|Solitude on Pleasant Pond in Deerfield|
As I wrote in my last column(Monitor 10/24/21): Besieged by a perfect storm of unsettling events beyond my control, I took refuge in solitude.
Such a course of action can be a way of escaping responsibility and avoiding relationships. But it can produce a positive function as Buddhist writer, Steven Batchelor, points out, providing the time and space to develop the inner calm and autonomy needed to engage effectively and creatively with the world. Moments of quiet contemplation, whether before a work of art or while observing your breath, allow you to rethink what your life is about and reflect on what matters most for you.1
Finding space for solitude is getting more difficult because the internet and social media are intruding into every facet of our lives. Pamela Paul, in her new book, “100 things We’ve Lost to the Internet,2” documents these losses.
By no means does that make our wired world all bad; it has revolutionized communication and taken a lot of drudgery out of our lives. The plethora of news and data I can effortlessly plug into on my phone, updated to the moment, would be beyond Walter Cronkite’s wildest dreams.
I love the internet for that ability, but it comes at an enormous cost: A whole way of life has been lost, things we thought were timeless.
As a review in the Kirkus Review stated, From handwritten letters to quiet, unoccupied moments, cursive writing to vacations without work (or email), school librarians to newspapers, LPs to mixtapes to the notion of “closure”—so much we thought eternal is quaintly antiquarian or gone forever.3 Worse yet is how the internet and social media have sullied our character and morality as a nation, orchestrating an alarming nosedive in civility, empathy, and the very notion of what constitutes the truth.
In my personal life, another infuriating downside is the constant buzz of electronic noise, driving me crazy like trying to garden at the height of the black fly season. I’ve had to swat these pests aside for the sake of my sanity. Like Nancy Reagan, I just said no.
That’s also the core message in Pamela Paul’s new book: We are not puppets: we can make choices – and we must. Especially in our private lives, we don’t have to adopt every new technology: We can go back to what we used to do before the internet. And for younger individuals, who grew up in the digital age, it’s important to explore alternative ways of being.
The choices I have made are tailored to my personality. I’m all in with email and search engines but boycott Facebook and Twitter. I avoid texting because the alert ‘beep’ of an arriving message breaks my concentration. Studies have shown that after such a distraction, it takes almost 30 minutes to get back on task – at my age, with memory already faulty, I don’t need that!
Noteworthy individuals throughout history have sought out solitude, not just curmudgeons like me. For instance, Wordsworth equated solitude with bliss: For oft when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.4
Michel Montaigne, a French lawyer and civil servant, lived in times more deranged than ours, confronting not only a plague but having to avoid being murdered by warring religious factions. He retreated to his library to explore what’s really important in life by writing his timeless essays, including this passage:
We must take the soul back and withdraw it into itself; that is the real solitude, which may be enjoyed in the midst of cities and the courts of kings; but it is best enjoyed alone.5
Most important, Batchelor emphasizes, solitude is not a momentary escape but “a practice, a way of life.6 One takes up the practice not to become creative or smart but to feel complete without wants, merging inconspicuously into the fabric of life itself. He emphasizes the importance of this point by quoting Buddha, who, when looking back on his life, discovered that his first experience of solitude was a premonition to what was to come:
“Once, while my father...was at work, I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree. Untroubled by sensual desires or unskillful ideas, I entered into and dwelled in the first meditation, which is accompanied by thought and reflection, by rapture and well-being born of solitude. Could that be the way?”7
Could that be the way for us as a society, too? Less internet extroversion and more soulful introversion. According to writer Natalie Goldberg, such stillness is the road to happiness:
You don’t do happiness. You receive it. It’s like a water table under the earth. Available to everyone but we can only tap it, have it run up through us, with our stillness.8
1 Batchelor, Stephen. The Art of Solitude . Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.(loc 76)
2 100 Things We've Lost to the Internet by Pamela Paul (Penguin Random House; 2021)
6 Batchelor, loc 37
7 Batchelor, loc 950
8 The True Secret of Writing by Natarlie Goldberg