Five years ago, University of Virginia researchers administered an experiment to gauge an individuals’ tolerance for solitude. The participants were instructed to sit with their thoughts void of all distractions for fifteen minutes. In the study, the subjects were connected to a device that would deliver electric shocks on the subject’s command. Prior to the period of solitude, the researchers allowed the participants to test the intensity of the shock. After doing so, most stated they would not want to experience it again even if they were offered incentives. However, during the study the researchers found that 25% of the women and 66% of the male participants zapped themselves during the fifteen minutes of solitude. The researchers could not attribute this response to anything other than a visceral dislike of being alone with one’s thoughts and without distraction.
We mistrust solitude. We consider it punishment because to be a part of society is to be social. Those social dynamic cause us to develop a sense of self in relation to the groups that we belong or the tribes that we navigate. We long for connection because those connections validate who we are and our place within the world. When we are operating in solitude our thoughts tend to uncover the unconscious negative messaging that we try hard to suppress with the busyness of life.
That negative messaging originates from limitations and stereotypes placed upon us by society. You are not good enough. You are not smart enough. You do not belong. You are not worthy. These and so many other messages correlate our value with specific demographics or locations within society.
It is no wonder that we become paralyzed with fear and anxiety when left alone to navigate the thoughts that creep up to the surface. Countering these messages can feel impossible when the negative narrative is so intense and seems to be grounded in an unspoken truth that we have internalized. We are much more inclined to see negative messages as truth than we are positive affirmations. We are less inclined to belief in our beauty and inherent value than we are to hold tightly to perceived shortcomings. Solitude is the space that makes it difficult to suppress these thoughts and feelings. It is uncomfortable because we are reminded of our perceived inadequacy and deficiency.
Solitude can be uplifting but there are guardrails that must be present to experience these benefits. Those conditions include: the state of separateness must be voluntary, we have to have the ability to join a social group when desired and we must have the ability to maintain positive relationships outside of solitude. If these conditions are not met solitude can seed isolation and self-loathing but when they are, solitude can be restorative in a myriad of ways.
Solitude can help us have more meaningful and connected relationships. It seems disjointed that the more consistent we are in spending time alone and without distraction, the more authentic we are when showing up in relationships. That is because the stillness we achieve in solitude unlocks an appreciation for what it truly means to be in fellowship. We are more present and more observant. We begin to experience ourselves as both a teacher and a student in every relationship and see beyond the transactional nature of those connections.
Solitude helps us tap into what it means for us to be content. When we are free from stimulus we are more likely to discover the key to what unlocks our soul. When we make that connection, we realize that true peace of mind is a state of being and not doing. The clarity that comes is also accompanied by contentment without regard to external factors.
Solitude allows us expand our identity beyond what we are to who we are. Society requires that we constantly classify ourselves. What is your gender and ethnicity? To what economic and professional class do you belong? What are your belief systems? What is your familial structure? Once we classify, we segment ourselves and consistently define ourselves by those associations. While those classifications describe how we show up in the world, they do not define our personhood. We are a reflection of the divine and are part of the collective consciousness. That does not describe how we are situated by societal standard but it does indicate the fluid nature of our being. Solitude can help us better understand who we are and allow us to show up in the world with a grounded sense of self.
I have always wanted to go on an extended silent retreat to test the depth of the theories I have collected along the way. I will one day. During this mindfulness practice, I may experience moments when shock therapy will not seem like a horrible alternative. Hopefully, during those times I will recognize that the feelings are an indication that a deeper sense of self is being revealed. I am optimistic that my desire for ongoing self-discovery and revelation would win the battle.