By Jamuna Rangachari
Solitude, with its potent ability to heal and hone creativity, can reconnect us to our inner selves and awaken the rich treasures within.
Seeing that 12-year-old Harish had become extremely restless and irritable, his father approached Tapovan Maharaj, the guru of Swami Chinmayananda and many others. The guru spoke to the boy and after a few days, there was a remarkable improvement. It did not happen through a mantra or talisman, but by the simple practice of solitude. Swamiji advised the boy to get up and go for a walk in the early hours of the morning and spend some time alone with nature and essentially, with himself. By doing so, the boy became calm, serene and composed.
‘This incident is often quoted by us to explain the importance of solitude,’ says Swami Nikhilananda, from the Chinmaya Mission, Delhi.
Quality time spent alone encourages introspection, brings in valuable insights, and is often the most effective panacea for our troubles. Solitude is the key to enriching one’s life and one’s relationships, and time alone gives us a chance to find it and return to our loved ones, renewed and replenished.
What is solitude?
‘Loneliness is the poverty of self, solitude is the richness of self’ – May Sarton Solitude is the joyful experience of one’s own self. It is the ability to spend time with our self in a state of completion and plenitude. When we are truly attuned to ourself, we need no one or nothing else. In the most essential way therefore, the ability to be with ourselves is testimony of our completion of a journey. This is the journey all of us must pass through. It begins with the normal physical, emotional and psychological needs of the human condition. We look for love, for appreciation, for acknowledgment and understanding. We look for physical companionship and affection, and for security. We look for guidance and support, for someone to show us the way. We look for all these things outside ourselves. It is only when something shifts and we start locating the source of these things within us that the journey starts. Gradually, we crest these needs as we begin to increasingly experience inner love, inner security, inner strength. And with each turn of the screw, our friendship with ourselves deepens and we feel replete within ourselves, whole, perfect and complete.
The gifts of solitude are precious and many-layered, beginning with developmental needs and going all the way to the ultimate state of enlightenment. As Dr Vikas Mohan Sharma, Consultant Psychiatrist at Vidya Sagar Institute of Mental Health & Neuroscience (VIMHANS), Delhi, says, ‘Some time alone is essential for developing cognitive skills, which is something beyond memory. For it is only when we are alone that we can assimilate our own feelings and experiences.’
Most of us don’t want to be alone for any period of time – and certainly not when there’s a crisis, but perhaps that’s exactly what we need to do. Advice, counseling and time with others can be helpful, but only to a point. Ultimately, the acceptance, wisdom and understanding that we seek is within us.
When Hilary Beard’s father passed away a few years ago, no one could help her cope with the deep sense of loss. She sought counseling to help her heal and took prescribed antidepressants for three months. But, later, when her mother fell ill and died, she adopted a different approach, which worked much better. ‘I sought out solitude. I had to seek comfort and peace and come to terms with things inside myself,’ she says. Dr Ken Weizer was a Hollywood filmmaker when he was diagnosed with cancer. Going through tremendous emotional and spiritual upheaval, he took a nine-month sabbatical from his work. Moving to a tiny town outside San Francisco, he spent time primarily with himself, taking long hikes all alone. ‘This solitude became the space to heal,’ he says.
‘Before cancer I had seen life as linear, and I feared the end of the line. But as I hiked more and more, my screaming mind began to quieten down, and I started to see the miracle of death all around me and… the seed of rebirth was sown in the soil of my death.’ Taking a cue from his learning, he took the radical step of leaving his Hollywood career to learn naturopathy and has since, become a naturopathic doctor, in a ‘rebirth’ of sorts. It was solitude that helped him immensely to connect within. ‘Within solitude I have found connection to self, my own feelings and needs, connection to others, and empathy for the world,’ he says, affirming that solitude which is ‘self-care, self-awareness and self-love is essential for a fulfilled life.’
A Key to Spirituality
‘In moments when the inner lamps are lit
And the life’s cherished guests are left outside,
Our spirit sits alone and speaks to its gulfs
A wider consciousness opens then its doors;
Invading from spiritual silences,’
Sri Aurobindo in Savitri.
It is in silence that we are able to hear the voice of God, expressed to us in a myriad ways.
‘A man who loves God, necessarily loves silence,’ wrote Thomas Merton, a prolific writer, Trappist monk and connoisseur of silence.
Surely, it is no coincidence that places of worship are places of silence – nurturing and enhancing the spiritual quest.
