss of solitude, I cannot finish it unless I mention Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), an American essayist, poet, and philosopher. His idea of civil disobedience influenced Mahatma Gandhi during India’s freedom struggle. I had written about Thoreau earlier in this article – Those who work much do not work hard.

Thoreau spent over two years alone, without any support (barring occasional visits from his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson) in a small cabin that he built himself near Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts. His legendary book Walden narrates his own experiences of simple living in natural surroundings. His reflections on life and society are profound. If you haven’t already read Walden, I’d highly recommend reading it. Though the language needs some time getting used to (English from olden days), the book really grows on you as you keep reading. It is one of my all-time favourites, and I keep going back to it.

Thoreau has dedicated a small chapter (rather an essay) to Solitude. As a philosophic writer, he fondly writes this about solitude, and I think this is an excellent quote to ponder and wallpaper to use –

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

~ Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau on solitude
Thoreau on solitude (PC: Rula Sibai from QuoteFancy)

Update: 27th April 2020 –

I have added a section about “creating” in this article, it was present in my original notes and article draft, but somehow got dropped when I completed this article couple of days ago.


The featured image:

The featured image is by Foundry Co from Pixabay, and I am using them here with gratitude.