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August 13, 2019

Solitude: An ancient practice in the age of 24/7 connectivity

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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A recent renewal of interest in the ancient practice of solitude has brought a 1988 best-seller back to prominence. Solitude: A Return to The Self by Dr. Anthony Storr is now much in demand.

Somewhat ironically, achieving solitude seems all but impossible in today’s world of 24/7 connection, where social pressure demands that we be in continuous attachment to our digital communication space.

Try actually turning off your smartphone and people will automatically assume you are clinically depressed, ill, or unhappy with work and/or life in general.

Even worse, is our society’s use of solitude as a means of punishment. It starts with isolating children for having been “bad,” and culminates in solitary confinement for criminals, or as a tool of psychological torture for suspects under interrogation.

But these modern-day abuses of solitude are a far cry from the enlightened practice recommended by world religions as a spiritual discipline for attaining insight and peace of mind. The greatest religious figures of all time – including Buddha, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad – all retired from public life for varying lengths of time between teaching their followers.

Prominent women of faith also practiced solitude, among them Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Spanish saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582 CE), and the famous Muslim Sufi mystic Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya (718-801 CE).

The teachings of all three dominant Western religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – recommend solitude or retreat under different names. In Islam, there is khalwa (Arabic for being alone) or I’tikaf (solitude taken in a mosque, alone or with others). The two latter are to be practiced by Muslims at least once in their lifetime, during which food and personal care are provided by one’s faith community.

My closest encounter with spiritual solitude occurred some 40 years ago, long before cell phones became ubiquitous in our lives. I stayed at the great Mosque in the holy city of Mecca for 10 nights during the month of Ramadan, albeit with thousands of other worshipers.

Two opposing drives operate throughout one’s life – the desire for companionship, love, and other contacts which bring us closer to fellow humans; and the drive to be alone, independent, and autonomous in order to connect with the Self, with Nature, or with God.

Yet society conditions us to measure our value only in terms of filling a socially useful role such as that of spouse, parent, caregiver, worker, or professional.

Over time, we come to believe that being alone for just a few hours, or days, is only appropriate for people who are retired, have nothing better to do, or who are too self-absorbed to be mindful of the welfare of others. We even label such individuals as antisocial, alienated, or even narcissistic.

But what the great religions taught in ancient times, and what we’ve nearly forgotten, is that the experience of removing yourself as completely as possible from present surroundings can open a path to self-discovery, spiritual and physical renewal, and release from the pressures of over-scheduled and cluttered daily life.

Solitude creates much-needed space for meditation, reflection, and prayer that can be both transcendent and pleasurable for those new to the experience.

Dr. Storr (1920-2001), author of Solitude: A Return to The Self, was an English physician, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst who achieved impressive credentials over his long career. He was a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Royal Society of Literature, and an Emeritus Fellow of Green College, Oxford.

Critics have praised Solitude, hailing it as seminal in challenging the established belief that “interpersonal relationships of an intimate kind are the chief, if not the only, source of human happiness.”

In his own words, Storr observed: “Various schools of psychoanalysis assume that man is a social being who needs the companionship and affection of other human beings from cradle to grave, and true happiness can only be found in intimate attachments, more especially in sexual fulfillment…” but solitude “plays a greater part in human happiness than modern psychoanalysts want to admit.”

In his book, Storr relates the solitude experienced by American naval officer and explorer, Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd (1888-1957), who accepted an assignment to serve on an advanced weather research base in the Antarctic during the winter of 1934 but insisted to do it alone.

Byrd wrote: “Aside from the meteorological and auroral work, I had no important purposes (to do it alone) except one man’s desire to know that kind of experience to the full, to be himself for a while and to taste peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find out how good they really are.”

Following his remarkable solo mission, Byrd reflected: “I did take away something that I had not fully possessed before: appreciation of the sheer beauty and miracle of being alive, and a humble set of values ... Civilization has not altered my ideas. I live more simply now, and with more peace.”

Storr notes that “What Byrd is describing is a mystical experience of unity with the universe which is familiar to those who have read similar accounts furnished by religious adepts.”

He also cites American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910), who wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience; “The overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness.”

Storr went on to cite other examples of poets, novelists, composers, painters, or scientists who spent a great deal of their time alone. Among them were Descartes, Newton, Locke, Pascal, Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein.

And not surprisingly, he agreed with English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) that “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius; and the uniformity of a work denotes the hand of a single artist.”

Storr concluded that, “Perhaps the need of the creative person for solitude, and his preoccupation with internal processes of integration, can reveal something about the needs of the less-gifted, more ordinary human being which is, at the time of writing (1988), neglected.”

Like so many of my generation, whose lives straddle the slower-paced world and the frantically digital age we now inhabit, I can deeply relate to Dr. Storr’s conclusion.

The main challenge is that following through with the quest for solitude, even for few hours a day, requires a very strong will. But I know that it is worth it.

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry is professor of Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo. He is the author of Spiritual Fitness for Life.

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