Welcome back to our series on the spiritual disciplines, which explores exercises that can be used to train the soul. The purposes and practices of these disciplines are approached in such a way that they can be adapted across belief systems.
“Not all men are called to be hermits, but all men need enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally. When that inner voice is not heard, when man cannot attain to the spiritual peace that comes from being perfectly at one with his true self, his life is always miserable and exhausting. For he cannot go on happily for long unless he is in contact with the springs of spiritual life which are hidden in the depths of his own soul. If man is constantly exiled from his own home, locked out of his own spiritual solitude, he ceases to be a true person. He no longer lives as a man.” —Thomas Merton
They are the spiritual disciplines through which prophets as varied as Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad prepared for their ministries and received revelations that founded new religions.
They are the spiritual disciplines that have been praised by poets and philosophers as diverse as Plato, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Rousseau, Goethe, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Muir, Tillich, and Camus (to name only a few).
They are the spiritual disciplines that allowed many of the world’s greatest leaders, from Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln to Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, to make history defining decisions.
They are the spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence, and they are vitally important to the health of the soul (and of society).
They are also arguably the most intriguing and compelling of the spiritual disciplines, and yet also seem the hardest to come by in our crowded, noisy, modern world.
Silence and solitude can seem out of reach to the average man — the exclusive purview of the kind of religious ascetics and hermetic philosophers just mentioned, or a luxury that can be indulged only by those leaders who face choices freighted with heavy meaning and high stakes.
In truth, finding solitude and silence is possible even in the present age, without having to retreat to a cloister. And, far from being the privilege of the few, seeking these states is a responsibility of us all.
Today we will explain why that is, the way in which these spiritual disciplines are connected, and how both can be sought, and attained, by even the busiest of souls.
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What Is Solitude?
“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” —Henry David Thoreau
In Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter, Philip Koch notes the qualities commonly associated with solitude: physical isolation, stillness, quiet, and social disengagement.
He then scrutinizes these features, and finds them all wanting as necessary conditions for solitude, except for one.
Physical isolation? Certainly, this is what most often comes to mind when we picture solitude; we imagine the monk alone in the cell of an abbey, or the mountain man secluded in a cabin.
But is it not possible to withdraw inwardly even in the midst of a crowd? There are monks that live in the company of others, but still live very solitary lives. And even those outside a cloister can inhabit a kind of solitude any time they shut out what is going on around them to focus on their personal tasks and thoughts. As Thoreau argued, “Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of a college is as solitary as a dervish in the desert.” Or as the Chinese saying puts it: “Greatest hermit in crowded street.”
Richard Foster makes the point this way in Celebration of Discipline:
“Solitude is more a state of mind and heart than it is a place. There is a solitude of the heart that can be maintained at all times. Crowds, or the lack of them, have little to do with this inward attentiveness.”
Solitude necessitates the creation of one’s own world, but such a world does not require physical walls.
Quiet cannot be deemed essential to solitude for a similar reason. Though, as we’ll see, silence is strongly connected to solitude, if it’s possible to beat an internal retreat in the company of others, it’s possible to be solitary in the presence of noise as well.
What about stillness? While we may think of solitude in terms of meditating in an ashram or studying in a monastic cell, is not the man running a trail or splitting wood alone both solitary and active?
Physical isolation, stillness, and silence may all work to enhance solitude, but they’re not required for its existence.
This leaves social disengagement, Koch observes, as “the most promising place to look for the core of solitude.” We can find solitude when surrounded by human-made stimuli — as long as we aren’t attending to it. “Solitude is, most ultimately, simply an experiential world in which other people are absent” — and it matters not whether they are removed by physical bounds, or simply in the way we choose to apply our mental focus.
We can further define solitude on the basis of intentionality. One can be disengaged from others, but not by choice. The result is a feeling of loneliness. Solitude is a state, rather than an emotion, and it can be filled with any emotion, positive or negative. So one can be lonely in solitude, but feeling lonely is not necessarily the same thing as experiencing solitude. In solitude, you are not merely alone, but have deliberately separated yourself from others.
Taken all together, we can therefore define solitude this way: the intentional withdrawal from social engagement.
What Is Silence?
“To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven . . . a time to keep silence and a time to speak.” —Ecclesiastes: III, 1 & 7
Silence is easier to define than solitude.
