Updated: Sep 22, 2020
Solitude and it’s effect on our mental well being is a popular area of discussion at the moment, as a period of enforced social distancing has pushed many of us to spend more time with ourselves than at any other point in our lives.
In a society that promotes constant stimulation and a distrust of the hermit, this can prove challenging. In a world obsessed with busyness, it’s very easy to run from one job or event to the next without ever really having to sit with our own minds. Even when we do, we often quickly reach for the TV remote, radio, phone or beer, anything but sit with ourselves undistracted. And yet without time to reflect on our deepest desires, drives, ideas, virtues and failings, how can we really know ourselves? It seems that every spiritual or philosophical tradition has understood this whether it be shamans in the amazon, the native American’s with their vision quests, Jesus in the desert, Muhammad in the cave, Buddhist’s silent retreat, the list goes on! Also in science and art, many of the great thinkers we venerate spent long periods of time alone, working on their ideas.
It seems to be in solitude that the psyche is pushed to a breaking point. It’s interesting that solitary confinement is used as a punishment, long periods of being alone seeming to be antithetical to our social nature. This is certainly true, many prisoners have chosen to commit suicide rather than continue to face long periods of solitude. However, in some cases such as that of Nelson Mandela, this time produces a strength of character and fearlessness unfound in most people. In our culture we tend to avoid discomfort, mental hardship is often medicated away, sometimes correctly but according to Carl Jung these moments of disturbance offer us an opportunity for transcendence.
Jung like Nietzsche sees the cultural norms and rules of society as oppressive. The way we make ourselves fit with the people and society around us creates an inner disharmony. A way to undo this repression is to spend time alone, sitting with our darker desires and culturally disapproved of thoughts and finding ways to integrate them into who we are, so we can be an authentic and fulfilled version of ourselves.
I think that we all have different inclinations, some more towards the social and some towards isolation, none better than the other, but I do think that when presented with these opportunities for self-reflection it’s worth taking seriously the idea that we could discover something new or long forgotten about ourselves. With our drive to be constantly occupied I think that we are sometimes stifling the emergence of creative endeavours, interesting realisations or an opportunity to deal with grief. A month in a cave may not be a reality for most of us but maybe an hour watching the sky every now and then might be.