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This book can be savored by anyone who loves silence and solitude. Solitude, in most of our lives, visits us when we are least prepared – unexpected work assignment to a different city/country, sudden hospitalization for an extended period of time, death of partner, break up etc. Most of us are ill-prepared to handle the sudden intrusion of solitude. This coupled with our childhood experiences of hyper protective parents questioning us – “Kid, you are very silent. Is everything OK with you?”— creates an unhealthy attitude towards situations where we are silent and alone.

For most part of my life I have lived alone and have enjoyed it. My life has played out in a way such that there have been prolonged periods of solitude, punctuated by skewed mix of necessary & unnecessary interactions with others. Having lived such a life, I think my mind loves anything that celebrates silence and solitude. No wonder that I could not put this book down, even while attending a conference. I took an immense liking to the book that I took every opportunity during the downtime between the talks at the conference, to lose myself in this book. One goes to a conference, not only to listen to what other people are doing in a specific field, but also to socialize. Just silently absorb the content of the talk and reflect on them. Somehow I found a strange kind of comforting feeling sitting amidst a random set of geeks and not talking to anyone. In this context, I remember something from the book Quiet, where Susan Cain says, her well groomed, well laid out office room that she had carefully prepared proved rather ineffective for writing. Instead, Starbucks outlets helped her in writing numerous drafts of the book. She says Starbucks has a unique feature, i.e. it is a place that is constantly buzzing with activity that gives a sense of community feeling and at the same time each one is minding one’s own work.

I read this book out of curiosity of finding out – What does a person who has been staying alone for twenty years got to say about solitude?

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Sara Maitland’s house(a region of Scotland with one of the lowest population densities in Europe)

The author refers to her previous work “The Book on Silence” and says that she had mentioned a few things relevant to “Solitude” in it. She says that she has written this book mainly to expand those thoughts. Indeed silence and solitude healthily coexist. But there are situations where you are in silence without solitude / when you experience solitude without silence. 

Being Alone in the Twenty-first century:

The first part of the book makes a case against the popular notion that seeking aloneness is not a pathological condition. Society tries to brand a person seeking alone time for an extended period of time as “sad, mad or bad”, or all the three at once. For a woman, it is even worse.

In the Middle Ages the word ‘spinster’ was a compliment. A spinster was someone, usually a woman, who could spin well: a woman who could spin well was financially self-sufficient – it was one of the very few ways that mediaeval women could achieve economic independence . The word was generously applied to all women at the point of marriage as a way of saying they came into the relationship freely, from personal choice, not financial desperation. Now it is an insult, because we fear ‘for’ such women – and now men as well – who are probably ‘sociopaths’.

Rebalancing Attitudes towards Solitude

The second part of the book gives a few ideas to strengthen your desire for and reduce your fear of solitude, ways in which you might, in practice, develop your taste for and skill at it. There are many people who actively avoid solitude. The two most common tactics for evading the terror of solitude are both singularly ineffective. The first is denigrating those who do not fear it, especially if they claim to enjoy it , and stereotyping them as ‘miserable’,‘selfish’,‘crazy’ or ‘perverse’ (sad, mad and bad). The second is infinitely extending our social contacts as a sort of insurance policy, which social media makes increasingly possible.

The book contains a set of guidelines that can be helpful in overturning negative views about solitude and developing a positive sense of aloneness and true capacity to enjoy it.

  • Face the fear
  • Do Something enjoyable alone : Have a balance between work time, maintenance time and leisure time.There is a good deal of anecdotal evidence that doing things alone intensifies the emotional experience; sharing an experience immediately appears to dissipate our emotional responses , as though communicating it drained away the visceral sensation.
  • Explore Reverie
  • Look at Nature
  • Learn something by heart

Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘Daffodils’ would have a very different effect if it ended:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
I have to rise and go and search
On Flickr, Google or YouTube.

The capacity to be creative is profoundly linked to the ability to remember: the word ‘remember’ derives from ‘re-member’, to ‘put the parts back together’. What we have memorized, learned by heart, we have internalized in a very special way. The knowledge is now part of our core self, our identity, and we can access it when we are alone: we are no longer an isolated fragment drifting in a huge void, but linked through these shared shards of culture to a larger, richer world, but without losing our ‘aloneness’. For many people this resource, this well-stocked mental larder, offers food for thought, for coherence, for security, and must be one of the factors that turns ‘isolation’ into creative solitude. This is a kind of cultural engagement that you cannot get from the web or from reading.

  • Going Solo : The author is not suggesting those “extreme adventures” that you can brag about to people around you. But something else. Read the book if you are curious.

The Joys of Solitude

The author writes about a few rewards that people who seek and experienced solitude have found :

  • A deeper consciousness of self: Behind the heavy sounding words, all it means that in solitude you know yourself better. Stripped of human interaction, you tend to be aware of your own feelings, thoughts, moods . How you deal with it is a different matter, but the very fact that you start noticing is itself a reward. People sometimes take all kinds of weird steps to experience conscious solitude in their lives. Here’s one such example of author’s friend, Jill Langford.

About twenty-five years into my marriage, with seven children, I asked my husband for a one-man tent for Christmas. A little taken aback, perhaps, he nonetheless granted my request and bought me a super little army tent or bivouac shell that you honestly couldn’t squeeze two people into. You erect it, quite easily and quickly, crawl in on your belly, then turn over onto your back, clutching a sleeping bag, raise your knees and wriggle your legs, then bottom, then torso into it. Et voilà. You stay in that position till morning, then you do the same in reverse. There is no room to sit up and you’d be a fool not to have a wee before retiring, since the whole procedure is well-nigh impossible in the middle of the night. I use this little tent just whenever I feel the need to take off, alone, for whatever reason. For me, it works like a battery charger when I feel weighed down by the burdens of living in community and am dragging my feet. Actually I don’t use it very much, but knowing it’s there to use if I want to is sometimes enough in itself to bring a spring back into my step.

  • Attunement to Nature: Over and over again individuals report these extraordinary, mystical experiences when they are alone in nature. It never seems to happen if you are with anyone else, perhaps because we all have a deep inhibition against exposing ourselves so nakedly to another, even a beloved other.
  • Relationship with God: If you are an atheist, it could just mean an entity beyond your sensory perception. There is no major religious or spiritual tradition that does not recognize solitude as a part of the necessary practice for revelation, intimacy and knowledge.
  • Creativity: We all have experienced at some point or the other—creativity somehow seems to go up when we are do things alone. We understand things better. We learn and experience things more deeply in solitude. Solitude is a well-established ‘school for genius’, and the outpouring of creativity is one of its promised joys. In learning to be solitary and happy with it, you can prepare yourself for this sort of creativity.
  • Freedom: There are two types of freedom, 1) “freedom from”, 2), ”freedom to”. In our society, the former is increasing becoming possible like freedom from poverty, pain or fear, financial insecurity etc. Solitude is associated with the latter kind of freedom

In The Stations of Solitude, the philosopher Alice Koller defined freedom as ‘Not only having no restraints, but also being self-governing according to laws of your own choosing … where your choices spring from a genuine sense of what your life is and can become.’ In this short passage she moves from ‘no restraints’ (freedom from) to being ‘self-governing’ (freedom to). In order to achieve this second sort of freedom she suggests that you need a ‘genuine sense of what your life is and can become’. That is to say, you need a consciousness of yourself, and we have already seen how solitude enhances and develops that self-awareness which is the first step towards being self-governing.

Being solitary is being alone well : being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others.

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