In the spiritual realm, it is not the literal absence of all noise, but the absence of all human-created stimuli. “Human-created” because most would consider a walk in the woods, in which the sounds of nature are present, to still be a time of “silence.”
In silence, one ceases the consumption of any human-created input, and this includes not only audible stimuli, but the reading of the written word as well — an act that, though quiet, still involves “listening” to the text.
Silence further encompasses not just the quieting of external noise produced by others, but also the noise produced by oneself; it requires the cessation of all talking, or speaking only when absolutely necessary.
In silence, the only words one attends to are those that are created inwardly, and the only words one produces take the form of personal writing/journaling.
This personal quietude finally extends not only to the consumption/production of words and sound, but to a whole way of being, well described by Ohiyesa (Charles Eastman), a Sioux tribesman:
“Silence is the absolute poise or balance of body, mind, and spirit. The man who preserves his selfhood ever calm and unshaken by the storms of existence—not a leaf, as it were, astir on the tree; not a ripple upon the surface of shining pool—his, in the mind of the unlettered sage, is the ideal attitude and conduct of life.”
What Is the Relationship Between Silence and Solitude?
In defining solitude, we noted that silence is not an essential precondition for its existence. But while silence may not be strictly necessary for solitude, the two are very closely connected.
Though it is possible to attain solitude in the presence of crowds and noise by withdrawing one’s attention from these external stimuli and directing it inward, in practice, this is quite difficult. Attention becomes fragmented; you can’t make it very far into your own world when interruptions keep dragging you out.
Conversely, the more silent one’s environment, the easier it becomes to disengage from social demands and external distractions, and the deeper one’s solitude becomes.
There is then a direct relationship between the profundity of silence, and the depth of solitude. To fully experience the latter does require the presence of the former, and we will thus largely be talking about silence and solitude as an inseparable pair.
Why Are Solitude and Silence So Compelling?
“Solitude bears the same relation to the mind that sleep does to the body. It affords it the necessary opportunities for repose and recovery.” —William G. Simms
The need for silence and solitude obviously seems incredibly relevant to the over-convenienced citizens of the modern world who feel saturated with the ceaseless noise that issues from every corner of their lives. But as mentioned at the start, men have in fact craved these states for thousands of years, long before anything digital, or electronic, or urban ever existed.
What accounts for the timeless, seemingly universal appeal of quiet seclusion?
Humans are often called social animals, and we certainly are. But this quality developed more from necessity than choice; humans needed other humans to survive, and thus were kind of stuck with living life in community. But people have always felt both gratitude and resentment for this obligation. We enjoy the pleasures of company, while simultaneously wishing to flee the responsibilities attendant to living in relationship. We appreciate the protections of the herd, but don’t wish our individuality to be subsumed within it. We are both attracted to, and repulsed by, our fellow man. A moderate dose of community makes us healthy; saturation with the other makes us sick.
When we are able to be by ourselves, even for a short time, we affirm our independent identity, the reality of our individual existence; we temporarily thwart the law of the herd, that says we will die if we leave the tribe, and show ourselves we can exist alone, at least for a time. This is the thrill of solitude; this is its magnetic allure.
The re-charging spark of silent solitude is needed by all. Extroverts may need less, and introverts more, but neither group can entirely do without. One’s circumstances don’t alter this equation either. Solitude remains a need whether one lives in a situation of luxury and noise, or deprivation and quiet.
When the famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was imprisoned at Auschwitz, he could not have lived a more stripped down and vulnerable existence, and yet he still felt the impulse to break away from others:
“There were times, of course, when it was possible, and even necessary, to keep away from the crowd. . . . The prisoner craved to be alone with himself and his thoughts. He yearned for privacy and for solitude. After my transportation to a so-called ‘rest-camp’ I had the rare fortune to find solitude for about five minutes at a time. Behind the earthen hut where I worked and in which were crowded about fifty delirious patients, there was a quiet spot in a corner of the double fence of barbed wire surrounding the camp. A tent had been improvised there with a few poles and branches of trees in order to shelter a half-dozen corpses (the daily death rate in the camp). There was also a shaft leading to the water pipes. I squatted on the wooden lid of this shaft whenever my services were not needed. I just sat and looked out at the green flowering slopes and the distant blue hills of the Bavarian landscape, framed by the meshes of barbed wire. I dreamed longingly, and my thoughts wandered north and northeast, in the direction of my home, but I could only see clouds. The corpses near me, crawling with lice, did not bother me. Only the steps of passing guards could rouse me from my dreams.”
