Solitude and Loneliness: Are we ever really alone?
Good Afternoon and thank you for joining me at the Restorative Table. Last week, we focused on understanding prayer as a form of lament that can lead us to radical acceptance and the turning of our minds towards possibility in which we discover God. You can find a write up of that conversation with links to the resources cited at therestorativetable.org.
Before we begin our contemplation of today’s topic, I thought we would practice beginning with a brief prayer together.
Therefore, please join me in assuming an attitude of prayer, whatever that may look like for you:
God, Source of All Creation, we are grateful to gather today as an online community to continue to discern where and how we experience the Presence of the Divine in our lives. Guide us into new understandings of experiential grace in these times of social distancing and sheltering in place as we ask the question, “What does it mean to be alone?” Creating, Sustaining, Restoring Love, let it be so.
As many of us across the country live into this new time of staying at home and social distancing, I thought it might be helpful to discuss the difference between loneliness and solitude and consider where we might locate prayer in both.
Loneliness can be defined as a sense of sadness due to feeling alone or isolated. Whereas solitude seems to be something different although it is also defined by a state of being alone. We all experience feelings of sadness in the course of our lives. Sadness is part of the full spectrum of the human experience. And, if you are feeling sadness now, I want to validate how you are feeling; encourage you to ride the wave of that emotion trusting that there is hope and relief on the other side and suggest that prayer can be a positive adaptive strategy for riding that wave of emotion. However, if you ascribe that feeling of sadness to feeling lonely in particular, I wonder if we should consider the question we asked in our opening prayer, “What does it mean to be alone?”
Theologian Paul Tillich writes that “Loneliness can be conquered only by those who can bear solitude.” Paul acknowledges loneliness but offers a path forward. In the Christian scriptures, we note that even Jesus retreated to places of solitude such as in the Garden of Gethsemane before continuing his journey to the cross in which we can only imagine there was certainly profound experiences of loneliness. And so, as we ponder this question for ourselves, I’d like us to take a deeper look at this idea of solitude that Tillich suggests can be so helpful.
In the spirituality curriculum at Princeton Penn Medicine Center’s Religious Ministries written by Reverend Amy Seat quotes both Tillich and Henri Nouwen on loneliness and solitude. Nouwen in particular offers us an expansive understanding of solitude. He writes,
“To bring some solitude into our lives is one of the most necessary but also most difficult disciplines. Even though we may have a deep desire for real solitude, we also experience a certain apprehension as we approach that solitary place and time. As soon as we are alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distractions, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use these outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. It is thus not surprising that we have a difficult time being alone. The confrontation with our inner conflicts can be too painful for us to endure. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important. Solitude is not a spontaneous response to an occupied and preoccupied life. There are too many reasons not to be alone. Therefore, we must begin by carefully planning some solitude.”
Perhaps during this time of social distancing and sheltering in place, we can begin to carefully craft opportunities for creative solitude in our lives and consider how prayer finds its place there.
Last week, we discussed the power of lament as prayer. Prayer during times of solitude can take on many forms. However, I’d like to offer two simple ideas for your consideration. First, the practice of beholding.
Find yourself a comfortable space to be seated. Feel your feet on the ground. Rest your hands gently in your lap. Take a few deep breaths feeling your chest rise and fall with each inhalation. Then focus on an object in the room. If you are looking out a window, it could be something outside such as a tree or neighbor’s mailbox. Or if you are inside and the only private space you can occupy there is no window, chose an object in the room. It can be any object. As you continue to breathe, take in all the aspects of the object. Breathe in and breathe out. If your mind begins to wander, let it wander to another object in the room. Take one minute of practiced stillness to focus outside of yourself and breathe. Behold that object in all of its particularity, behold your relationship to it, the space in between you and the object and simply breathe. After a minute, consider asking yourself, how does practicing one minute of stillness, breathing and beholding what is in front of you shift your perception of yourself? A second practice might be to behold a word in one’s mind’s eye instead of an object, what some people call a mantra, for one minute of stillness in quiet solitude. Then perhaps we can ask ourselves, how might the Divine be present in this?
We close today by returning to the question we began with, which is “What does it mean to be alone?” Again, citing from the Princeton Penn Medicine Spirituality curriculum, novelist Paul Coelho answers this question for himself this way. He writes, “And if I’m alone in bed, I will go to the window, look up at the sky, and feel certain that loneliness is a lie, because the Universe is there to keep me company.”
Everyone must answer this question for themselves. However, as Paul and our earlier meditation suggests perhaps being alone and loneliness is a matter of our perspective…our perspective of our relationship with ourselves, with that which is surrounds us and with Divine Presence. I As I ponder this question with you, it is my prayer that wherever you, in whatever emotions you are experiencing, that you may know you are held and cared for in both the highs and the lows of your life’s journey.
After we close today, I will post this video and a few resources for you in the comments section to explore further, but for now, let us draw together though we are apart with a closing prayer.
Divine Presence, in our wilderness journey, you guide us in times of solitude. Open our hearts and minds to receive your insights and feel your loving presence in moments of solitude or in whatever way we are gathered with others and may we be nourished and restored. Amen.
Special thank you to Princeton Penn Medical Religious Ministries and Reverend Amy Seat.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/