Every six weeks I run a consciousness meeting for a group of women who want to talk about what really matters. The theme of solitude was chosen by a group member who is planning to run a retreat early in the new year. She wanted to explore how the rest of us experience solitude.
Those in a relationship or living with family spoke about solitude as a gift because spending time alone often has to be fought for. One participant said, ‘I have only recently started to live with my partner, and I am noticing that although I love sharing my life with him, I miss the quiet of having my own space. So, when I get those moments, it is like pure gold.’
Others who live alone said that even though family and good friends may be nearby, they often find themselves walking a fine line between solitude and loneliness. One said that when she spends too much time on her own, she notices she ‘goes a little mad.’ ‘I notice that I start to withdraw into myself and find it hard to reach out. So, I have learnt to make sure I always make contact with someone every day.’
This led into a discussion about how shame and failure is attached to loneliness. ‘We have to be seen to be ‘doing’ all the time. A busy life is seen as a successful life,’ said one participant. ‘But,’ she continued, ‘I find this exhausting and also frightening. I don’t want to feel lonely, yet I realise loneliness is part of who we are as human beings.’ ‘Yes,’ said another, ‘if you’re seen as busy it means that you have a life filled with friends and family or you are achieving something that other people aren’t. But I think a lot of busy-ness is really hiding loneliness.’
‘Most people run away from loneliness,’ yet another said. ‘It’s so painful. No-one wants to feel it and certainly not admit to it, because if you admit to being lonely, it means you’re a failure on some level.’
Someone who lives alone spoke about being aware that she slips from solitude into loneliness when she loses connection with herself. ‘Throughout my life I have spent a lot of time on my own, so I have really explored the difference between solitude, aloneness, and loneliness. Solitude feels like I am deeply connected with the Universe and this gives me meaning and purpose. I am conscious that I need aloneness to feel the full of effect of solitude, which enables things to flow creatively through me. So, for me, aloneness and solitude are essential for the creative work I do. It quietens my mind. But I fall into the dark hole of loneliness when for some reason, this connect is knocked sideways. That’s when I start questioning the point of life and point of me. Sometimes I find it really hard to climb back out of the hole – the loneliness is so overwhelming I don’t want to be here anymore. But I am so used to this happening that, these days, I tell it to shut up. It seems to sort of work!’
‘I spent five months in virtual seclusion a few years ago because I wanted to meet my loneliness head on,’ said another participant. ‘I knew that if I was going to make a success out of my life following the breakdown of a relationship, I had to do it. So, I invited loneliness to be my companion. At times it was an incredibly painful, crushing experience, but I learnt that I could either allow loneliness to kill me or turn it into something that serves me. I still struggle with it at times, but I don’t allow it to steal my life force from me anymore’.
When someone asked what had changed after she returning from this seclusion, the participant replied, ‘Anger.’ She continued, ‘I realised that my life is connected to something so much greater than me, and that although my life matters, at the same time it doesn’t matter at all. But the experience has made me want to spend the rest of my life finding ways is strengthen this connection because, to me, it’s all about coming home to myself.’
One participant described her relationship with solitude as a sacred internal space. ‘When I experience solitude, it’s the only time I feel really at home with who I am. I may live in a bricks and mortar home and I may live in the UK, but everything changed for me when I realised my body is my home. I can’t exist in physical form without it. I found that an incredibly powerful realisation, and that’s when I started to take care of my body. The trouble is that we forget this. A lot of people seem to be living half out of their body, or forget they even have one, so they have no sense of real belonging. This makes them feel lonely no matter how many friends and family they have around them.’
We started to explore what a sense of belonging means to us. One well-travelled participant, who was born in Africa, told us that as soon as she steps onto African soil, she feels deeply connected with herself again. Although she has lived in the UK for years, she has never felt this depth of belonging. ‘Africa is home. Simple as that.’ Another participant spoke about finding a powerful sense of belonging when she visited New Zealand. ‘Maybe it’s past life thing,’ she said.
Another said that belonging for her was about family. ‘I have moved a lot but the sense of belonging to my family remains constant.’ Two participants told us that they had never felt any real sense of belonging. They only experienced it through their connection with the Universe. ‘I feel I am just passing through this life, and I will return to my real home when I die,’ said one. ‘Me too,’ agreed the other. ‘I have never felt that this planet is my home. I don’t belong here. I know this is a crazy thing to say, but it’s true for me.’
‘I have never equated solitude with home before,’ said a participant. ‘But I now see they fit together perfectly. Solitude is about feeling at home with who you are. Loneliness is when you feel disconnected and separated from your real home.’
‘I have been to many retreats over the years, and I often experience the full spectrum of solitude, aloneness and loneliness during them,’ said another participant to conclude our meeting. ‘In my experience, retreats create sacred boundaries where I can safely explore what solitude, aloneness and loneliness mean to me. I believe this is an essential process for our spiritual evolution. Loneliness is here to remind us that we have disconnected from ourselves, but the impact lessens when we invite in loneliness. That’s when we have the chance to turn it into the serenity of solitude.’