Solitude and silence compel us the way food and sex compel us; they bespeak basic human needs that, if not as physically vital, are psychologically essential.
How much so, and the effect that a non-stop life of crowds and noise may have on us, typically goes completely unrealized, since we never hit pause and step out of that clamorous flow. We have nothing to compare our “normal” lives with.
When writer Patrick Leigh Fermor went to live at a monastery in Europe in order to work on a book, he initially found his adjustment to the new environment difficult and went through a kind of withdrawal period during his first few days there. He felt depressed and oppressed by the quiet and isolation of the abbey, experiencing “a feeling of loneliness and flatness that always accompanies the transition from urban excess to a life of rustic solitude”:
“only by living for a while in a monastery can one quite grasp its staggering difference from the ordinary life that we lead. The two ways of life do not share a single attribute; and the thoughts, ambitions, sounds, light, time and mood that surround the inhabitants of a cloister are not only unlike anything to which one is accustomed, but in some curious way, seem its exact reverse. The period during which normal standards recede and the strange new world becomes reality is slow, and, at first, acutely painful.”
As Fermor acclimated to his silent, solitary surroundings, he discovered he’d been living with a debt of inner exhaustion of which he’d been completely unaware:
“I found that my capacity for sleep was becoming more and more remarkable: till the hours I spent in or on my bed vastly outnumbered the hours I spent awake; and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug . . .
The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movement and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life.”
After Fermor’s body had become well-rested, and erased the deep-seated fatigue caused by years of dealing with the “anxious trivialities” of everyday life, he found he needed only five hours of sleep a night, and entered a “new dispensation [that] left nineteen hours a day of absolute and god-like freedom.” Fermor delighted in his new routine that consisted of walks in the countryside, reading, and an astonishing level of productivity in his writing.
Though the transition to silence and solitude when entering the monastery had been hard, Fermor reported that “the unwinding process, after I had left, was ten times worse. The Abbey was at first a graveyard; the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity.
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“It is all very well to insist that man is a “social animal”—the fact is obvious enough. But that is no justification for making him a mere cog in a totalitarian machine—or in a religious one either, for that matter. In actual fact, society depends for its existence on the inviolable personal solitude of its members. Society, to merit its name, must be made up not of numbers, or mechanical units, but of persons. To be a person implies responsibility and freedom, and both these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one’s own reality and of one’s ability to give himself to society—or to refuse that gift.
When men are merely submerged in a mass of impersonal human beings pushed around by automatic forces, they lose their true humanity, their integrity, their ability to love, their capacity for self-determination. When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority. But when men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, the society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.” —Thomas Merton
Sought passively, out of visceral craving, the simple forms of solitude and silence provide an elemental salve to the psyche; sought deliberately, for the purpose of exercising and edifying the soul, solitude and silence become spiritual disciplines, and their benefits expand to the spirit.
When solitude and silence are cultivated and actively utilized, these disciplines produce many vitalizing and strengthening effects on the soul:
Ability to Listen to God’s and/or Your Own Voice
The world is a noisy, wordy place. There are words coming from your loved ones, words popping up on your smartphone, words blaring from your car radio, words spouting from a television newscaster’s head, and scrolling the bottom of the screen below it. Every nook and cranny of your life is filled with messages about what you should do, think, be. In the thick of this constant din, it can be difficult to hear the voice of God and to identify your own voice. In the midst of so much static, it can be hard to tune into these faintest of frequencies.
In the hush of silent solitude, you find the space needed for undistracted and thus fruitful reflection; you can finally focus on picking up on sacred signals and listening to their urgent broadcasts. The more time you spend alone with God, the better you can hear the “still, small voice” and discern his will. The more you can quiet the cacophony of the crowd, the better able you’ll be to attend to your inner nudgings, and become self-reliant.
We can no more hear these voices in the clatter and crash of our busy lives, than a whisper can be heard across a loud nightclub. Intuition, insight, personal revelation are like fragile bubbles that rise from the depths of your soul; noise erects a wall of sharp spikes that pops them before they ever enter your consciousness.
There may be all kinds of life-changing promptings percolating in your soul right now, and you’ll never even know they exist if you don’t walk away from the crowd and find a quiet space apart.
