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Exploring Solitude

As a part of The School Of Life’s “self-help book series for the rest of us,” Sara Maitland contributed a captivating and inspiring book on “How To Be Alone.” It seems an odd topic at first glance. Yet, Maitland skillfully weaves together the historical, social and personal relevance of taking time to be alone or, better said, enjoying solitude.


Book: How To Be Alone - Sara Maitland

There is a dichotomy in Western culture. The driving principles are self-fulfillment, self-expression, self-determination, self-liberation, self-autonomy and all of the rights and freedoms associated. However, generally-speaking, westerners run from the self portion of the above tenets. Most people fear to be with themselves. As a result, an unspoken stigma about individuals whom do tread in life solo states that they must be “sad, mad or bad;” what else can explain their reclusiveness.


A historical perspective

Historically, even Biblically, there is an opinion that it is unhealthy for humans to be alone. And, any such person must feel sad for being so afflicted or anyone who chooses to live solo must be crazy or criminal. Maitland outlines well where this public misconceptions arose historically, culturally, and psychologically.


A large, all be it fascinating, part of this story Mainland explains comes from history’s tug-of-war of social development. Looking back to the Roman empire, its cohesive culture of patriotism, citizenship, and civic responsibility contributed to its expansive success. Romans believed in the “route to personal fulfillment lay in public life.” Honor came from service to the state and an individual’s value depended on the judgment of his fellow citizens. Even bathing was a public or social event. Aristotle went on record saying, “it is strange to make the supremely happy man a solitary, since man is a political creature and one whose nature is to live with others.”


Even once the Visigoth army crushed Rome, the conflict of Rome’s social ethos and Christianity’s interior ethos did not reconcile. Though it can be said that Christianity won; it was at the cost of some of its values. Politics, power and militarism merged into the Christian philosophy. Kingdoms fractured and people sorted themselves based on their belief system, communal or autonomous.


Like today, rockstars shaped popular culture. In that era, the Christian Saints and their austere hermitage gained acclaim in efforts to “save your soul.” The cultural tension bounced back and forth from remnants of the Roman ethos and Christian ideaology from the Renaissance of the 14th century through the Protestant Reformation up to the Enlightenment of the 18th century.


In the era of Enlightenment, there was a return to the neoclassical values of austere style, fashion, literature, architecture, gardening and town planning. Civility, tolerance and liberty were celebrated. Everything was brought back, except the reverie of solitude.


Then, the tides shifted back to valuing emotion over intellect, introspection, freedom, self-awareness, and the notion that artists were free, creative spirits in the Romantic period, which was much like early Christianity’s inner virtues, except God was replaced with ego.


Popular culture continued to ebb and flow, returning to some classical or Roman values while integrating “new” concepts. For instance, in the 20th century, everyone became a “genius,” but standards did not return to appreciate solitude. Instead, the politics of rights and freedoms required group action and led to the drive for social powers. Sexual and emotional satisfaction became a central theme of the era, which also made solitude unhealthy. It is interesting to view the present embodiment of pop culture from this perspective.


A scientific perspective


Maitland further outlined some of the psychological factors that dissuade people from enjoying solitude and related issues that arise from NOT spending time alone. There are profound mental and emotional health benefits from investing in solitude. As a champion of the movement, Maitland even proposes several options to help the reader understand and overcome the negative perspective of solitude and ultimately encourages the reader to develop their own solo skills.


Here are some such suggestions:


  • Work with what already exists. Within the day, there are already moments of privacy. Exercise a more introspective mindfulness of this time. This is particularly useful for people whom are forced to be around others because of circumstances, like Catherine of Siena who as a child of a large family learned to “build a cell inside [her] mind.”
  • Start small. Find activities that require solitude whilst being amongst a crowd, like riding public transportation, shopping or sitting in a bookstore. Another strategy is to move to another room when the family spends time together.
  • Increase your time alone. Swapping out the regular shower for a bath or driving the long way home from errands are great ways to accomplish the goal. Finding ways to the stretch out the existing private moments.
  • Go solo. Pick events to do on your own, like visiting the museum, sitting at a church, soaking in hot springs or touring historical sites. Even traveling to foreign countries where the language barrier allows you to sit amongst others without the distraction of ease dropping is great.
  • Try a float. Floatation tanks are safe, healing places to be alone and allow the journey of self-discovery to ensue. Though, Maitland admits that this is her least favorite approach because she struggled to stay afloat supine safe from salt water slipping into her eyes and mouth.
  • Remove distracting stimuli. Turn off your phone, unplug from the web, and chill. Just let your imagination wander into daydreams. Rediscover the art of reverie.
  • Get out in nature. Be it a simple walk, hike, backyard camping trip or gardening pursuit, sinking into the healing rhythm of nature’s vibe is a wonderful way to be alone and recharge. Sitting at the beach is incredibly therapeutic in this approach.
  • Make it a practice. Transform chores or home maintenance into a designated solitude practice. Vacuuming and dishes can actually become enjoyable with this perspective.
  • Exercise mindfulness. Often meditation is regarded as a passive endeavor. However, exercising mindfulness during activities is very helpful to increase your solitude skill level. A good place to learn how to do this is going to a yoga class, which is another place to practice being alone amongst others. Mindfulness throughout all tasks is the goal.

Experiment and find what works for you.

A historical perspective

For as many varied cultures in the world, there are that many philosophies toward solitude. Common tactics of escape are projection and social insurance. To project ones’ own fears onto another who does not fear it by resorting to character defamation and calling them “sad, mad or bad” is cowardly. Alternatively, using social media as an insurance policy against being alone doesn’t work either; developing thousands of “thin” or detached relationships is a silly strategy. Not that social media isn’t beneficial and serves a purpose, especially to people who live in remote areas, but the definition of a “friend” is very different from in-person, connected relationships.


“Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you; they may have very different tastes.” [1]Bernard Shaw


Throughout the book, Maitland successfully encourages the reader to break through the fear and stigma of spending time alone. As a seasoned veteran, she makes the point of sharing historic examples, male and female, of celebrity hermits and substantiates them based on her experience of living alone in the Scottish highlands. Over the centuries, people have sought solitude for its various benefits.


The big purpose

The author categorizes the perks as:

  • A deeper consciousness of oneself
  • Greater attunement to nature
  • A deeper relationship with the transcendent (the numinous, the divine, the spiritual)
  • Increased creativity
  • Increased sense of freedom

The above benefits are largely why the Shen Life Model highly recommends the practice of solitude. Though a primary additional benefit that’s mentioned in the book, but not on the author’s list, an increased vitality of the body-mind occurs. In Pensees (Pascal, 1669), Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” [2] So, it is arguable that the list of benefits or reasons why someone should invest in solitude is weighty.


Whichever the motivation, this is a skill that one MUST develop for themselves. There are no shortcuts or outsourcing options. As the book description plainly says, “By indulging in the experience of being alone, we can be inspired to find our own rewards and ultimately lead more enriched, fuller lives.”[1]


Let’s embrace the adventure of solitude!


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  1. How To Be Alone, Sara Maitland,
  2. Pensees, Blaise Pascal,

Erica Rogers