I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone. ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
The times in my life that I have been most unhappy were the times that I was not paying attention to my inner life of solitude.
My highest self—or, as I refer to it, my Holy Self—was lost to the outer world’s busyness of following the crowd, doing for others without a thought for myself besides getting showered and dressed and fed. When a major break-up of a long-time romance and the death of my father hurled me into concentrated solitude, I resisted that life, even though I’d been comfortable with being alone my whole life.
By my thirties, I’d bought into society’s belief that solitude is suspect.
Sure, a few moments alone to gather your thoughts is acceptable, but extended periods of time by yourself typically indicated that something was wrong with you. It took a few years for the message to sink in that there was nothing wrong with me. In fact, I had more energy than I ever had. When I chose to be social, I was more present. And, amazingly, I no longer got peeved while waiting in line at the Post Office.
Regular sessions of solitude help us to become noble, peaceful human beings. Solitude also offers the blessing of allowing us to recharge our souls’ batteries so that we have not only more energy to devote to others, but more honest energy.
You may have mixed feelings about beginning a solitude practice. Perhaps the idea makes you excited. Or maybe the concept still seems like a far-fetched venture. If you’re still questioning the validity of solitude, remember that the time you devote to discovering and honoring your Holy Self is an investment in the happiness of your friends and family. It is also an expression of gratitude to the Divine Energy that created you. Above all, it is a reunion of Self and Spirit.
A person who embraces the Holy Self:
- is a better listener
- exudes warmth
- is more helpful to family and friends
- has more energy
- is playful
- retains peacefulness in stressful situations
- is more fun on dates
- feels compassion toward strangers
- can fly
Okay, that last one isn’t true, but it can feel like that sometimes. Taking regular alone time for yourself is a simple way to empower yourself, and let that power wash over your other relationships whether they’re with people you know or complete strangers.
Strangers? Really? Sure thing.
To illustrate, I’ll share this brief story: In the summer of 2003, I worked at the Gramercy café my friends Bruce and Bob owned in order to earn some extra cash for an upcoming trip to India. One night, right before closing, a woman walked in with a scowl planted on her face. It had been a busy night and I was tired. My hair was a mess and my apron was slathered with coffee-infused milk foam and Panini condiments. I felt myself bristle as she approached the counter. In a low, harried voice, she asked for an herbal iced tea. We only had regular iced tea, and I told her this.
“Bob always makes me herbal iced tea,” she snapped.
I nearly leapt over the counter and strangled her. But something made me stop and take a deep breath. Maybe, like me, she lived alone and was having a lonely day. Or maybe work was getting her down. Who knew?
“Tough day?” I asked.
Immediately, her face softened. “Yeah. You know…” She proceeded to tell me about the difficulties she was having with a next-door neighbor who objected to her friendly but very large Labrador Retriever.
I smiled and told her to choose the herbal tea she wanted; I’d make the iced tea for her. From that day on, she smiled whenever she saw me at the café or around the neighborhood. I won’t pretend that she and I became friends after that encounter, but there’s no doubt that good energy was created out of bad. That kind of thing heals the world.
I’m convinced my capacity to handle that sour situation with compassion came from the amount of time I spent alone, recharging my soul’s batteries. Otherwise, I might have felt depleted of energy (having given it to customers all night) or even crabby about why she was being so inconsiderate toward a fellow human being who obviously looked like she, too, had had a rough day.
Poet and teacher Robert Bly tells a story about a young man who loses his sense of self.
This young man had long hair, which he loved. It was his identity. One day, his parents sat him down in the middle of the kitchen and cut off all his hair, leaving the young man grieving for the loss his old self. The young man’s grandfather entered the kitchen and, upon seeing his despondent grandson, said, “Come with me.” He took the young man to the edge of the ocean.
They stood there a while, staring out at its quiet magnificence. After a long time, the grandfather spoke. “All this,” said the old man, his arm sweeping across the expanse of nature’s beauty, “is yours.”
Incorporating regular sessions of rejuvenative solitude into life, and tending to the soul with gentle kindness will essentially allow us to have the world.
It no longer matters what others expect of us when we know and honor our deepest truths and live with joyful connection. We will fill our journal with stories about our vital, wild, goofy, fascinating journeys into ourselves. Our friends and family will notice how peaceful we’ve become, and how genuinely present we are for them.
Most of all, we will have become the absolutely best human being you can be. That human being will support us and stand by you every day, through glorious times and tragedies.
Let’s honor ourselves with a just few minutes of solitude a day, and we will find that something magnificent has happened: we have become our own best friends, our Holy Selves.
~ ~ ~
I Am Much Too Alone in This World, Yet Not Alone
I am too alone in the world, and not alone enough
to make every minute holy.
I am too tiny in this world, and not tiny enough
just to lie before you like a thing,
shrewd and secretive.
I want my own will, and I want simply to be with my will,
as it goes toward action,
and in the silent, sometimes hardly moving times
when something is coming near,
I want to be with those who know secret things
or else alone.
I want to be a mirror for your whole body,
and I never want to be blind, or to be too old
to hold up your old and swaying picture.
I want to unfold.
I don’t want to stay folded anywhere,
because where I am folded, there I am a lie.
And I want my grasp of things
true before you. I want to describe myself
like a painting that I looked at
closely for a long time,
like a saying that I finally understood,
like the pitcher I use every day,
like the face of my mother,
like a ship
that took me safely
through the wildest storm of all.
—from Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke,
translated by Robert Bly (Harper & Row, 1981)
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Apprentice Editor: Bronwyn Petry / Editor: Renée Picard
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