Discernment and Clarity in Decision-Making
“For, in the seclusion of a cell—an existence whose quietness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual and long solitary walks in the woods—the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.” —Patrick Leigh Fermor
The intuition-releasing quality of silent solitude is particularly vital when you’re trying to make an important decision. Your perspective may feel opaque, like a jar of muddy water that’s been shaken up. The inner stillness created by silence and solitude allows all the distracting details, all the competing interests, all the external “should’s” to settle, revealing a clearer picture of reality and the way to move forward.
Liberation from Living in Reference to Others
“Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” —Mark 6:31
Social interaction is like a dance, or a game of chess. We correlate and adjust our behavior according to how others act. We don’t think about it much, because such behavior has become fairly automatic, but every second we’re watching for and responding to others’ cues and deciding how to act based on social norms. We must compel ourselves to listen, to show interest, to check inappropriate comments. We must be proactive, but also defensive: at any time someone may insult, embarrass, confuse, or manipulate us, and we must keep our guard up against these potential attacks. And we must do all this, while making our efforts seem effortless! Even when you’re around those who allow you to “be yourself,” social interaction demands great vigilance and requires a high level of energy and control.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; as we’ll discuss below, engagement with others provides an important balance to solitude. But ceaseless immersion in society is exhausting and drains the health of the soul. We need to break away from the crowd now and again, and find rest from orienting our thoughts and behaviors in reference to other people. We need to be able to let down our defenses and re-establish a self apart from its response to others — to experience a state in which our thoughts and behaviors are purely active, rather than reactive.
Preparation for an Upcoming Challenge
“We require such a solitude as shall hold us to its revelations when we are in the street and in palaces.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
It’s no coincidence that Jesus chose to begin his ministry by spending forty days alone in the desert. This solitude prepared him for the arduous mission ahead.
Though it needn’t be as long, we can similarly benefit from taking a retreat of silent solitude when we know we’ll soon be facing a physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual challenge.
Silence and solitude allow you to engage in prospective decision making. You decide that if X happens, you’re going to do Y.
You can also prepare for the twists of fate in your path by reaffirming your commitment to maintaining a Stoic mindset — rehearsing to yourself the fact that there’s no use in reacting emotionally to things you can’t change, and that you must focus only on that which lies within your control.
By setting your mind beforehand, you enter into a challenge with a stronger sense of moral courage. By getting firm on your convictions before entering the fray, you are less likely to shift them when you rejoin society — less likely to let yourself be controlled by the crowd. You leave the space of silent solitude better prepared to forge your own path, instead of defaulting to the one laid out by others.
As Army Lt. Colonel Michael Erwin puts it: “leading oneself—is the foundation of leading others. And personal leadership comes through solitude.”
Strength to Rejoin the Fight
“One hour of thoughtful solitude may nerve the heart for days of conflict — girding up its armor to meet the most insidious foe.” —Percival
Silence and solitude not only prepare you for embarking on a challenge, they provide vital restoration when you’re struggling through the middle of one.
In battle, troops on the frontline only spend a certain amount of time in combat before they’re rotated to the rear for some R&R. Warriors cannot perform at their best if they’re constantly engaged in the heat of the conflict; fatigue sets in, bad decisions are made, and the fighting force falls apart.
Similarly, each of us is ill served by remaining constantly on the “frontlines” of life. We need to rotate into silence and solitude to maintain our morale, emotional balance, and ability to continue the fight. This respite allows us to re-orient our priorities, re-direct our compass — re-commit to a greater purpose that may have gotten lost in the little details of daily life.
It can be hard to justify pulling back — there’s never a shortage of to-dos to accomplish or people who urgently need our help. But while a retreat may cost time in the short-term, it allows you to perform more effectively and carry on with more endurance in the long-term.
Though hordes of people in need of healing followed Jesus around, and he knew his ministry would be short, still he often “went off to a solitary place” and “withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Brief respites spent in silence and solitude recharged him to face yet another day of selfless service.
After Theodore Roosevelt lost both his wife and his mother in the same day, he retreated to a ranch in the Dakotas. After many lonely horseback rides through the Badlands, TR was able to recover his emotional balance, re-orient his life, and re-enter public life with Bull Moose-ian gusto.
In silence and solitude, you “sharpen the saw,” restoring the edge you need to continue cutting through life’s problems.
