This talk was given at the Greenbelt Arts Festival in 2012
We’re here to reflect on solitude but I’m aware it doesn’t have a good press.
First line in Wikipedia on subject: “Solitude may stem from bad relationships, infectious diseases, mental disorders, neurological disorders – or circumstances or situation. See ‘Castaway’”.
So beware. The person sitting next to you is either socially awkward, ravaged by disease, mentally disturbed or thinks they’re Robinson Crusoe.
This negative picture is quite widespread. Last year I wrote a book on solitude, called ‘Solitude – recovering the power of alone’ and when I eagerly told people what I was doing, I naively thought it was a good news story, I expected excitement; but from their reaction, it was like I was writing a book about the pros and cons of leprosy.
One of the problems is that people equate solitude with loneliness. This is very common. You hear it in reactions like this: ‘Twenty years on my own – I’ve had enough quite enough solitude, I think!’
No, my friend, you’ve had quite enough loneliness. The two are different. If you’d had twenty years of solitude, you’d have a very different spirit inside you, a rather happy one.
Loneliness is being unhappily alone while solitude is being happily alone. Loneliness feels harsh, feels like a punishment while solitude feels like a gift, a path to stillness, awareness and delight. Loneliness feels like it’s done to us; solitude is choice made by us.
So a definition of solitude. For me it’s an active word. Solitude is the active path to inner stillness or silence. It’s like a walk through the woods to towards a clearing and this is the clearing that Meister Eckhart would call the ‘emptiness’ that God must fill.
There is a hint of it in the normally loud and shouty Old Testament:
I Kings 19.11. The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
You have to be in a silent place to hear that.
So, solitude is not an end in itself – but the path towards something, the path to inner stillness or inner silence, this inner place of receptivity. A full hand grasps nothing.
It’s a continuum, not either/or. In solitude we set off towards stillness and silence, sometimes we make it, sometimes we don’t. That’s OK, we’re allowed to fail. The foliage we struggle through, the foliage of emotion or thought can feel quite impenetrable sometimes. We may not always make it to the clearing.
But when we want to reclaim ourselves, when we want to reclaim our light and our glory, when we want to reclaim our very own Olympic flame, we set off on the path of solitude and see where it leads.
We know the difficulties.
If we don’t like ourselves very much, why would we desire solitude? Why would we want to be with someone we don’t like?
We’ll want to keep away from that. Some people like to be with other people not because they like them – but because they don’t like themselves and avoid their own company whenever possible.
And, of course, if we fear silence, why would we desire solitude? Wayne Rooney, apparently, used to sleep with the hoover on. My friend must have the TV playing in his bedroom – the need for noise to fill the darkness, to kill the terrible space, which lurks like a monster in their home.
These people fear the clearing; they prefer the foliage in which there is strange self-protection. The space must be kept at bay.
Though the space might heal.
We’ll continue with this adventure next time..