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The Power of Solitude

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On this spring morning I awakened to the sounds and smells of a new day, and then, by paying closer attention, to a season encouraging new life all around me. I am quite alone in my awareness. Now I really listen. For what the world brings to me.

As I reconcile myself to a solitary life, I am reminded of the sly wisdom of John Leonard who noted that "men tend never to be alone, except in hotel rooms in Cleveland." Instead we are awash in the business of life we have created, full of children, strutting about, fuss, appointments, commuting and commerce. He writes, "in trenches, locker rooms, box seats, saloons, at the office and at dinner and especially in bed, we are roommates and buddies and flunkies and relatives and secretaries and ghosts and qualms. Our failures of character constitute a throng, which teems."

In being alone one discovers the smaller and larger silences of life. It is a new life, with more reflection than ambition. Given the lurching about us in the larger world, it helps to make time to try to understand the source and potency of change. Psychologist James Hillman, nearing his 85th birthday, notes that "everything that everyone is afraid of has already happened: the fragility of capitalism, which we don't want to admit; the loss of the empire of the United States, and American exceptionalism." He reminds us that we're in a stage of denial; we want things as they used to be, to put it all back the way it was.

Lord Byron in "Childe Harold" reminds us that "Solitude should teach us how to die." We are alone, as we were when we came and as we shall be when we go.

But, solitude can also teach us how to live.

Solitude is also central to leadership, according to Yale scholar William Deresiewicz. Last year he challenged the plebe class of the United States Military Academy at West Point to consider the central truth that we must learn to think, to consider life deeply, in order to discover the abundant courage to lead and live with conviction. He reminded the young soldiers that "what we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of expertise. What we don't have are thinkers. People who can think for themselves...who can formulate a new direction for the country, for a corporation or a college...a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision."

He sees solitude, including reading instead of tweeting, as essential to the authentic introspection that means talking to oneself, the focused work that lets us trust ourselves, to begin to ask the questions we aren't supposed to ask, to learn to trust your own counsel when the hard decisions count, when all you have is yourself.

I find solitude allows me to experience a new, softer energy of deep awareness and surrender. When I stop speaking and answering life, small silences invite me to slip into the spaces between over scheduled and hectic. I am slowly learning to use those feelings in my practice, in writing, in creating new "quiet zones" in my life.

Clearly, human connection, friendship and fellowship are key to being engaged in life while solitude offers time to really listen to you. It doesn't mean committing to a life of haunting loneliness. It allows us to, as Rainer Maria Rilke poignantly writes," have patience with everything that reminds unsolved in your love the questions themselves."

Solitude allows us to sit in the questions and to listen to the answers without distraction.

What better season than spring to begin to understand this, to find a balance between alone and being with others? In this season, everything is in resurgence, including new ideas about life.

Spring clears out the clutter that mucks up the brooks and clutters the leaf beds. In this vastly old season, we find new growth, like life, infinitely varied and promising. In the silence and surrender of this season, and indeed in each part of the annual sequence of change, if we really notice we are reminded that while alone with our solitude, we can enter life with a spirit of renewal. And hope.

"In that first/
hardly noticed/
in which you wake.
coming back to life
from the other
more secret
and frighteningly
where everything
there is a small
into the day
which closes
the moment
you begin
your plans."

From "What To Remember When Waking"

Around the Web

Solitude - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

What Is Solitude? | Psychology Today

YouTube - Solitude

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