Control of Speech and the Need to Explain Ourselves
“It is not speaking that breaks our silence, but the anxiety to be heard.” —Thomas Merton
Silence, we have said, is not just the quieting of noise which arises from without, but the cessation of that which comes from within. In silence, we put an end to mindless chatter, gossip, and small talk. We let go of the need of expressing our opinions. And perhaps most crucially, we control the need to explain ourselves to others.
We all want to feel like people understand us. We feel a deep need to maintain our reputation, to cultivate our image, to justify ourselves. We want to follow every action with an explanation as to why we did what we did; we want to feel sure that our behavior is being correctly perceived (i.e., interpreted in the best possible light).
We also simply feel the need to use speech (including the “speech” that takes the form of images posted on social media) to prove we’re alive, that we’re doing things; words and photographs serve as third-party corroboration of one’s existence. Such is the excitement your mom gets if your picture shows up in the local paper; she knew you existed, and were wonderful, but now here is public affirmation of this truth! With social media, we all have the chance to issue this kind of “proof of life,” and it can be hard to act in the absence of documentation. If you do something, and you don’t tell anyone, or you don’t take a picture, did it really happen? Are you really real?
This need to furnish explanation and existential evidence is symptomatic of a craving for others’ approval, and a lack of confidence in the value and reality of your soul apart from any external validation.
In silence, you train yourself to resist these compulsions, to be content to let your actions justify themselves. To do what you must, and let people interpret your behavior however they will. To care only for the approval of God, and the approbation of your own conscience.
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Given the fact that solitude and silence seem to scratch a basic human itch, and, when pursued as spiritual disciplines, can provide such an edifying effect on the soul, why is it that the majority of people so seldom experience these states?
When was the last time you found yourself in a space of simple solitude and silence, much less intentionally carved out time to cultivate these practices as disciplines?
If you’re like most people, your life is probably filled with noise (audible and otherwise) from morning ‘til night. As soon as you wake up, you check your phone and turn on music or the radio. When you get in the car to drive to work, on goes the stereo. At the office, you’re never fully disengaged from the people around you, or from your phone — which continues to provide a constant stream of input throughout the day. After work it’s another music or podcast-filled commute to a noise-filled gym, and then home to converse with your family, scroll through your phone, and watch Netflix. Even when you’re not actively attending to it, you may put the radio/television on in the background, to sort of keep you company. Even the shortest stretches of quiet feel empty, uncomfortable.
There are several reasons we so tenaciously cling to noise like this, and ignore the persistent, but easily drowned-out call of silence and solitude:
Discomfort With Boredom
Given its acute absence of distractions, noise, and stimuli, silent solitude can be experienced as awfully boring. And humans hate boredom. It feels tedious, uncomfortable, and, unnecessary. People will thus do most anything to alleviate it (even giving themselves painful electric shocks).
But it turns out that boredom is in fact necessary to a healthy mind and soul. As Manoush Zomorodi told me in my podcast interview about her book, Bored and Brilliant, research shows that “some incredibly important things” happen when you let your mind wander and space out:
“that is when we do some of our most creative thinking, most original thinking. We take disparate ideas and then push them together and come up with new concepts.
We create a sense of self. It’s self-referential processing, literally creating a coherent sense of ourselves. We do something called theory of mind where we imagine what others are thinking. We develop empathy for them, and we do something . . . called autobiographical memory and planning, which is when we look back at our lives, we take note of the highs and the lows, we build a personal narrative, we take lessons from that, and then look forward. We have something called perspective bias, looking to the future where we build what we imagine our lives could be, and we set ourselves goals, and we break down the steps that we need to take in order to reach those goals. . . .
You could argue that this is what makes humans human, this ability to think of, ‘Who am I? What is my place in the world?’”
Boredom is thus best thought of the way we think of physical exercise: something that may not feel good in the moment, but makes us better and stronger in the long run. Facing and embracing boredom through the practices of solitude and silence is a vital way in which to train the soul.
Fear of Facing the Self Without Distraction
We resist silence and solitude for the same reason we spurn rigorous self-examination: we’re afraid of what these disciplines may reveal about ourselves.
In a space of silent solitude, we must look squarely at our motivations, values, compulsions, loneliness, and disappointments, without the option of averting our gaze with a distraction. That which we typically keep at bay with noise, makes itself known. As the Puritan theologian John Owen observed, “What we are in [solitude], that we are indeed, and no more. They are either the best or the worst of our times, wherein the principle that is predominant in us will show and act itself.”
