Practising Solitude Requires Special Ability
The rapid advance of technology has made communication and transmission of data among people extremely convenient. But social progression of this kind nevertheless has “side-effect” – solitude is increasingly becoming something that is hard to attain.
Computers, television and especially smart phones have revolutionized the way people communicate, becoming their most intimate companions. Some may panic when they are deprived of these things. People used to long for independence but now deeply fear alienation; social intercourse was regarded as a special competence, which has now been overshadowed by the ability to be alone.
Just think how hard it is now for a person to settle down completely – he or she has to surmount interruptions from all sorts of information emitted from various sources. “Interruption” as used here may not be the right word, since the information it brings in may sometimes be useful. Judgement, a balanced approach, appropriate handling and self-control are thus sorely needed.
As a social being, humans need both social intercourse and solitude, just as the body and mind require physical as well as spiritual energies and inputs. In terms of mentality, however, for information to be transformed and integrated into knowledge, thoughts and feelings as something of one’s own, serenity instead of bustle seems to be the right condition. In the Western tradition, it is believed that “the soul grows in tranquility”; in China, Confucius’ “repeated introspection on a daily basis” made him a saint.
The process of transformation and integration is achieved by establishing connections between the knowledge and sentiments one already acquired with those newly received, which results in growth. In this sense, the capacity for solitude determines how well one can continuously mature in society.
The three largest world religions were actually all established in solitude: Sakyamuni left home alone and meditated several days under banyan trees by the Yarra River before his great awakening produced Buddhism; Jesus contemplated in the wilderness for forty days and then declared the good news of salvation for the world; Mohammed lived in seclusion in caves during his Ramadan. Similarly, many artistic masterpieces of the world were produced in solitude.
In the West, solitude is also deemed to put people in contact with nature. For example, as the saying goes, “The real character of England lies not in the flamboyant cities but in its quiet countryside”.
Being alone doesn’t have to be lonely – these are two different things. One may feel lonely in boisterous social contexts, or be fulfilled in isolated serenity. Thus, being able to enrich oneself calmly and live in “solitary richness” is a noble state one can only dream of.
In today’s overcrowded world (both in China and in the West), “Virtue does not remain isolated” (Confucius), “He is never alone who is accompanied by noble thoughts” (English proverb) – personal charisma ultimately radiates out to attract others, and interactions between two abundant minds usually breed something more meaningful.
In this way, anyone wishing to enjoy in-depth reading, insightful thinking and a meaningful sense of feeling has to nurture and exercise an ability to practice solitude.