Unlocking the Power of Solitude

UPDATED: May 22, 2024
PUBLISHED: December 9, 2019

It sort of does look like a mental health facility, I think to myself.

Our ninth-floor condo in Honolulu once appeared sunny and welcoming to me. It was my boyfriend Michael’s biggest complaint, one that I laughed off as pickiness. Now the walls seem to mutate in front of me. Soft yellow with a thick mustard trim turned to a mixture of bile and undercooked scrambled eggs.

I sit in silence, phone in hand, laptop on lap, staring almost in disbelief. It is like I am seeing the walls for the first time.

Minutes pass—10, 15, more? Michael, probably noticing the absence of my fingers punching at the keys, asks if I am OK. I’m a loud typist. My brother once told me that it gives him anxiety to hear me clacking away, as if I’m angry at the words on the screen. “I can type 85 words per minute,” I told him, my chin raised in defiance.

“Stefani died,” I say to Michael, still staring blankly at the wall.

Without the weight of cast iron pans and matching nightstands, we could focus our energy on what mattered.

Through the open sliding doors, the street below buzzes with traffic, but I only hear the deafening sound of silence between my ears. I can’t remember the last time I felt so void of movement, naked of hurried thoughts and feelings. The stark stillness of my entire being comes as a surprising but welcome gift, a reminder of just how frantic my life had become.

When was the last time I had thought about wall colors? When was the last time I had done nothing at all?

I am snapped out of my trance and into the reality of life after this loss. But I am still stuck thinking about that feeling of quiet, of slow—of being perfectly placid.

I identify with the sensation instantly when I read about it in the most recent book by Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key. Holiday is a best-seller and ancient philosophy expert who says that feeling is something we’re born with, and subsequently lose connection to as we allow life and business and busyness to overcome it. Stillness, as he calls it, is “to be steady while the world spins around you. To act without frenzy. To hear only what needs to be heard. To possess quietude—exterior and interior—on command.”

This quiet, then, is the ability to harness our mental, spiritual and physical state, even temporarily. If we could step back and see our lives from a bigger perspective, what would we deem worthy of our time? If we could be steady and calm when the world at large is in chaos, what could disarm us? If we could focus our full attention on that which matters most, what could we accomplish?

It sounds beautiful and wholly unattainable.

Purposeful and consistent solitude, Holiday writes, allows us the space and time to detach from the deluge of thoughts and feelings, to see our world from a bird’s eye view and make healthier decisions. That’s why death makes us stop and consider what truly matters.

“The world is like muddy water,” he writes. “To see through it, we have to let things settle.”

I want to settle.

* * *

The idea was a romantic one, though not particularly original. Over the course of four months, Michael and I pared down our excess belongings until the accumulation of our joint lives measured the size of three airline-approved carry-on bags—less than 100 pounds.

It was massive and yet nothing at all. I watched my first real-wood bedroom set disappear in the bed of a friend’s pickup truck. What had once seemed the quintessential sign of my entrance into financial security was now just a piece of wood, off to fill space in someone else’s home. It had served its purpose, but was really nothing more and nothing less.

Without the weight of cast iron pans and matching nightstands, we could focus our energy on what mattered. We could fill our time with meaningful activity and work to grow as individuals and as a couple. We would live life to its fullest.

It was nearly midnight when we arrived in the 400-square-foot converted hotel room in Waikiki, Hawaii.

The room needed some updating, but we happily unpacked. We split an overpriced burger in our bed, which would double as our living room, and fell asleep with jet-lagged bodies and eager hearts, not bothered at all by the sounds of the dance bar one floor below us. Our new lives had begun.

The first few weeks were exciting, filled with bike rides around Honolulu to claim our favorites: Ono Seafood for Poke; Sherwood for the best private beach; Doraku for the best happy hour sake and sushi.

Working remotely on Central Time meant waking up at 4 a.m. locally, and being free of obligation before most Hawaiians finished lunch. Afraid to miss out on even the smallest thing, we packed more and more into the span of six or so hours of daylight hours of paradise free time every day.

There was volleyball and assorted beachcombing. There was hiking and traipsing about the island. We snorkeled. We went waterfall hunting, and body boarding, and cliff jumping and snorkeling. There were cookouts on Fridays—Aloha Fridays.

I gave some of myself to everything and nothing got all of me. And in gaining a collection of activities, I lost the ability to recognize their relative insignificance.

“Who is so talented that they can afford to bring only part of themselves to bear on a problem or opportunity,” Holiday writes. “Whose relationships are so strong that they can get away with not showing up? Who is so certain that they’ll get another moment that they can confidently skip over this one?”

Without the space and time to step back, I failed to see the joy I once found in being able to say no, in staying home and looking at my phone or reading a book and just letting time pass, in doing less simply because I could, in pausing to do nothing at all—without wondering what could be.

This concept of being able to say no—the joy of missing out—has escalated in popularity as a counterpoint to the often humorous but disconcerting idea of FOMO, the fear of missing out. Rather than picturing sunk opportunity costs, JOMO challenges us to reframe and see gratitude in the present moment, whatever it happens to be. The concept gets watered down to a #selfcaresunday bubble bath, but JOMO is a chance to analyze who, what and how much we allow into our lives, and the long-term effects it has on our mental and emotional state.