‘In the Kathopanishad, it is said that the mind is like a charioteer who needs to remain calm to rein in the wild horses, which are our senses. It is to develop this inner calm that we need to cultivate solitude,’ says Swami Tanmayananda, from the Ramakrishna Mission, Malaysia.
Swami Nikhilananda too, feels that solitude is a most potent tool of spirituality. ‘Loneliness is isolation whereas solitude is great joy. As we come closer to our dear friend – the inner Self, we are rejuvenated and paradoxically, also find that we are one with everyone,’ he says.
Fareeda Ali, representative of Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan dargah in Delhi, affirms that the mystic traditions of Islam emphasize the need to be away from the activities of life so that one can reflect on the reality of life and make a distinction between the eternal and artificial parts of one’s persona. ‘Khalvaat, keeping oneself away for periods of contemplation, is a recommended practice for all seekers,’ she says, adding that even the regular practice of namaaz is essentially a means to connect to one’s inner self.
Father Ravi, a priest in the Catholic church of Delhi, agrees that a pause from the outward rush of activities is necessary to ‘rejuvenate one’s inner strength and enable one’s spirit to listen to the voice of God.’
If we study the lives of great masters, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Ramana Maharishi, Sri Aurobindo, to name just a few, we realize that all of them found their answers when alone.
Bonding with Nature
Only in solitude can we truly experience nature and avail of its teachings. Every one knows the sensation of seeing a wonderful sunset, watching the endless dance of sea waves, or looking down on a view from on top of a steep mountain. We find ourselves so uplifted in awe that we are ‘speechless’ – an apt word for the sublime feeling that nature creates in us.
Bonding with nature is the easiest and most effective feel-good therapy; nature accepts and therefore affirms our faith in ourselves.
Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, an autobiographical account of his experiment in solitary living, writes, ‘Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revelry, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.’
As J Krishnamurti, has said, ‘Sensitivity means being sensitive to everything around one – to the plants, the animals, the trees, the skies, the waters of the river, the bird on the wing.’
‘Mindfulness’ in the Buddhist tradition, that teaches one to be tuned into what is happening around, also acknowledges nature to be the most effective tool for doing so.
Today, sights and sounds of technology and media permeate both public and private spaces, making it difficult to find quiet places for reflection and thought. But it is essential that we do so.
In silence, we often say, we can hear ourselves think; but perhaps it is more appropriate to say that in silence we can hear ourselves not think and hence, we go into a place far deeper than we ever thought existed. It is from silence and solitude that all acts of creation are born – works of art, music, writing and even scientific inventions.
All artists, thinkers and philosophers have actively sought solitude. Thoreau writes, ‘I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.’
Shruti, who practices healing through music, makes it a point to spend enough time alone to renew her inner strength, intuition and creativity. ‘Running at a frenetic pace is like having bees swarm around you all the time. It is only when we pause and reflect that we are able to find the honey within us,’ she says.
In fact, it was when realisation of his growing deafness that spelt doom for his career as a concert pianist, forced him to increasingly find solace in his own company, that musical genius, Ludwig Van Beethoven’s creative forces as a composer were fully unleashed. Withdrawing into a deeply private world of his own, he gave the world music of unprecedented intensity and originality that many believe would not have been possible, but for his deafness and the near-monastic withdrawal from society that it imposed on him.
Why we Shun our Own Company
It’s not always easy to spend time on our own with nothing to do. This is when the ghosts of the past waylay us with memories of our betrayal of a friend, the heartache that refuses to go away, the hurt we still feel about not getting a seat in medical college, and so on. All the work we need to do on ourselves comes up for airing and it is discomfiting to confront these issues.
There is also the question of temperament. Introverts are comfortable being by themselves because they get their energy from their inner self. Extroverts, however, get their energy from others and are therefore disinclined to spend time on their own. Today, unfortunately, the many advantages of introversion are given short shrift in a society that increasingly rewards extraversion. Modern society admires movers and shakers, dynamic individuals who can go out there and change the world. The plain fact of the matter, though, is that real change comes from the introverts, whose attunement to the forces of life makes them the guardians of our ethics and the wayshowers of the world. They are the thinkers, and ideators who tell us what our next step is.
Whole and Part of the Whole
Solitude – a boon to the introspective mind, to the creative spirit and to the seeker. This is why we need to recognize and harness the power of solitude. Taking firm steps in connecting to ourselves, we will realize and recognize our unique potential and move closer to the realisation that we are complete in ourselves and also as part of our vast cosmos.
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