American writer and poet, Donald Hall, wrote a melancholic, self-reflective essay in The New Yorker late last year titled, “Between Solitude and Loneliness”. He writes about his solitary life on an isolated farm he has inherited from his late grandmother. He is in his late eighties at the time, a widower with little contact to the outside world other than through his craft, and a weekly visit from a housekeeper. He is perfectly content. He looks back on his life in this essay to unearth and then ponder over a succession of circumstances in which he has cherished and sought solitariness.
Hall’s second and most long-lasting marriage was to a fellow poet. Jane Kenyon was a student of his when they met, and by the time they wed in 1972 and moved to his inherited farm, she had fully embraced a dedicated writer’s routine. Their daily life was a synergy of solitariness. They woke together and wrote in the same house day after day after day. This may sound to many like cloistered proximity, yet Hall describes a satiated and refreshed feeling at the end of each day when they sat down to a drink with dinner, like strangers meeting after a long absence. Thence, they reconnected and ‘caught up’ on a days work, as if their physical proximity had no binding impact on how near or far they felt from one another.
Twenty years ago Kenyon died of Leukaemia at the age of 47. Hall was at her bedside throughout her illness, and in reflecting on this in his old age and ill-health contemporarily, he is, for the first time in his life, aware of the dark noose of loneliness. In remembering his earlier role as husband and care-giver, he longs for the privilege and comfort of a bedfellow. Thus, Hall presents to the reader a glimpse into the inner workings of solitude and loneliness, their essential differences and contingencies. Both are states of mind, not dependent upon physical aloneness. This is because being alone is an emotionally neutral fact of being. Loneliness is, however, a feeling of incompleteness, and an experience of pain in lacking something that one longs for. Solitude is the embrace of the glory of being alone.
Virginia Woolf oftentimes described solitude in terms of ‘inner privacy’, which is interesting to ponder in contemporary times when ‘privacy’ is associated more commonly with the protection of personal information and surveillance online. Writing in post WWI Britain, Woolf was fascinated by city life, where she felt that solitude - or inner privacy - was most markedly on display. This is because she felt that we came to know our “resolute innerness” best when we were forced, at moments of exposure, to shield it against the outside world:
For example, Woolf saw in the hostess at a dinner party, the display of ‘resolute innerness’. In the performance of socialising and anchoring a gathering of people, the hostess is aware of herself and her separateness from her guests - the social world she has convened. This simultaneous separation and awareness of self is something I recognise in the experience of travelling. When we are immersed in the unfamiliar, we come to be critically aware of our own difference and completeness. I can vividly recall moments of travel where I am walking through a throng of people, and I am hit with a dizzinging array of new sensations, yet I feel acutely aware of my wholeness, and the distinction this has to the world around without any tension or conflict. This is a wonderful feeling.
A selfie obsession tends to disallow this quality in travel experience because when capturing and then ‘sharing’ this moment we are suddenly radically focused outward. We rely so heavily on social media to gain a sense of ourselves, to measure our progress, to highlight our successes and to mask our failures. This experience of hyper connectivity oftentimes leaves one feeling critically lonely, and it - more than anything else - emphasises what can’t be shared online. Indeed, we tend to curate and rehearse and fret over a limited and truncated openness or exposure of ourselves, and in so doing we only rush into a frenzied void of hyper connection, whilst loosing contact with that awareness - that separateness and ‘resolute innerness’.
This may be because solitude is both a state of mind, and something of a deeper dimension, perhaps even a spiritual dimension. The acclaimed writer and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, in his novel Walden, describes solitude as a “mystical state”. This novel was an account of solitary living whilst immersed in vast, untouched nature. Thoreau impresses that when existing as part of a natural ecosystem, one comes to recognise that solitude is about heightened awareness, and not about aloneness. By learning to observe your inner life, you learn to cultivate and appreciate it. Solitude is the power to watch yourself abstractly. I use the word ‘power’ intentionally here, because solitude gives rise to vitality and inner growth. When you are in a state of solitude, you tend not to get lost in the details of living, but rather focus on the sensations of being alive.
However much I attempt to describe solitude, I should impress that there is something illusive at play. In the moment of revelation, solitude must remain undefined, and thus intact, not ruined by articulation and the confines of language, or a photograph. It is sort of a presence of self within self.
Yoga and meditation, if done with sincerity, are simple practices in contented solitariness. This is the case whether one does so in a class environment or on one’s own. This has been a profound realisation for me. I, in a similar way to Hall, have always sought solitariness and aloneness. I constantly feel like my space is invaded and violated - especially so with social media - and a covert time in silence and isolation. However, yoga and meditation, more than the presence - or lack of - others, brings me to a state of awareness and deeply contented union. This is the kernel, or essence, of mindful living. Personal growth, I feel, is necessitated by the ability to transform moments of loneliness into moments of present awareness.
Although I have embraced mindfulness through yogic practice, it is most certainly not the only path one can, or should, take in this direction. Indeed, Woolf’s descriptions of ‘inner privacy’ and Hall’s account of a life in solitude speak of mindfulness, and neither are cloaked in Hindu mystic discourse. Mindfulness is simple and universal: let your awareness weightlessly settle on your unforced breath. Observe. Don’t judge. Don’t enforce or seek silence; come into contact with it without reaching for or expecting anything.