Writing for this magazine affords me the credentials to schedule phone calls with people like Holiday. I tell him about my divided attention and missing do-nothing-at-all weekends. We’re talking about stillness.

“Everybody’s got a hungry heart,” Holiday tells me. “But how we choose to feed that heart matters. It’s what determines the kind of person we end up being, what kind of trouble we’ll get into, and whether we’ll ever be full, whether we’ll ever really be still.”

* * *

I’ve been to Al-Anon meetings. That’s the one for partners and family members of addicts. Control issues are common in those rooms, so one of the sayings you hear a lot is “Let go and let God.” It’s a reminder that the only way to be released from the need to change someone—or from addiction itself—is to understand and accept that you are inherently powerless over it and must instead surrender to whatever higher power you ascribe to. Let go and let God.

My life needed white space, but like any form of self-discovery and growth, you can’t will it into existence. Let go and let God.

I approached solitude as I approach most new things in my life: with a plan. Sit quietly and find peace, got it.

“12:30 to 1 p.m. — me time,” I carefully wrote in my planner. Armed with a hammock, a diary and a pen, I marched to the closest secluded palm tree, and with an air of expectancy, plopped down and awaited enlightenment.

At 12:31 came the trash truck, which has a backup alarm that resembles something like a seagull being strangled. Shortly after that there was the fly that kept landing on my leg. You get the drift of how things went.

Every minor inconvenience felt insurmountable. I’ve read that many psychologists suggest our minds have a natural resistance to change, even and especially that change that we know could help us.

“A persistent civil war rages within all of our lives.” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that. It’s a battle between our good and bad impulses, between our ambitions and our principles, between what we can be and how hard it is to actually get there.

I spent a total of two hours and 47 minutes in purposeful solitude over the next two weeks, and none of it yielded anything resembling successful results. I might have had a better mood from the break in work and the walk to the place I named, “Cici’s temple,” but I certainly hadn’t had any mental or emotional breakthroughs.

I wasn’t able to change my perspective to one of gratitude and emotional detachment. My ability to focus on any one thing was completely escaping me. I was trying desperately to be still, which defeats the purpose, Holiday told me.

“Mastering our mental domain—as paradoxical as it might seem—requires us to step back from the rigidity of the word ‘mastery.’ We’ll get the stillness we need if we focus on the individual steps, if we embrace the process, and give up chasing. We’ll think better if we aren’t thinking so hard.”

I wanted to be good at solitude. Reading about stillness and solitude is romantic and inspiring. Actually putting in the work was hard. I made it harder by inserting my expectations for results.

The beauty of a song lies not in how many notes the musician can fit into it, renowned travel writer Pico Iyer says in a TED Talk, but rather the breaks and pauses that add drama and shape. A story finds its uniqueness in the white spaces between the words and paragraphs.

My life needed white space, but like any form of self-discovery and growth, you can’t will it into existence. Let go and let God.

* * *

“Keep me posted on your appt.”

I made a mental note to follow up with Stefani, to send flowers and a card that would include one of our favorite quotes: “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”

But “Keep me posted on your appt” would be the last communication. Nearly six weeks later, her ex-boyfriend politely informed me by a text of his own that he didn’t have many details, but he assumed her death had something to do with her heart. The only thing more powerful than the regret of feeling like I had failed her was the regret of making her death about me.

I wish I could tell you that I found immense growth through solitude. That I’m living a purposeful, focused and meaningful life. But solitude isn’t a magical solution and lasting stillness doesn’t just happen. Like any kind of self-work, it takes dedication and persistence.

Basketball players know you don’t learn to shoot three-pointers by discovering the cheat code for good shooting form. The athlete spends hours in the gym, training the right muscles to support the repeated motion of the shot. Through repetition, he trains the body to remember the feeling of the correct form and sequence of movements. Only after years of practice, his mind no longer has to tell his knees to bend or his wrist to follow through—his body remembers. This is mastery, but it’s only one facet of the game of basketball.

It’s almost comical then, that I expected perfection or at least visible results after so little effort. This kind of mental and spiritual conditioning is a lifelong endeavor.

What I did find, though, is that the solitude grew easier, even welcoming. I found a brief respite from daily life that rejuvenated me in ways an afternoon cup of coffee never could. Perhaps most importantly, I found space for self-compassion, patience and the understanding that failure is more than just part of the process, it’s necessary.

Humility allows me to understand that I’m bad at this because I’m a beginner, and faith allows me to trust the process and push through the feelings of being uncomfortable. I haven’t yet come to appreciate the trash truck, though.

* * *

Solitude hasn’t changed my life, but it does serve as a kind of reset button when life feels overwhelming.

With awareness, I can identify the signs of frenzy and know that it’s time to step away and reconnect with my thoughts. Those stolen moments of alone time have become almost sacred to my routine. In small ways, it allows me to be more present when I return. It reminds me that multitasking is impossible and that the person or task at hand deserves my full and complete attention. When I’m struggling to remember what’s important, I always have Cici’s temple waiting for me.

I’m learning, slowly, that regret is a useless emotion, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling it from time to time. Solitude allows me to remember that a meaningful life isn’t spent in regret.

I have the power and ability to change my perspective at any moment. And that’s a life worth living.

Related: 22 Ways to Practice Stillness Within Your Mind, Spirit and Body

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Images by LanKogal / Shutterstock, Biletskiy / Shutterstock, Dirk Ercken / Shutterstock