Recently, I went on a trip far up into the Rocky Mountains. Bereft of cell service, ignoring email, and on a campground where elk roamed free, I would have thought that I was in the perfect place for that mysterious but theoretically-helpful experience called solitude. In reality, that was far from the case at first; I was on a group trip, and there were many people to meet, books to read, and songs to sing. But on the second day, our group leader introduced a new concept. “We’re going to hike up in silence. Take this time to look around you and to think.”
As I followed the person in front of me up a long, winding mountain path, thoughts started to occur to me that I had been pushing away for a while. Questions about the world, memories about my experiences this year, and imaginings about the days and months ahead came clamoring into my mind as if they had just been waiting for the right moment. I finally had time to turn my attention to my own mind—and wow, it needed it. I was finally experiencing solitude in a sporadic line of more than a hundred hikers.
Back down the mountain, I listened to a podcast interview with Deep Work author Cal Newport, who articulated my experience in this way: solitude is the absence of input from other minds. Curiously enough, Newport argues that the stereotypical image of someone alone in a mountain cabin reading a book is not an image of solitude; that person is still receiving input from another mind. Conversely, someone could be on a platform in a crowded subway station and still experience solitude if she takes this moment just to be alone with her thoughts. Newport argues that the modern lack of solitude is unfortunate and unhealthy. While even our most recent ancestors had natural moments of solitude throughout the day in which they could process, regroup, and consider their own thoughts, it’s easy enough for someone in 2019 to go an entire day without experiencing any solitude whatsoever.
I remembered my experience on the mountain. How long had those thoughts been waiting to surface? What was I distracting myself from in the constant stream of social interactions, music, reading, and podcasts? I had always thought of solitude as being alone physically, but it made sense to think about solitude in other ways. Just like I needed sleep, I also deeply felt the need for an absence of input. I even realized that I had a need not only for the solitude Newport describes—an intellectual solitude (the absence of input from other minds)—but also for emotional solitude—the absence of input from others’ feelings. As women, we are often the shoulder to cry on, the companion to vent to, the responsible party to check with. While all of these things are good, we all need time to recharge and get in touch with our own emotions and thoughts. Here are some ways to experience the solitude our minds and hearts need.
At first, it came as a shock to me to realize that my go-to solitary experience—driving in a car while listening to a podcast—is not really solitude at all according to Newport’s definition. There seemed to be something wrong with this method.
I finally put my finger on it: when I turn on the tunes and go for a long drive, take a solo trip to an art museum, or spend a couple of hours reading outside, I’m experiencing emotional solitude, the lack of input from others’ feelings and presence. I might be interacting with other minds in different ways, through the medium of text or audio, but there’s an essential difference. The podcast host or Netflix character doesn’t need your approval, advice, input, or support (okay, maybe the podcast host needs your support). The way that we interact with these sorts of mediums feels like a release from our everyday lives of family and other relationships because there isn’t the same kind of emotional drain. We’re still not experiencing “intellectual solitude,” but that combination of intellectual stimulation and emotional detachment might be just what we need after a long day with a crying toddler or a stressful work situation.
Introverts, of course, might need more emotional solitude than extroverts do—but everyone needs it. Whether you spend all day with children who are too young to be reasonable but definitely not too young to have opinions, your work environment is taking an emotional toll, or you’ve spent significant time lately caring for aging family members or in a mentor role, you’ve probably experienced the need for emotional solitude.
Thankfully, there are many ways you can enjoy a few moments of emotional solitude, even during the course of a busy day: 1) Take a quick coffee break to read a book or magazine that interests you. 2) Take a short drive with your favorite music playing and the windows down. 3) Listen to a podcast (I particularly enjoy these while doing some mindless task, like cleaning). 4) If you need a bit more solitude, see if you can take a day off to go alone to a museum. There’s something really freeing about visiting museums alone—you don’t have to worry about whether anyone else is having a good time or gauge how long someone else wants to spend at a particular exhibit or display. The same goes for the zoo, ice skating, or even the movies—think about things you would normally do with a buddy, and see if they are (maybe even more) fun by yourself.
As Newport emphasized, to experience intellectual solitude I didn’t need to get in the car and go anywhere—I just needed to let myself sit in silence. But that’s harder than it seems. There’s a lot of cultural pressure to always be listening to something, reading something, scrolling through a feed, even while in line at the grocery store or waiting for a takeout order. To experience intellectual solitude, we have to cultivate the ability not to reach for the nearest form of entertainment as soon as boredom hits.
But it’s totally worth it. As Newport observes, this kind of solitude is truly missing from our culture, and for that reason, we’re lacking the time that our minds really need to process the external stimuli that are coming at us all the time. If you work in an office job—especially one that you’re connected to through your phone—trust me, you need some intellectual solitude! Many of us with roommates or spouses also need to prioritize intellectual solitude. Our living partners are so constantly present and come home from the day with interesting stories or new perspectives. And, needless to say, if your kids are old enough to talk, you’re ready for some intellectual solitude.
Here are some ways you can incorporate some intellectual solitude (and the mental processing that goes with it) into your busy day: 1) Pause and evaluate when you are pairing intellectual input with a mundane task, and see where you might remove that stimulus. For example, eat breakfast without listening to a podcast, or turn off the tunes on the way to work. 2) Spend some non-conversational time with others. Whether it’s a dance class, church choir, or fishing, there’s probably an activity you can do that doesn’t emphasize the give-and-take of conversation. 3) If you’re a busy mom with kids, the input from their little minds can be a lot. When they’re taking a nap or playing, free yourself from the feeling that you “really should” be checking email or reading that classic on your reading list—maybe you can take a nap, too!
Intellectual and emotional solitude are each valuable on their own, as they each free us from more input. However, they don't necessarily give us real time to process or face big questions. The moment of solitude I had on the mountain was both intellectual and emotional solitude: the sweet spot where real, hard-core processing can occur. While it’s hard to reach what I’ll call “total solitude,” both our overwhelmed emotions and our overworked brains will thank us for it.
You don’t have to climb a mountain to experience total solitude. Try these small steps: 1) Set a time of day when you’re simply not accessible. Whether it’s for a morning walk or an afternoon coffee break, make a pact with yourself to leave the phone at home or in a different room (and leave childcare to someone else). Even if it’s just for twenty minutes, this will give you time to begin processing your thoughts and feelings. 2) Journal—or just write. While some people enjoy it more than others, journaling is an explicit way to process your feelings and writing is a diffusive way to process. You’re alone with your own experiences, without any input. 3) Set yourself a mundane activity to do alone. Maybe you can’t take “time off” from your busy day, but you need to mop the floor or fold a big load of laundry. Take that time as permission to be alone with your thoughts and process your day so far.
Solitude is hard to reach in this day and age, but it’s totally worth it. Seize the small moments of solitude throughout your day and explore the questions and ideas that are already deep within you.
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