Recently I’ve seen a spate of articles praising solitude. As the mother of two young children, I was drawn to these essays like a magnet; solitude can be hard to come by in my house! I’m not alone (no pun intended) in this reaction. Many people believe that our society’s over-emphasis on social interaction is wreaking havoc on our well-being.
If you’re part of The Contemplative Writer community, you probably know the benefits of solitude when praying (corporate prayer aside) and doing creative work. It turns out that scientific achievement requires solitude, too. Even business executives are being told to protect their alone time. New studies affirm that solitude changes our brains—in a good way. Being alone in nature, for example, decreases our propensity to self-criticize and increases our attention spans and our sense of contentment.
In an article in The Walrus, author Michael Harris explores solitude, including some fascinating history on wilderness treks and urbanization. The article largely concerns the importance of going out into nature; the underlying assumption is that this will be or can be an activity taken in glorious solitude.
[A]t Stanford University, study participants had their brains scanned before and after walking in grassy meadows and then beside heavy car traffic. Participants walking in urban environments had markedly higher instances of “rumination”—a brooding and self-criticism the researchers correlated with the onset of depression. And, just as parts of the brain associated with rumination lit up on urban walks, they calmed down during nature walks.
Outside the maelstrom of mainstream chatter, we at last meet not just the bigger world but also ourselves . . . This is the gift of even a short, solitary walk in a city park. To find, in glimpsing a sign of the elements, that one does belong to something more elemental than an urban crowd. That there is a universe of experience beyond human networks and social grooming—and that this universe is our true home.
To walk out of our houses and beyond our city limits is to shuck off the pretense and assumptions that we otherwise live by. This is how we open ourselves to brave new notions or independent attitudes. This is how we come to know our own minds.
Virginia Woolf noted that even the stuff and furniture of our homes may “enforce the memories of our own experience” and cause a narrowing, a suffocating effect. Outside of our ordered homes, though, we escape heavy memories about the way things have always been and become open to new attitudes.
But there does seem to be an art to walks; we must work at making use of those interstitial moments. Going on a hike, or even just taking the scenic route to the grocery store, is a chance to dip into our solitude—but we must seize it. If we’re compelled by our more curious selves to walk out into the world—sans phone, sans tablet, sans Internet of Everything—then we still must decide to taste the richness of things.
Read this article in The Walrus.