Modern solitude

Being alone without being lonely is an art – something that everyone strives to learn when they realize how important it is to do well. To figure out how not to get encumbered by the expectations of a society that seems to look down upon people who like to be by themselves for a period of time. They are labelled introverts, and their lives are just assumed to be drab and depressing. An especially telling example of this is a large number of parents forcing a naturally reserved child to “go out and play” lest they become shunned by all their peers.

It is historically well established that the best artists and thinkers have produced some of their finest work in seclusion, free of outside influences crippling the creative thought process. As Tesla once said,

“Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.”

And it wasn’t just a scientific thinker who approached things this way. Rilke, one of my favorite poets, had this to say on the subject,

“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast.

Be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend.”

More recently, after hearing various different people bring up a similar point in passing, I’ve tried to fashion some time out of my day to spend quietly reflecting on whatever it is that comes to mind, without a fixed agenda. The way I generally do this is to grab a book and find a comfortable spot to sit in, and as I start to read, be receptive to the thoughts that spring up as a result. Sometimes, I tend to do this while simply listening to some Pink Floyd on my earphones and staring into space. In my head, disconnecting myself from what’s happening around me and focussing on a particular stream of content – be it music or words – will help me stay on track and not get distracted by something else. Or atleast that’s what I thought till a few days ago, when I was hit by a question.

While I may think I’m spending time alone with my thoughts, creating a fertile ground for my imagination to run free and dream up ideas for my next startup or essay, is it possible that the primary content I’m ingesting is actually preventing original thoughts from bubbling up? Would I be better off sitting in a park without any external distractions and immersing myself in the world around me, like people have been doing forever? There is much to be said for random events that can lead to interesting connections between seemingly unrelated thoughts that come from observing people and things around us.

I think that is what both Tesla and Rilke were going for when they commented on solitude. Most people today (including me) are averse to the idea of sitting at one place doing “nothing”. We try to hyper optimize our time doing as much as we can fit in a timespan, be it work or otherwise and rely on external crutches like music or books when we want to “be by ourselves”.

Perhaps it’s time I gave doing nothing a chance. Forcing myself to disconnect from everything and go off on a long walk to someplace quiet might very well be the best thing that happens to me that day. And I’d highly recommend others try it too.