What do your thoughts turn to in your few quiet moments alone? Do you think of God, your ideals, lofty goals and principles? People who need your help? Or do you think of who’s been doing you wrong lately? Grudges you’re still nursing? Images you wouldn’t want your wife to see? Do you like the man you find when you’re by yourself? If you don’t, you may be eager to flip on the background noise to keep from ever confronting him.
Yet if you don’t engage in this confrontation, nothing about your life will ever change, because you won’t know what aspects of your soul need tending.
Have you ever felt down about something, or restless about how your life was going, and then, instead of sitting with the feeling awhile, started surfing the internet? Lost in the “noise” of the web, you soon forgot what you were anxious about . . . but you also missed an opportunity to better know yourself, and to take action to resolve whatever had created the empty feeling in the first place.
Lack of Motivation in the Absence of an Audience
The producers of reality television programs report that the “stars” of these shows often become depressed after they stop filming. Without cameras following them around, their lives seem less important, meaningful, real. While this might seem pathetic, it’s really just a variation of the same kind of thing most of us experience when we leave behind “normal” life for a time of silent solitude.
In the absence of an audience, life can seem less significant, actions less worthwhile. Our world can seem more flimsy without the kind of third-party affirmation we discussed above. There’s no one grading your report, checking your hours, praising your work. There’s no one to give you a literal or digital thumbs up. As Adele A. Calhoun puts it in her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, in silent solitude, “The world of recognition, achievement and applause disappears, and we stand squarely before God without props.”
It can be hard to deal with this “nakedness” and the lack of extrinsic motivation that comes from performing in front of others. But we can better find out what thoughts are worth thinking, and what actions are worth taking, when we think and act for no one but ourselves.
The Perception That Silence and Solitude Are Luxuries
Since ancient times, there have been those who have felt that seeking silent solitude is “indulgent” — an attempt to escape the burdens and responsibilities of real life.
But as explored above, these states are better thought of as basic human needs, more akin to sleep than recreation or relaxation. Intermittent times of silence and solitude are essential for people to mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually function at their best in their everyday lives. Certainly, solitude can be used as an escape or hide-out from reality, but it can also facilitate a more effective embrace of it.
We spurn solitude because it feels unforgivably unproductive, yet it creates the grease that keep the productive wheels of our lives turning.
The Feeling That There’s Not Enough Time
This is probably the most common reason people give for not setting apart time for solitude and silence.
Fortunately, this obstacle is in many ways the easiest to deal with and overcome, as its basis is simply rooted in misconceptions about what these disciplines really require.
As we’ll next unpack, they’re far more within reach than typically realized.
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“if we possess inward solitude we do not fear being alone, for we know that we are not alone. Neither do we fear being with others, for they do not control us. In the midst of noise and confusion we are settled into a deep inner silence. Whether alone or among people, we always carry with us a portable sanctuary of the heart.” —Richard Foster
Many people think about the disciplines of solitude and silence the way they dream of getting a second home on a lake, or quitting their job, or traveling the world — something enjoyed vicariously in their imagination but not realistically within reach. They feel the allure of these disciplines, but don’t act on them. Silence and solitude remain firmly planted in the “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” category.
Solitude and silence feel like an unattainable adventure fantasy, because people assume (consciously or not) that they must do something similar to Fermor — hole up at a monastery for a weeks-long retreat — to experience these states in a worthwhile way.
When it comes to attaining the level of immersion Fermor experienced, it’s true that it cannot be achieved on the fly. And if you have space in your schedule for taking a long retreat, or even spending a couple days on a solo camping/backpacking trip, you should by all means take advantage of what will likely prove a transformative opportunity.
But if your life is running full throttle right now, and you can’t get away for a weekend much less a week, plenty of possibilities for silence and solitude are still eminently within reach. You don’t have to go full monk to practice these disciplines; rather, you can find your hermitage right at home.
First, consider doing the kind of quarterly retreat Foster suggests:
“Four times a year withdraw for three to four hours for the purpose of reorienting your life goals. This can easily be done in one evening. Stay late at your office or do it at home or find a quiet corner in a public library. Reevaluate your goals and objectives in life. What do you want to have accomplished one year from now? Ten years from now? Our tendency is to overestimate what we can accomplish in one year and underestimate what we can accomplish in ten years. Set realistic goals but be willing to dream, to stretch.”
