Once upon a time, Thales of Miletus, one of the seven sages of Ancient Greece, was asked, “What is difficult?” His reply was, “To know yourself.”
Compared to how easily we perceive our external environment, our view of our inner self does not come naturally. It requires humility to bridge the gap between who we think we are and who we are in reality.
Nine years ago I landed in the U.S. from India. Being a very social, extroverted person, I had always been surrounded by people, work, studies, hobbies and social events. Now I was coming to a foreign land with limited contacts, and I was waiting on my work visa to arrive. No socializing, no work, new world. Amidst all the change, that period of solitude led to many experiences and realizations that paved the way for my self-discovery and self-awareness—solitude being, by far, the most significant.
Initially, it was extremely difficult for me to spend time alone. But as I started getting used to it, even embracing it, I started a journey of self-realization which slowly revealed that even without a job, close friends and family, and events, I was capable enough to be happy with me. Solitude helped me deal with my new life, to appreciate whatever I have and to go after new dreams.
There are a lot of advantages to solitude. Here is what I found it can do for you that socializing cannot:
- Solitude gives you a feeling that you know yourself, more than anyone knows you, and takes you away from the herd mentality. It equips you with knowledge and the necessary qualities to achieve personal development and success. Spending time alone for at least 20 minutes each day offers you the clarity and space you need to grow yourself independently. It gives you an introspection on who you are and what you want. And understanding your thoughts, actions and reactions gives you the power to have utmost control over your life.
- Solitude works opposite to the way in which distractions work. While distractions block any noteworthy progress and valuable contribution that we can make in our life, solitude helps you have a more involved experience with yourself and with your ideas. “When the brain rests it is able to integrate internal and external information into a conscious workspace,” Joseph Moran, Ph.D., wrote in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal. He says the brain processes things when it is not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks. When the brain rests, it starts to work upon the psychological task of self-reflection.
But just the thought of spending time alone paralyzes some people. In fact, in a 2014 study published in Science, the results found that participants couldn’t even enjoy six to 15 minutes of time all by themselves in a room. Randomly selected participants vastly preferred engaging in external activities like listening to music or reading in solitude than being alone with their thoughts, even in their own home. Some participants even elected to voluntarily receive electric shocks instead of being in isolation with just their thoughts to distract them.
When I moved to the United States, I experienced a similar confrontation between me and my thoughts. It made me feel uneasy and clueless about what to do. But it also made me realize that whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, an adult or a child, solitude is the most valuable tool available to help you develop an understanding of yourself, which helps you do more and be more.
Nikola Tesla, a great inventor, had this to say about solitude: “The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude… Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone—that is the secret of invention; be alone—that is when ideas are born.”
Some people feel lonely even amongst 100 people and some people don’t feel lonely even in silence. The difference lies in their level of connection with themselves. Solitude is the antithesis of loneliness. It gives us the strength and the confidence that we will be OK if we act per our standards and not per others’ expectations. For me, it didn’t come out of choice. It felt like a burden until I realized the sense of independence it gave me.
This article was published in November 2017 and has been updated. Photo by Anatoliy Karlyuk/Shutterstock