We are all vulnerable, partly because we are totally exposed. As John O'Donohue says, although this very exposure allows us to have positive experiences, such as smelling the roses, seeing the waves and stars, and reading the hieroglyphics of the human condition, it also makes us feel unsheltered. His cosmic view is that one is surrounded by infinite space without physical shelter. This is why from the very beginning human beings have sought security, initially in caves and subsequently in houses. The desire for such strong physical shelters is a reflection of the sense of the openness of space, that anything can approach or attack the temple of one's life from all sides. Whereas home ideally offers shelter from this threat, it too is vulnerable. No man-made walls are strong enough to keep destructive forces away. Thus, the human body itself becomes a fragile home.
Ironically, the more human beings try to shelter ourselves, the more vulnerable we become. Only by being inseparable from the world does one secure his or her boundaries. Such a secure harmony is dependent on being in union with one's environment.
One of the underappreciated lessons of the Greek myth of Odysseus is its reference to the importance of being alone. In that story, when his ship was torn apart and the members of the crew thrown overboard, Odysseus clung to a mast and finally landed onshore. His first words were "Alone at last, Alone at last."
One patient's defensive maneuvers against intrusions was, paradoxically, always seeking to be surrounded by other people. Not friends, because he didn't have any and insisted he didn't believe in friendship. On the surface, he seemed to be a very social person, but in fact he was counterphobically seeking others to defend himself against. Reassured by their presence, he pursued his determination to keep his boundaries. One would think that such a person would rather be alone. But, in fact, he was most vulnerable to his most frightening feelings in solitude. Therefore, he made sure that he was never alone, which is why he got married in spite of his lack of interest in sexual or personal intimacy.
The deprivation of solitude is the cause of many manifestations of psychological and physiological distress. Being with other people for long periods of time, no matter how loving, wonderful, and interesting they may be, interferes with one's biopsychological rhythm. People interfere with one's synchrony with nature as well as with one's authentic self. Like all of nature, human beings are biologically programmed. Our psyche's interference with the physical rhythms and cycles is detrimental to our bodies, only to be negatively resonated, in return. This vicious circle is a distinctly human phenomenon. No other living creature steps out of pace with nature and survives. Chronobiology (the biology of time) asserts that our bodies have an internal rhythm or music, which we not only can but should tune in to.
In his book Solitude: A Return to the Self, Anthony Storr writes about the Antarctic explorer Admiral Richard Byrd, who searched for solitude in order to "sink roots into some replenishing philosophy." The explorer had reported that, upon being in the Antarctic at a remote weather base, he felt he was at one with the great natural forces of the cosmos, which he described as harmonious and soundless: "It was enough to catch that rhythm momentarily to be myself a part of it. In that instant I could feel no doubt of man's oneness with the universe." Similarly, Henry David Thoreau, in the quiet of Walden Pond, said, "When the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through ever pore...I go and come with a strange liberty in nature, a part of herself." Both solitary men, in effect, found themselves in nature.
Solitude not only synchronizes the body with nature but also reinforces our belonging to a larger presence, setting the stage for enlightenment and transformation. Storr tells us that enlightenment came to Buddha while he was meditating beneath a tree on the banks of the Nairanjana River. Both St. Matthew and St. Luke report that Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness undergoing temptation by the devil before returning to proclaim his message of repentance and salvation. Similarly, each year during the month of Ramadan, Muhammad withdrew himself from the world to the cave of Hera. And St. Catherine of Siena spent three years in seclusion in her tiny room in the Via Benincasa undergoing a series of mystical experiences, which preceded her entrance to an active life of teaching and preaching.
Solitude puts the individual in touch with his or her deepest feelings and allows time for previously unrelated thoughts and feelings to interact, to regroup themselves into new formations and combinations, and thus to bring harmony to the mind.
In a reciprocal state, the more one is in contact with one's own inner world, the more he will establish connections with the external world. The more estranged or split from nature we are, the more nature seems dangerous and malignant. People who tend to regard nature as a source of primary goodness and wisdom are more likely to experience instances of intimation of mystical union, and immortality.
In being alone, one can either be painfully lonely or in peaceful solitude. Just as one can be alone in the presence of someone else, one cannot be alone in the absence of someone else. One develops this solitude in early childhood in the mother's presence. In adulthood this ability to be alone is dependent on whether one has achieved an internal sense of presence of a reassuring mother. Nature can fill that maternal role regardless of whether one had such a mother. The capacity for solitude enables us, when alone, to be free to experience what is idiosyncratic in us.
The cynical saying that some people yearn for eternity but wouldn't know what to do with themselves on a sunny Sunday afternoon, never mind a rainy one, is not all that incorrect. We quickly jump to make phone contacts or arrange a date, to meet someone, at times even someone we may not enjoy being with. Being alone generates anxiety if one does not cultivate being with one's own self. It is interesting that people are often advised not to be alone, to go out, set up lunch and dinner dates, to avoid aloneness by every possible means. This advice is in part because aloneness is so commonly associated with loneliness. This misconception is what generates an anxious dependency.
In fact, if one can tolerate the first few times of being alone and not spend that time watching TV or arranging social engagements, anxiety eventually subsides and is replaced with an uncommon calmness-provided the person, in his solitude, reflects on his or her life.
The actual place and psychological activities this solitude would entail may vary. A great deal depends on the individual's skills and imagination. The context should be stable but free from content and form. Inner imaginations may take the form of writing, building furniture, photography, gardening, playing musical instruments, or the like. These activities emanate from within. They are the objectification of one's subjective state. They are not activities from outside, such as listening to music, reading a book, or watching sports. Those are also important, entertaining, and enriching experiences, but they are primarily taking in external life. At a deeper level, they embody the objective world, in other words, changing from a passive experience to an active one. At times such activities emerge when one sets the silent stage for them by establishing a private space for solitude.
One frequently hears people complain about partners, parents, or even children who intrude into their "space" or do not allow them "to be." This need for psychological space, for time-out from relatedness, can occur as early as infancy. This disengagement is of equal importance with engagement at any age. If one lives in a family or environment that does not respect the need for private space, one can experience its absence as a suffocation of the self, a denial of personhood or, in Leonard Shengold's term, a form of "soul murder."
A private space is an extension of self and doesn't require an elaborate stone tower as Jung has described. All you have to do is identify a small area in the house, designed and decorated solely for your purpose and interest, wherein you can retreat undisturbed and uninterrupted. It could also be a specific outdoor place, in the park, in the woods, or by the river, a personally chosen temple where you can withdraw from daily activities and interactions in silence. Once you come to prefer the silence of a house of worship to all its holy activities you'll begin to experience some intimations of perfect harmony. As the writer and poet Franz Kafka said, in a similar vein: There, you listen. "You need not even listen, simply wait. You need not even wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will writhe in ecstasy at your feet."
T. Byram Karasu, M.D. author of The Art of Serenity