“The act of sitting down is an act of revolution. By sitting down, you stop that state of being: losing yourself, not being yourself. And when you sit down, you connect to yourself. And you don’t need an iPhone or a computer to do that. You just need to sit down mindfully and breathe in mindfully.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh.
The day my ex-wife moved out was also the day when our dog moved out and when I was laid off from my bankrupt ex-company. It felt like everything around me had suddenly died. Many of our common friends and loved ones distanced themselves from me, and I felt abandoned.
As I took my first few steps through the rubble, I felt the full force of this new solitude that was now forced upon me. And it wasn’t going anywhere soon.
I immediately lost my appetite and my desire to cook. I started taking irresponsibly long hot showers and baths till my skin burned. I decluttered. I threw away pictures and memorabilia, love notes and cutlery, teabags and cushion covers. I stopped vacuuming.
But I continued running. I started reading. I read anything that looked like it held a secret to end my suffering.
I lost interest in my job. I’d wake up every morning with dread, sometimes not sleeping entire nights.
I kept running. I got faster and stronger. I also got injured and had to stop. The darkness stayed even as the days started to get longer. While I lived abroad, the second wave of covid had just hit back home. One of my best friends from childhood died. Also a cousin. A friend lost his father and never saw the body. My dad got very sick and almost died. I sank further.
But I kept meditating in solitude. Every time the void of existence hit me with boredom, anxiety, and restlessness, something deep within forced me to continue sitting through it. It started feeling familiar. And I slowly started to come back to life. My sense of taste returned. I started cooking again. I started having friends over.
Still, some days I would collapse on the floor and cry till I got thirsty. Then I’d hydrate and go back to my laptop to run the next zoom meeting, smiling through it.
I realized what a shell of a person I was now that my ex-wife had left me. At the same time, I continued to befriend the solitude and get comfortable with my aching heart—to sit with it, have a conversation with it, and see what it had to say and what it had learned.
I was starting to get to know myself from a brand new perspective. It was almost like getting to know this new person who had been living in the basement all these years and I had no idea! And this person sure was interesting!
The solitude soaked in all my tears so I could laugh again with people. It became my duvet in the winters, my picnic blanket in the summer. The solitude and I would often do karaoke at 7:00 on a Sunday morning till the neighbors started complaining. We went on bike trips together, dipped in cold lakes, went to eat at buffets, and sat through boring dates.
It became my best friend when there was no one around. It taught me to write, to read, to think, to philosophize, to know what’s good for me, to love everyone unconditionally, and to be kind.
It showed me things as they truly are and caught me when I was being judgmental. It took away my anger and my desperation. It carried my dreams and filled me with hope.
Solitude has the power to teach us about ourselves. It is the gym where we must go to train.
A century ago, people would look forward to solitary periods of relaxation on their porch after a long day of work. But today, we devote most of our conscious time to the pursuit of feeling connected with other people, either offline or online. A simple notification instantly pulls us away from the present moment. We are constantly everywhere but here and now. But our true self lives in the here and now, though we seem to spend less and less time with it.
In the raw moments of loneliness that succeed a breakup or a bereavement, when we have nowhere to run, we encounter our true self. Like I did. And it was scary. It felt like sitting in the corner of a dungeon with a chain locked around my ankle as a stranger towered over me. I wanted to run away, but there was nowhere good enough to run to. I went scuba diving in the tropics, but my broken, ghost-of-a-self found me under water too.
The key to cultivating fearlessness in these moments is getting to know yourself through solitude. It means deliberately taking time out to sit alone so you feel comfortable with yourself, connected to yourself, and at peace with yourself.
To practice solitude, try this.
1. Think of your favorite meditative activity.
Ideally, it should involve interaction with physical objects, not digital ones. And definitely not a phone or something with a screen. It should be mundane and not involve rational thinking. This provides the ideal setting for your true self to emerge. An example is doing the dishes, focusing on your breath, or just sitting out in the garden, hearing and seeing what’s around you.
2. Set aside a fixed time during the day.
This is especially important if you are just starting out, because a strict regime is helpful to cultivate a habit. A good time is early in the morning. A recent study showed that early morning is the ideal time for alpha wave activity in the brain, which is associated with restful attentiveness. But depending on your schedule or your routine, any other time of the day is good enough to start with. Start with ten minutes and slowly make your way up to an hour. There’s no right or wrong duration, but the more the better.
3. Start with an intention.
Make a decision to consciously choose solitude. Embrace it like it’s your best friend. Know that it is good for you, that it is the right thing for you. That there is nothing better you’d rather do right now, and no one more important to talk to than yourself.
Most importantly, don’t get too serious. Develop a sense of joy, a sense of humor about the whole thing.
Sometimes it all may seem impossible, especially when painful memories and a sense of loss come back with profound pain. It may feel hopeless as the thoughts and feelings overwhelm you. But believe that those thoughts and feelings are like a movie playing in your head. They do not define your reality in the present moment. Do not let them consume you.
Believe you are the mountain in the storm. And when the thoughts and feelings eventually pass, which they will, come back to your practice. Develop almost a blind devotion to it in the beginning, because it may take many sittings to feel the first signs of solidity and bliss coming back.
If you are finding it tough to start by yourself, go to a local yoga or meditation class and work on your basic form. Then come back and try it again.
4. Start enjoying your company whenever the opportunity arises.
As you start building a regiment for solitude, you will start to appreciate moments to yourself. While you wait for your friend at the subway before you head to that party together. While you wait for your favorite burger to arrive after deciding to eat out by yourself.
Think of those fleeting minutes as a gift, as an opportunity to see if you can appreciate the world around you. Wait before you flip out your phone or put on your music. Can you see how solid and calm you feel now, compared to before? How rich the world around you is? Give yourself a high-five for putting in all those hours of solitude practice.
And if by chance that solitude is forced upon you by a tragedy or unforeseen event, even better! Because when your heart is broken it’s the most open, and ripe for new wisdom and the richness of the world to take root. Acclaimed author and Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön says, “To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening,”
Be deliberate. Be disciplined. And you will soon get to know the most interesting person you have ever met! One who will always be with you, no matter what else you lose.