I think of solitude as the terrain through which we travel when we travel through life alone. Not a place for the faint-hearted or ill-prepared, most of us enter unexpectedly, dressed in the flimsy armour of everyday clothes.
1. Tidal Beings
Born of ocean, we are tidal beings. Stepping out and coming home reflects the ebb and flow of our beginnings.
Isolation, quarantine, are not solitude. Although both are found in solitude, they are constant states that rob us of our tides. Without our tides we lose our boundaries, our sense of time. Without boundaries our identity fades. Without a sense of time we lose our sense of progress, and progress, in the Twenty First Century, holds the greatest meaning of all. Without meaning some lose the will to live.
When isolation is imposed ring a friend, or two or three. Ask one to hold the thread with you, the way Ariadne held the thread for Theseus when he went to meet the Minotaur. Leave instructions, like Inanna, the Sumerian Queen of Heaven, left for her servant Ninshubur before she went down to visit her sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of Hell. Inanna’s message was: If I don’t return in three days, send help. Yours might be: If I don’t answer ring an ambulance.
Once you arrive in solitude create a routine. Immediately. It will maintain your ebb and flow. Separate the day into work and leisure. Wherever you are at home, or bailed up in a hotel room, set yourself an impossible task. Knit, paint, meditate, count the birds that fly past your window. If you can, document your experience. It will contain wisdom for everyone when we are free.
Whatever you do, choose an activity beyond your capacity so upon release you will say: During the plague I did this.
Value the everyday rhythms you hardly noticed before now — washing, dressing, cleaning, turning out the lights. Perform them like a monk, habitually and with attention. Note the light of each hour. Mark the sunset. Pour wine and watch the sky dim. Remember, the sun will rise again. Set your alarm. Greet the sun. Be the home to which the sun returns.
2. The Gritty Beast
Absence is the first encounter in solitude’s terrain. Instinctively, we associate absence with loneliness, madness, death.
Solitary in our accommodation we are without the basic threads of belonging — the touch and sound of another human. Without these it is easy to believe we are unlovable, and unkind thoughts ambush us and feed us to the Gritty Beast of the Abyss. Little wonder our first response is to rebel, flout the rules, go to the beach. Little wonder we panic, climb the walls, fill our unwanted solitude with other human voices on telephones, screens, the world wide web. The trick is to stay the course. Perform your routine, remember your friend holds the golden thread, you have left instructions, help will come.
Nothing prevents climbing the walls. In the end it takes courage to sit with solitude, and a certain armour. And here’s the paradox — the armour is only granted through taming the Gritty Beast. Once we know its domain, how it lives in it, how it pounces, when it pounces, and why, we know how to tame it. Tame the Beast and your perfect armour appears. Wear it as you walk solitude’s valleys, they have much to teach.
3. Radically Alive
Walking through the valleys, your armour glinting in the dark, the Beast moving beside you to the rhythm of your life, you come to the Region of Excess. Stop here. Instruct the Beast to stand guard. Place your armour by your side and settle in.
Gradually you hear it. The weather’s conversation, the feathery speech of trees, the hither and thither of birds, the heartbeat of trams, the walkers, cyclists and children in the park, the backyard renovations. And you realise there is barely a patch on the planet where human voices can not be heard, no matter how solitary you are.
Gradually you experience it. Flavours you barely tasted before. Textures you barely felt before. Fragrance assaults your nostrils, the colours of your world turn luminous. You stand in wonder and gaze at the confounding beauty of everything.
Then the tsunami hits. Ecstasy, terror, awe flood through you, inexplicable tears, explosions of chuckles. It’s the weather of your emotions rushing through. Let them. Watch them. Document them. This is you when you are alone. Notice — even when thoroughly alone you are radically alive.
4. The Indolent Sloth
Just when you thought you could feel nothing more intensely, enters the Indolent Sloth. An irresistibly cosy lethargy collapses over you. You stay in your pyjamas. You dream, long, rugged, vibrant dreams. You rise tired and unsure where dreams stop and life begins. You scroll social media and wince at the noisy brightness. The world is abrasive. You abandon your routine, wash when you remember, castigate yourself for forgetting and chastise yourself for drifting in apathy.
Tie a knot in the golden thread, remember you are connected, your friend will send help if you tug. Wear soft clothes. Keep your routines basic. Do a little of your impossible task every day. Do not judge your progress, marvel at what you achieve when draped in the Sloth.
Above all, do not worry. This is the tiredness that comes when you surrender, when you stop climbing the walls. This is the weight of your old noisy life leaving your body. Hold the knot, tug if the Sloth is too heavy. Rescue will come.
Eat, breathe, sleep. Be present to sunrise and sunset. It is all you have to do. Your ebb and flow will wash away the Sloth. You will rise again.
5. Bearable Lightness
The lightness comes gently, when it comes. It comes while the Beast slumbers by the hearth, your armour hangs dusty in the cupboard, and the Sloth drapes on the couch, thin and as a throw rug. It comes when you are familiar with the light of every hour, and your impossible task seems entirely viable. It comes as your morning coffee spreads through your chest and you look out the window and see what you always see but have never seen it in this light before — buildings tall as they ever were, birds surfing the wind, clouds rushing somewhere all pink from the dawn.
You think to take a photograph. Instead you breathe. And as you breathe, a light deep in your belly weaves you into the the tall buildings, the wind and surfing birds, the sky and the clouds rushing through it. And, for one eternal moment you know you are the sun, and it has risen.