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The Joy of Solitude

Having too much or too little time on your hands can be symptoms of the same problem: an inability to have positive and meaningful time apart from others. Use these four steps to reap the gifts of solitude.

I'm a slave to my pager," says Sarah, a 38-year-old public defender in San Jose. "My workdays are scheduled at 15-minute intervals and my weekends aren't much better." She laughs, twirling her hair around anger till it is noose-tight. "I have a great job, great husband, great kids. I feel guilty complaining about any of it, but sometimes I just want to crawl into a cave and never speak to another human being for as long as I live."

Jennifer runs a one-woman eBay business out of her apartment in Dallas. Also 38, and divorced since her early twenties, she goes many days without an in-person conversation. "Truth is," she tells me, "I've got way too much time on my hands and I'm getting pretty sick of how lonely I am."

On the surface, it seems like Sarah and Jennifer are facing opposite dilemmas. But actually, their problems are virtually the same: neither knows how to be alone.

To be alone, as I'm defining it here, refers to positive and meaningful time apart from others. It's more about quality than quantity. And the quality of our aloneness depends on how we treat ourselves when alone, moment by moment as well as over the course of our lives.

Why is this so important? In one sense, we are always alone. As we travel through life, nobody else shares the exact same thoughts, feelings, sensations, and experiences -- ever. In another sense, we are never alone. No matter what happens, we're the one person who's always there, our own companion for better or worse. Luckily, it's with this relationship that we have the greatest inuence. What nurtures it best is the practice of skillful solitude.

Assess the State of Your Solitude
When alone, are you as compassionate with your own flaws and vulnerabilities as with those of your closest friends? Do you know how to create the kind of inner environment that allows for the greatest possible support, growth, and self-discovery?

If you answered yes to both questions, your relationship with yourself is thriving. If not, don't be surprised. Rarely are these skills taught at school or home. Actually, when it comes to self-intimacy, most of us are just beginners.

Sarah, for example, followed the advice of her husband and scheduled a week at a top-ight spa. "It was hopeless," she laments. "I got a great facial, but the whole time the mask was drying I kept thinking up to-do lists." She attempted meditation but was too distracted. She gave yoga a try and actually liked it, but then got depressed by comparing herself with everyone else in the class.

At the weekend workshop where Sarah tells me this story, I ask her what the worst part of her attempt at restoration was. Without a doubt, she tells me, it was the way her thoughts just wouldn't shut up, how they "seemed to have a mind of their own."

She feels totally powerless over this onslaught, and sees it as her own failing. I suggest that she state the failing more clearly. She pauses, blushes, and says, "Well, I've always known I was a Type-A personality, but now I guess I have ADD as well."

I invite her to let go of her labels momentarily and take a more neutral view. Her assignment for that evening is to do nothing more than hang out with all those thoughts, to follow them with curiosity wherever they lead.

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