Everyone, regardless of circumstances, can find the time for these kinds of brief, periodic withdrawals from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Second, look for simple ways to incorporate pockets of solitude and silence into your daily routine. Often, you don’t need to even change your schedule at all, but simply alter and enhance a few habits you’re already doing, with these guidelines in mind:
- You don’t need to be completely physically isolated, but the more you are, the better. As discussed above, solitude can be attained even in a crowd, as long as you socially disengage from others. But the more physically alone you can get, the deeper your solitude feels. As the psychologist William James observed, when you’re out on a hike, even seeing and waving at another person in the distance changes your sense of solitude. You don’t need to get miles away from others though; just find a quiet nook or closet in your home, or a park bench that faces away from traffic. Seek isolation by attainable degrees.
- Turn off all input, especially your phone. There are many moments in your day that are already conducive to being used for silence and solitude . . . if you don’t use these pauses to check your phone or listen to music. As soon as you put in your earbuds or scroll through your apps, you pop the gossamer walls of these potential pockets of quietude.
- Intentionally consecrate the time. Random moments of silence and solitude are good for the psyche, even when you pass through them unawares. But to really get their full, soul-edifying effect, actively dedicate the time to these disciplines and mindfully commit to utilizing it as a salve to your spirit.
With those guidelines in mind, here are some fruitful places to find solitude and silence in your everyday life:
- Wake up just 20 minutes before the rest of your family does; or if you’re a night owl, stay up a little longer than everyone else.
- Treat your shower like a fortress of solitude. It’s the closest most of us get to a monastic cell each day.
- Do your daily run or workout in silence. I know, your music gets you pumped up and makes your exertions easier. But you’ll be shocked by the number of insights that come to you when you exercise in silence. These bubbles of intuition never get a chance to rise to the surface when they’re pricked by the beats of your tunes. It can feel boring at first to exercise in the absence of noise, but it’s a habit like any other; you’ll get used to it, and then come to enjoy it. Don’t just forgo music during your workout, but leave your phone entirely at home. Otherwise, you’ll bookend your workout by checking it, constricting what could have been an even longer period of silence and solitude. [Note: Silent exercise is more conducive to lower intensity, steady state workouts — when you’re running the same pace for miles and have a chance to really get into the flow — rather than when you’re going high intensity, changing between different exercises, and putting yourself in pain (when your heart rate rises to a certain level, your brain pretty much shuts off, music or no music).]
- Commute to work in silence. Your car is a mobile, and vastly underutilized, sanctuary. You can achieve complete solitude and silence on every solo drive. A drive without music/radio/podcasts may at first feel insufferably boring, but remember, that’s not such a bad thing. You don’t have to do your whole commute in silence, but consider dedicating a few minutes of it to peace and quiet.
- If you can’t stand to drive in silence, spend a few minutes sitting quietly in your car once you arrive in the parking lot of your workplace. Enjoy the silence and aloneness before you launch into the noise and stress of your shiftOn your lunch break, leave your phone at the office, and go eat in a quiet spot in a park.
- On your way home from work, stop by a church that keeps its sanctuary open and sit in a pew for ten minutes. If you don’t know of a church with an open sanctuary, hospitals often have a chapel that’s kept open 24/7.
- Sit in your closet for five to ten minutes before you go to bed. It sounds weird, but the contained space of a closet feels strangely secluded and offers a cloistered effect out of proportion to the actual setting.
There are also ways to specifically practice the discipline of silence, that can, but don’t necessarily need to involve solitude:
- Instead of getting out of bed as soon as your alarm goes off, or immediately checking your phone upon waking, lie there for a few minutes in silence; you’ll often receive very potent insights at this time. Extend this silent kickstart to your day by not checking your phone for the next 20-30 minutes.
- Perform your morning dressing/grooming routine . . . without music/radio/podcasts. As your body stays busy with habitual behaviors like shaving and dressing, your mind will be free to wander.
- Turn your coffee-making/drinking routine, into a silent, rejuvenating ritual.
- Eat your meals alone, without your phone or any other kind of input in front of you.
- Take a “Tech Sabbath” where you don’t use any electronic devices (with a screen) for 24 hours.
- Take an “Input Sabbath” in which you not only put away your devices, but also abstain from any books, music, or magazines — any human-created input at all.
- Don’t take a picture for an entire week.
- Don’t share anything on social media for an entire week.
- Abstain from speaking for 24 hours.
Once you start looking for them, there all kinds of possibilities for silence and solitude in spare moments that only necessitate small changes in your routine.
