Solitude and The Self: How to Master the Art of Being Alone
By: Chris Miller – Staff Writer
Oxford Dictionaries defines “alone” as the act of having no one else present. In this new age of advanced technology it can become difficult to truly be alone. At a deeper level, truly being alone means interacting with your thoughts, and only your thoughts.
Some of the most enlightening moments can be obtainable during alone time, but some people don’t like the idea of being alone for too long. Seeking alone time every now and then is rejuvenating. When you are interacting with only yourself, it is easier to get your thoughts together. It is understandable to not enjoy being alone all that much.
Getting annoyed with your own thoughts along with boredom are probably the greatest difficulties that people may face when alone. Some people just easily become lonely. On the other end of the spectrum some say that they need alone time to be productive socially. These two differing paths of thought can be related to loneliness and solitude, respectively, in some ways.
There is a slight but important difference between loneliness and being alone, or solitude. There is no need to explain the obvious difference dealing with vocabulary, but the late philosopher Hannah Arendt had a very intelligent idea of the contrast between loneliness and solitude.
In her essay, On the Nature of Totalitarianism: An Essay in Understanding, she says, “the great metaphysical questions are always asked in solitude, when man is alone with himself and therefore potentially together with everybody” (Arendt, 1954, p. 359). When Arendt says that when one is alone one is together with everybody, she means the thoughts that float around in your head during alone time can magnify to thoughts that affect everybody.
These thoughts are the metaphysical questions. Metaphysical questions are topics including, but not limited to: God, purpose, time, death or the progression of humanity. Individual issues of daily life are specific, but can also be broadened to all of humanity, or at least those around you. One is significantly more likely to deeply contemplate these things when alone. So what does Arendt have to say about loneliness?
Loneliness comes when “man as an individual is deserted even by his own self and lost in the chaos of people” (Arendt, 1954, p. 359). In other words, when you feel lost from yourself loneliness is bound to take the place of solitude. When thoughts of feeling by yourself in the world appear, it is easy to place a great deal of negative emotion into those metaphysical questions. During alone time, it is important to seek out a comfortable and pleasant relationship with yourself so that more time can be spent dancing in solitude than dealing with loneliness.
Arendt mentioned that loneliness occurs when man essentially loses himself. So this begs the question, how do you lose yourself if you are only one you? I’m not a philosopher but I do have my own philosophy on people’s relationships with themselves. When one is out in public and interacting with the world there are three major entities at play: the self, the one that is aware of the self, and the rest of the world.
Though these three entities are strongly connected and depend on each other in many ways, separations still exist. The self does everyday activities such as homework, chores, and socializing. The self is physically present. The one that is aware of the self has more of an ethereal or intangible presence. This entity is responsible for the contemplation of why and how the self does what it does.
The one that is aware of the self is also responsible for producing those metaphysical thoughts that affect the self. The self is not just a robot that is controlled by the other entity. Among other things, the self has an identity. It communicates, it even thinks. The main difference between the two is that the self thinks on a more primitive level. The self is quick to react and make decisions based on spur of the moment emotions.
The one that is aware of the self creates a dialogue with the self that uses deep thinking to find a solution. Arendt says that in loneliness you may lose yourself. It begs the question, which is being lost, the one aware of the self, or the self? This is where it gets complicated because neither of these two major entities can become lost.
What is lost is the confidence, of the one that is aware of the self, in the self. The entity that is aware of the self loses confidence about who the self is. This could be caused by literally anything in this vast universe. In more basic terms, not knowing who you are, or losing yourself, can be a lonely thing to deal with seeing that no one else can live your life.
So now you are alone; what is next? Do absolutely nothing. In other words meditate. Many may think that meditating is too long or too hard, and yes it can be. However, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Meditation is all about trying to get as close to the present as possible. This can be incredibly hard seeing that the present is quite literally the shortest possible amount of time. It almost feels like we are always physically in the present, but never mentally.
Simply focusing on your breath flowing in and out of your body for a few minutes will elevate you to a realm where you can envision your thoughts floating around you. Your first reaction will be to emit some sort of positive or negative emotion and that is fine. Though it is extremely difficult, eventually you will learn to be able to view your thoughts through a more neutral lens. Humans always want to attribute labels like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to things in their lives.
It is a natural habit and a very helpful one, but is important to learn how to ignore it sometimes. This is not the best habit because everyone’s idea of good and bad is based on their experience and surroundings, which is very subjective. Viewing your thoughts through a neutral lens will help you see them for what they truly are, not what you want them to be.
In the end I’m not saying to lock yourself in a room forever and think about life. But in an era where it is possible to never be alone due to technology, it is important to be sufficient in the art of being alone.