In the USA, the writings of the 19th century naturalist, David Thoreau, are greatly admired. Much of his work was done when he was living alone in a cabin on the shores of Walden Lake in Massachusetts. In his account of the time he spent there, he wrote, “I never found the companion that was as companionable as solitude”.
Not all of us will share Thoreau’s extreme fondness for solitude, but being contentedly alone occasionally can be very beneficial. And if you are enjoying your aloneness in one of nature’s tranquil places, all the better. A 47 year-old woman had this to say about times of solitude on her first trip into a remote wilderness area:
The water and trees became more beautiful when I was able to go off by myself and just sit, perched on a rock away from the rest of the group. Not that I didn’t like the other women and all, it’s just that being alone is when I found my centre. Times when I did that was like returning to a place deep inside me and visiting an older and wiser me even though I felt young and vitally alive too.
Others in her group found that, after times by themselves, they felt rejuvenated and had a heightened sense of hope about the challenges waiting for them back home.
These are by no means “one-off” or exceptional experiences. Solitude in natural settings offers potential benefits for everyone:
- We can learn more about ourselves, about our values and goals, beliefs and prejudices, strengths and weaknesses, hopes and ambitions;
- We can discover new and creative ways of seeing situations, relationships and problems as our mind shifts from purpose-driven thinking to the spontaneity and unpredictability of musing and meditation;
- We can have a sense of being part of a greater whole – which may be interpreted by some as being closer to God;
- We can feel closer to, and more appreciative of, others, especially those we care very deeply about; and
- We can discover what the acclaimed Australian novelist, Tim Winton, describes as the great power of “being happily alone harbouring secrets in special places”.
Perhaps the most important benefit of nature’s solitude is simply the peace and quiet it brings. Life in cities and towns imposes an “unnatural” and sometimes heavy burden on our brain and nervous system. Like our ancient forebears, we are meant to live in small family groups, hunting and gathering in natural environments – a far cry from the teeming world of buildings and technology that most of us share with hordes of others.
It is not surprising that people told the makers of the tranquillity maps I talked about in the previous post that tranquillity meant for them an escape from the clamouring sights and sounds of urban life. As well as simply wanting peace and quiet, they also wanted “time-out” from urban life generally. And they wanted their “peace and quiet” to be somewhere that was natural and remote – in a “whole new world”.
Unlike loneliness or involuntary aloneness, which is usually thought of as undesirable, solitude is a positive experience. In solitude, there is little or no sense of deprivation or of “missing out”. Quite the contrary, solitude is a satisfying journey into the world of our own thoughts and feelings. This is a journey we need to take from time to time because there is always part of the human psyche that yearns for the primal world of our forebears, Only in places where remoteness and naturalness occur in combination can this yearning be genuinely satisfied. Perhaps the gift of tranquillity is Nature’s way of encouraging us to visit such places and to be nourished by them.