Don’t feel like these brief interludes of solitude and silence aren’t real or “authentic” enough. As Donald S. Whitney points out, practicing these disciplines in the form of “minute retreats” trains the soul to be able to go deeper should you get the chance for a more extended withdrawal. If you haven’t been exercising these “muscles” on a regular basis, then you wouldn’t be able to get much out of a longer space of silent solitude — it would just leave you feeling bored and antsy. At the same time, these short spiritual workouts keep your soul in overall good health, achieving effects that are outsized compared to the minimal amount of time they require.
What Do You Do During Times of Solitude and Silence?
Once you’ve carved out a little pocket of solitude and silence, what do you do during that time?
Calhoun aptly describes solitude as a “container discipline,” as it a discipline in and of itself, but it can also be filled with other disciplines. These include the discipline of silence, of course, but others as well:
Silent solitude is also a fruitful time in which to make decisions, especially those with significant consequences. Prepare yourself before you withdraw, by doing as much research about your question as possible. Examine both sides of the issue. Ask for advice from others. This will give the details and data you gather a chance to percolate, consciously and unconsciously, through your mind. Then, during your solitary retreat, you can mentally sift through this predigested intel and watch for what intuitions arise in your soul. For more advice and an insightful case study in making a difficult decision, read this article.
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“Solitude shows us what we should be, society shows us what we are.” —Lord David Cecil
“Do not flee to solitude from the community. Find God first in the community, then He will lead you to solitude.” —Thomas Merton
“It is easy, in the world, to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy, in solitude, to live after your own; but the great man is he who, in the midst of the crowd, keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
In reading through this extensive enumeration and celebration of the benefits of solitude and silence, one might conclude that these states are superior to that of community and society — that life outside the crowd is more real than life within it; that we are only our true selves when we are by ourselves; and that the more we can get of “authentic” solitude and the less of “artificial” society, the better.
But drawing this conclusion would be a mistake.
While there are some called to a life of complete solitude and silence as a vocation, for the vast majority of people, the benefits of these disciplines are not found in their exclusion of society, but in their contrast with it. The advantage of life lived apart is the alternative set of qualities and perspective it furnishes compared to life lived together. Silence and solitude function best as supplements to society, not as substitutes for it.
Solitude and society are in fact equally important; each acts as a vital enhancement and balancing mechanism for the other.
In solitude we garner new intuitions and ideas; in society, we test and validate them. This public vetting of our private pondering is crucial, for as Koch observes, “Profound visions arrive in solitude—but so do grand delusions.” The crowd may find weaknesses in our ideas, which we then return to solitude to address.
In solitude, we discover new insights; in society, we have the pleasure of expanding on them in conversation with friends. Such discussions beget their own insights, which we can then mull over in solitude. Emerson exalted in this reciprocal dynamic: “The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society.”
In solitude we foster a bond with others that the closeness of physical intimacy actually stymies in some ways. That is, we often appreciate someone more when we’re apart than together. Outside the immediacy of social engagement, the frenzy of response and counter response, we get a chance to reflect on our love for someone, on the qualities they possess that we admire, and who they are to us. For example, I probably feel the greatest love for my children not when we’re together during the day, but when I think about them while lying in bed at night. We then return from the affection-swelling, love-reaffirming state of solitude more eager to re-engage with our loved ones in the flesh.
In solitude we can get a better sense of ourselves; in society we ensure we don’t get too carried away with ourselves. As Emerson put it:
“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . . Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.”
Society and solitude each represent one half of a cyclic process; each state checks and propels the other in what Henri Nouwen calls a “dynamic unity.” As Koch puts it, “in a variety of different ways, the virtues of solitude find their completion in encounter.”
While doing everything for an audience constricts our thoughts and behaviors, the desire to celebrate with others the wonder and excitement of Truth discovered and Beauty found is not only human, but even virtuous. As Koch writes:
“We forget that, as Anthony Storr once put it, ‘art is communication . . . implicitly or explicitly, the work which [the artist] produces in solitude is aimed at somebody.’
The great bulk of creative work produced in solitude is aimed at an audience . . . refusal to seek this communion is both immoral and self-defeating: the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
Or as the poet William Cowper put it:
“How sweet, how passing sweet, is solitude! But grant me still a friend in my retreat, Whom I may whisper—solitude is sweet.”
Read the Other Articles in the Series