Rarely do we spend time alone with ourselves.
Whenever space frees up in our calendar or we get some free time, we don’t tend to just enjoy the moment. We quickly fill any spare time with things like watching TV, checking our phones or scheduling catchups with friends. Sometimes these activities still aren’t enough and we block this experience even further with things like drugs and alcohol.
Outside of any meditation practice, we don’t just sit and experience what it is like to be ourselves.
One reason that we might not like to do this, is that experiencing ourselves can be pretty scary.
Is Experiencing Yourself that Bad?
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
― Blaise Pascal, Pensées ( 1670)
Solitary Confinement is one such example of the negative effects of solitude. Last year the UN declared that solitary confinement for 15 days is a form of torture and has been banned from prisons1.
Another study on solitary confinement wrote that “a robust scientific literature has established the negative psychological effects of solitary confinement”, leading to “an emerging consensus among correctional as well as professional, mental health, legal, and human rights organizations to drastically limit the use of solitary confinement.”2
In a recent study3, a quarter of women and two-thirds of men would rather suffer an electric shock than be alone with their thoughts.
Even in my personal experience, having nothing to do or people to see for extended periods can make me go a little crazy.
People go to EXTREME lengths to avoid solitude, but how bad can it be really? Is spending time with yourself and experiencing what it is like to be you really that bad?
Solitude as a Tool
Fortunately, there is hope.
Often times when we have these extended periods without communication, we are experiencing what we really think, what we are really like. That can be pretty scary.
A 2003 study4 tried to look at the positive effects of solitude.
They found the following
- people are more free (obviously)
When you are by yourself, clearly you’re not worried about what other people think of you, and you can begin to express yourself and do things in the ways that you really want.
When you are alone, your creativity can be sparked. Studies have also found that younger people that have difficulty being by themselves often stop enhancing creative talents.
- The development of the self
This is the one that I am most interested in. Solitude allows us to have a period of self-examination, to have some spiritual growth. To really discover what we really think about things.
Many figures from the Bible spent time in solitude in order to get closer to God. Moses and Jesus both had periods where they spend 40 days away from society (probably fasting as well).
Other spiritual people like monks and enlightened beings will remove themselves from society just to experience the bliss that is the present moment. These people don’t just shy away from solitary confinement, they actively seek it out.
How is it possible that being alone with yourself can have such different outcomes? It can literally be used as a torture technique, but also the exact opposite as a way to connect yourself to God and to your spirituality.
While solitary confinement can be both torturous and spiritual, there are some key reasons why that could be the case.
According to Kenneth Rubin, a developmental psychologist at the University of Maryland, solitary confinement can be torturous when
- it’s not optional
- you can’t stop when you’d like
- you don’t have positive relations outside
- you can’t regulate your own emotions well
Alternatively, when solitude is optional and the other conditions are met, the experience can be quite enlightening.
When all distractions are taken away, all we have left is ourselves. We might get angry or fall into a state of apathy, like nothing matters.
Whatever you feel during these times of silence are feelings that are not unique to the silence. It is simply the case that now we have removed all distractions, we can experience what we are really feeling.
This is kind of like the background hum of a refrigerator. You never really notice that it’s there, but if you listen for it carefully, you can hear it.
In the same way, when we take time in solitude to feel our emotions, we are listening to the refrigerator hum of our lives. These feelings that we feel are with us all the time. They carry into all interactions and experiences of our lives.
Negative emotions don’t just disappear when you check your phone.
So when you sit down with no distractions, is that scary? Do you need to find a way to escape your negative self-talk?
Or do you enjoy the experience of being by yourself, free to enjoy the calmness and beauty of everyday life?
Whatever you feel, these are things that you feel unconsciously all the time. For this reason, I see being in solitude, as a way to connect with my real self. To be able to see what I am really thinking. To fully experience those negatives thoughts and feelings that are always playing on my mind.
In today’s world, we rarely spend time by ourselves.
Solitude can be both a torture method and a spiritual experience.
Spending time with yourself can be scary but also allow you to fully overcome emotional experiences. This allows you to live life in a more positive and vibrant way.
- Hart, Alexandra; Cabrera, Kristen (23 January 2020). “Why Some Experts Call Solitary Confinement ‘Torture’”. Texas Standard. Retrieved 3 September 2020. [return]
- Haney, Craig (3 November 2017). “Restricting the Use of Solitary Confinement”. Annual Review of Criminology. 1: 285–310. doi:10.1146/annurev-criminol-032317-092326. ISSN 2572-4568. [return]
- https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/people-prefer-electric-shocks-to-being-alone-with-their-thoughts/373936/ [return]
- Long, Christopher R. and Averill, James R. “Solitude: An Exploration of the Benefits of Being Alone.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 33:1 (2003): Web. 30 September 2011. [return]